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Mai, Vietnam

Cooking is my life. As the eldest daughter of the family, I was already expected to help my mother in the kitchen when I was seven. I first learned how to cook rice, of course. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn't make a good wife! Then other dishes followed. When I got home from school, I had to help in the kitchen right away. That's how it started and I haven't stopped since.

We left Vietnam before I was nine years old. The war had just ended and because the USA had lost, the country was ruled by the communist North. My mother didn't like that. So we travelled to the Philippines because my father was there. However, he didn’t pick us up from the airport. There stood my mother, with a daughter and two sons of only eight, six and four years old.

We had a nomadic lifestyle and slept for periods in other people’s houses. My mother's plan was to get refugee status, something that required us to go to Hong Kong or Malaysia. That’s how we ended up on a boat with 60 others. We got into a storm and got lost. When after four days we saw land, it was the Philippines again. We were back to square one, but did get that status.

UNICEF had arranged for a pastor, a doctor and the well-known singer, Herman van Veen, to visit the refugee camp. My mother was one of the few who spoke both English and Vietnamese and acted as their interpreter. Herman was very touched by our story and helped us to come to the Netherlands in 1980. We settled in the village where he lived and started our new life there with his support. I was twelve by then.

Nine years later I met my husband. The nice thing is that we would later live in many countries. He was a manager at several companies and as expats we lived in Istanbul, Singapore, Hungary, Sierra Leone and Lebanon. Each time I tried to learn new things about the local cuisines of those countries. When we finally came back in 2014, I signed up for Master Chef. I was selected in 2016 and took sixth place.

I now have a cooking studio at the Apothekersdijk in Leiden. I also do take away meals during the lockdown. I am very entrepreneurial and am constantly thinking of new concepts. I recently published a cookbook with family recipes and my own life story. My journey was turbulent. But without that journey I would never have become who I am today.

Instagram: @mainguyen_nl

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