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'Top Chef' season 16 returns with Cook Space culinary director representing NYC

Nini Nguyen is an alum of Eleven Madison Park.

Nini Nguyen, the culinary director of Cook Space,

Nini Nguyen, the culinary director of Cook Space, is this season's lone NYC representative on "Top Chef." Photo Credit: Bravo Media / Smallz & Raskind

Bravo’s “Top Chef” is back for its 16th season, this time bringing cheftestants and the regular crew of celebrity judges to Kentucky. And while New York City typically provides a steady lineup of chefs (last year's season had three!), this go-round, only one will represent the Big Apple on the reality series.

Chef Nini Nguyen, the 31-year-old culinary director of Brooklyn culinary school Cook Space, will show off her professional cooking chops when the new season premieres this Thursday.

amNewYork talked to the New Orleans native about her career, cooking style and what made her want to embrace reality TV.  

How did you start cooking professionally?

Growing up, I always cooked with my grandma, who is Vietnamese. I started cooking in professional kitchens in 2009. I went to a small culinary school for a year in New Orleans but did not finish. First, I was a pastry cook and worked at Sucre and Coquette in New Orleans. In 2012, I moved to New York City and worked at Eleven Madison Park.  

What made you want to compete on “Top Chef”?

I’ve watched the show for many years. I’ve always been interested in the challenge. When some of my friends, like Kwame Onwuachi [the youngest contestant on Season 13], started going on, I considered doing the show. It’s always just been something I’ve wanted to do to see where I stood with chefs nationwide. It’s been a challenge; starting in pastry I didn’t know if I was really that good or how I’d hang with the serious, serious chefs. In our industry people don’t take pastry chefs as seriously, but people are starting to.  

Did you rehearse any skills for the show?

I think anyone who is smart who is going to be on this competition trains. I practiced speed with things like mise en place, opening oyster shells, butchering everything. … I just cut things very fast and practiced very basic but crucial things that executive chefs [typically designate to line cooks].

What is the style of the food you cook?

I like to hone in on my heritage — I am Vietnamese and French-trained, and Vietnamese food has a lot of French influence in it.

Without sharing any spoilers: Did any weaknesses hold you back while filming?

I think my biggest weakness is confidence. You get in the kitchen full of chefs and everyone has their personalities and egos.

Have you noticed a change in your cooking since filming the show?

I feel a little more confident. Going through the process, I learned my identity more as a chef — I didn’t really know that I was so into Vietnamese and Southern cooking, but “Top Chef” really helped me build my identity.

When you’re not racing through supermarkets for challenges, where in New York do you like to shop for ingredients?

I go to Paisanos Butcher Shop in Cobble Hill for most of my meat. And Tan Tin-Hung Vietnamese on Bowery, they have all the ingredients that I love.

And where do you like to go out to eat?

What I love to eat depends on my mood, but my all-time favorite New York restaurant is Uncle Boons. I take everyone who comes into town there. Their khao soi is amazing.

ON TV

‘Top Chef’ premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

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