Hung Huynh is perhaps most recognizable as the winner of Top Chef’s
season three, and the acclaimed chef has continued to appear as a
guest judge in subsequent seasons. His culinary career — which has
included stops at the venerable Per Se in New York and Guy Savoy in
Las Vegas — has most recently taken him to the EMM Group’s Catch 
in New York City, where he presides over a sophisticated seafood menu.
The Vietnamese-born chef (his entire family hails from the country)
recently returned from a trip through Asia, where he documented his
adventurous travels — including being held-up at knifepoint (!!) — for
Food Republic. As for the food he sampled along the way? We’re talking
sea worm, sea squirts, ant larvae, baby chicken soup and live baby
octopus. On second thought, “adventurous” might be an understatement.
After almost 20 hours of flying, I finally landed in Seoul. It was a
very sleek and modern city, and immaculately clean. The people were
polite and service at restaurants was much friendlier than in
Manhattan’s Koreatown. I stayed at the W Hotel, which was such an
awesome experience but everything was ridiculously expensive. They
charged me $45 for two eggs, and the toothbrush and toothpaste in the
bathroom weren’t even free.
Seoul fish market goodies: sea snails and giant octopus legs.
For my first meal, I went out with my friends for Korean BBQ (of
course). The beef, which was a Korean version of Japanese Wagyu, was
delicious and cooked perfectly. That night, I couldn’t sleep so I got
up at 6 a.m. and went to explore the fish markets and food stalls.
Unlike the markets I tried in Japan with the big tuna and other fresh
fish, these had more shellfish and little sea creatures. One of the
weirder things I tried was probably the sea worm. It was bloody and
had the texture of a rubber band. I don’t know if it did anything for
me. I also tried sea squirts (or tunicates), which are bitter and
perfume-y in taste. Another specialty there is live baby octopus. It
is still moving so you have to swallow it and the tentacles stick to
the side of your mouth and tongue, which is supposed to be erotic.
My family is from Vietnam and I’ve been there a couple of times, so,
of course, I love it. My mom was there and I met up with her. I was
surprised that my brothers and cousins also happened to be vacationing
there at the same time since I had not seen them for a while. I had
the chance to have traditional two Vietnamese outfits custom fit for
Ninety-nine percent of food in Vietnam is amazing . I had fresh
fish, shrimp, shellfish and snails almost every day. We also had a
whole roast suckling pig, which was about 8 pounds of meat. One of my
favorite meals on this trip was at Cuc Gach Quan , a beautiful,
rustic restaurant that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt ate at when they
visited Saigon. The [restaurant] served all traditional, country-style
family meals like canh chua (sour soup) and thit kho (braised pork).
The chicken flavor in baby black chicken herbal soup is more intense
than in regular chicken.
The weirdest thing I had was probably the black chicken soup, which
was literally just a baby black chicken, Chinese black truffles, roots
and herbs. This soup is supposed to have traditional medicinal
properties and be a “male enhancement.”
I bought a ticket to Manila on a whim and didn’t do any research on
current events prior to arriving. I was so shocked when we were
greeted at the hotel with bomb-sniffing dogs, security guards and
metal detectors. It shocked me to see the state that the country was
I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my time in The
Philippines, so I asked for advice on Facebook. A friend of mine who
also graduated from The Culinary Institute of America lived there, so
she sent her driver to pick me up and take me to her house. That
night, her staff cooked a massive Filipino feast  with all kinds of
dishes from noodles to braised oxtail and huge mud crabs cooked in
curry and coconut milk.
I originally planned to return to Vietnam after The Philippines, but
the embassy absolutely wouldn’t issue me a visa in the same day. So
instead, I flew directly to Bangkok, where I had inexpensive massages
every day and drank a lot.
Chilled pork belly rolls with cucumbers and a honey chili garlic soy
sauce at Central World Mall in Bangkok.
I met up with a friend who used to work with me in Las Vegas, and we
checked out all the street stalls . There are more in Thailand
than in Vietnam and the food is so spicy. One interesting thing I
tried was the ant larvae, which was mostly texture and didn’t taste
like much. I really loved how Bangkok was so trendy  but also had
its real traditions and grittiness.
After two days in Bangkok, I headed to Chiang Mai in the northern part
of the country, where they had the most amazing food. My favorite was
the khao soi, floating curry noodles, which was the most perfect
balance of taste, texture and flavor I had ever put into my mouth. The
dish comes with crunchy noodles over egg noodles all floating in a
Next was Koh Samet, a small island, which was so relaxing. I just ate
more and watched fireworks on the beach at night. The craziest part of
the entire trip occurred when I flew back to Bangkok for my very last
night in Asia. After partying pretty hard, I decided that I wanted to
pull a Hangover so I postponed my flight for two days and went out to
get a tattoo! But the guy who was supposed to drive me to the tattoo
place pulled a knife on us at the hotel and then tried to scare me for
money. In the end, I just paid him off for gas money but it could have
been a lot worse.