Tina Dang


Whether she’s cooking for Jacques Pepin at Zuni Cafe or preparing dinner for a few friends, there’s a spirit and storyline behind everything San Francisco chef and recipe developer Tina Dang does. Growing up watching her father run his family-run donut shop, hard work and respect are touchstones of Tina’s philosophy for both working and living; a lack of pretension goes a long way. We visited her at home to learn more about her work, inspirations, and how she’s built a career around the place where sense and story come together.



Growing up, your parents owned a donut shop — you’ve mentioned that this early exposure to food and hospitality strongly influenced your work ethic. Can you share more?
The donut shop was like a second home to me. It was where my brothers went after school, where my mom dropped off lunch and dinner to my dad, where I went when I wanted to say hello to him. It was here where I learned about donut production, dough frosting, frying, glazing, proofing, working a register, scooping ice cream. Most importantly I learned about hospitality: My dad always greeted everyone of his customers with a hearty smile and a "Hello my friend.” Everyone was his friend and he taught me to never judge anyone based on their appearance…he taught me how to be genuine and kind to every customer that walked in. He passed away in 2006, and I'll always remember how hard he worked, seven days a week for years picking up deliveries in his beat-up ’79 Civic Hatchback. My parents strived so hard for their kind of American dream, and while it's so different from what I want, I'll always take into consideration how hard they worked. It's taught me to put my all into every meal or project that I do and to really enjoy it no matter how exhausting it can be.
Did you consider other careers other than in food?
I was always a daydreamer. Early on I considered being a professional snowboarder, traveling the world and jumping out of helicopters. However, a really bad accident sent me to the hospital, so that goal was never realized. I never knew that I would be cooking as a profession or a career. Growing up, the idea of working in food was always appealing to me but it was never supported. As long as I can remember, cooking was always on my mind, but I've also considered a life in photography, clothing and textile design, curation, and (in my wildest dreams) a music video director.
Can you share a recipe for an early fall/late summer dinner party?
Grilled Cantaloupe and Prosciutto Salad, with Cherries, Chicories, Hazelnuts, and Feta
For the herb vinaigrette: 
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

For the salad:
1/2 a small canteloupe - peeled, seeded, and cut into half-inch wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
4 ounces frisee - cleaned and torn
2 small endives cut in half cores removed
8 cherries - pitted and cut in half
4 ounces feta
1/4 cup roasted hazelnuts - chopped
8 slices of thinly sliced prosciutto

To make the dressing: In a small bowl combine champagne vinegar, sea salt, black pepper. Slowly, drizzle in olive oil and grapeseed oil. Add chopped herbs and set aside. You want your vinaigrette to not separate much, so whisking away while adding in the acid will allow for a balanced and well-dressed salad.
To make the salad: Make sure grill is cleaned and hot in order to assure proper markings on the cantaloupe. In a medium bowl toss cantaloupe with olive oil and sea salt. Gently toss to coat. Set cantaloupe onto the grill and cook until warmed and markings are prominent, about 2-3 minutes. Do not flip (if you cook any longer they can get too soft). Meanwhile, cut endive into 1/2 inch crescents. Set aside. In a larger bowl combine frisee and endive with 4 tablespoons of dressing. On a small platter lay out the dressed greens. Then scatter the melons, cherries, feta, and hazelnuts. At this point you can drizzle 2 tablespoons more dressing onto the salad. Drape pieces of prosciutto over salad and serve.

Beyond just food and cooking, your work is rooted in the beauty that comes from quality and simplicity. Can you explain more?
I believe in simple unpretention, and I can't help but think of the time when I first stepped into Zuni Cafe and learned how to properly work with beautiful produce. It felt elevated and so clean.
What are your secret weapon ingredients for making any dish better? 
Salt and olive oil...balance.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve had?
This wasn't a meal as it was an overall experience: My best friend Daniele moved to Italy with her husband and we went out for a girls day, running errands and shopping in the city. She was really hungry and I suggested a hot dog from the tourist carts; at first she scoffed at the idea but there’s something really fun about eating a hot dog and hearing the buzz of a city. It quiets you and is easily enjoyable…I think I converted her. That hot dog was soon followed by a few cocktails and wine…the errands were forgotten. Most of the time for me, a memorable meal is attached to a place that has really special ambiance and appeal. I also really love LUCE in Portland or Cafe Jaqueline in San Francisco.
"Your community doesn't have to be big but it has to have the heart. You have to have integrity and spirit and — most importantly — drive."
Can you share advice for other women looking to work for themselves and carve a path in a less-traditional career?
I've said before that it's important to have people that believe in you as much as you believe in yourself. Your community doesn't have to be big but it has to have the heart. You have to have integrity and spirit and — most importantly — drive. You should be nice to people, know your weaknesses but do not dwell on them, work hard, and know when to be to speak up for yourself. Love life, try to appreciate the people around you, and work with what’s in front of you.


Food is a very tactile and often fickle medium: are there any things that intimidate you to prepare?
I don’t think I have anything I prepare at home that gets me too intimidated; it's when I have to cook in someone else’s professional kitchen that I might second-guess my technique. Usually before a job, I overthink every single detail so that when the time comes everything is taken care of and I won't need to stress or get nervous about anything….all I have to worry about is plating the food on time.
In an ideal day (location, budget, and reality aside), what would be your ideal meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
My ideal breakfast would be having a warm croissant in Paris, sitting across from my boyfriend Daniel, sipping a coffee, and just people-watching for a few hours. Next, jetting off for a lunch in Sicily or Sardinia eating spaghetti con bottarga, a piece of grilled steak, and a nice glass of wine, listening to music and dancing. Then magically appearing on a beach in the South of Vietnam as someone hands me a beer and as I turn around an abundant table is set with all my favorite Vietnamese dishes and all my family and friends are mingling on the beach as the sun is at its very peak of setting. It magically stays that way for a few hours.
Do you ever go through times of feeling creatively stagnant or uninspired? If so, what do you do to reset?
YES. I do. I like to quiet myself often, finding time to breathe. I would say that I still am in a bit of an uninspired slump but good friends always supply fresh air for inspiration and creativity. [My partner] Daniel tends to get me out of a slump by forcing me to go for a walk or just to get outdoors. Sometimes my stagnancy creates moments of inspiration and forces me to just slow it all down, but long spurts of that drive me crazy. Music is a major inspiration and takes me out of food mode, as well as beautiful and inspired design. Sometimes I go about inspiration by meditating on one ingredient and going from there. I picture a peach or a nectarine then let the ideas happen.


Tina wears LULUC CREW SWEATER - coming soon