A Life of Hardships Turns Around with Vietnamese Cooking and Social Media Success

Kayla Smothers features David Nguyen who went through many family and personal ordeals on a journey to becoming a “full-time food content creator.”

David in the middle of filming his next recipe to post on social media in his family kitchen.

Being the Son of Vietnamese Refugees

David’s parents are known as “boat people,” he explains from his family’s home kitchen, during a recent interview with lighting set up for his next social media video.

The Nguyens were refugees who fled from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon on a small boat. They had no resources at sea for over a week. Not knowing what was ahead or how to navigate, they somehow finally landed on an island called Palawan in the Philippines, who were taking in refugees, unlike other places.

A refugee camp was established, and his parents survived with his dad’s fishing and his mom cooking the fish and selling it to make an income. David and his brother were born and lived there with their parents for five years until Vietnam was deemed safe enough to go back to.

David then lived in Vietnam for three more years until a program for Vietnamese refugees to immigrate to the United States was created. His family moved to Orange County in Southern California with the help of his aunt who already lived there.

To make more of a living, his mom, along with a community of Vietnamese people in the area, gave up her passion for cooking and learned how to do nails. His dad became a mechanic and later on worked in construction.

David was sent to school and put into third grade without knowing any English. His first memory of elementary school was him being left alone on the blacktop when the bell rang to go inside for class, and not knowing what was going on. He was given no guidance from the school. He learned English from watching cartoons and being in the school environment.

When he graduated high school, he started culinary school, and then had a bigger dream of studying Vietnamese cuisine in Vietnam.

In 2015, while studying in culinary school, he worked at ESPN Zone at Disneyland, and was then introduced to an opportunity to audition to be a chef for Club 33- an exclusive membership club there. He made it through all three phases of tests and became a Club 33 chef for about a year.

A Disney experience that went well.

Missteps in Vietnam and San Francisco

He had the intent to work there, gain some experience, then leave for Vietnam the next year, which he did: but his experience did not go as planned.

The program in Vietnam fell through, and what was supposed to be three years was only three months of studying there. David had to move to Reno where his parents had now moved to work at a local nail salon.

David had a depressed mindset for what he said seemed like forever. His mom suggested for him to get his license to do nails so he could start making an income and be distracted for a little while, so he did. It was not fulfilling.

At the beginning of 2016 he decided to say enough is enough, and headed to San Francisco, where there was an opportunity to be an unpaid intern- or how they say in the cooking world, to stage- at a three-star Michelin restaurant. He got the internship.

The problem was, he had no money, no car, and nowhere to live. With some money he borrowed from his parents, he found a small, one-bedroom apartment a random person was renting out. It was the only place he could find in his price range, so he gave the required first month’s rent and deposit, and moved into the room where the other person was also living.

After his first day staging, he ran into a serious problem with his roommate which led to him having to immediately leave his internship and San Francisco. He had no choice, he had nowhere to live and no more money.

He was crushed. Having to leave his dream once again and move back in with his parents in Reno, his motivation for cooking went away for a few months.

David went through many ordeals as a child and then when he started working.

Giving His Cooking Talents Another Chance

In 2016, David gave his dream another shot and drove all the way to Napa, California with a portfolio and resume in hand to give to French Laundry, a well-known restaurant that leads chefs to their dream jobs.

Miraculously, he was hired on as a stage and began working there. It was not all it was hyped up to be though. The environment was always on the go and high-stress, paid extremely little, and affected his overall health and mental health. He could not afford to keep living there even though it gave him experience.

So, he made his toughest decision yet and left French Laundry at the end of 2017. He had an identity crisis, and was upset at himself for feeling weak and walking away from his dream of cooking.

A Turnaround After Losing His Sister

Back to Reno. Back to doing nails. Back to not living the life he wanted to pursue.

A year after leaving French Laundry, he began seeing people become successful by traveling, cooking, and documenting their lifestyle choices on social media, so he picked up photography and videography as a hobby. He didn’t take it too seriously at the time, and was still in a rut of feeling lost, but kept teaching himself different skills.

Then in late 2019, his little sister passed away in a car accident.

This completely shifted his focus and was a wakeup call for him that “life is too short to not pursue your dream and do what you want to do,” he said.

With a newfound appreciation for life and a new motivation to pursue his dreams, he took another chance on the three-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco in early 2020 and applied again. He was hired to work at their sister restaurant, and was about to leave to once again pursue his dream when the COVID lockdown happened.

The restaurant sent their apologies as they were now not able to take new hires. David’s life and future went on hold once again.

Going Viral on Social Media

Instead of this tearing him down, he started to become more serious about filming and creating videos making his recipes. He started posting his videos on Instagram Reels when that first came out, and a video of his went viral.

He went from 1,500 followers to 8,000 followers overnight and thought to himself that this could be his outlet for pursuing his dream.

During this time his family and family friends also bought their own nail salon: Eden Nail Lounge.

Little by little and then all at once, more and more of his videos went viral, he was offered brand deals and sponsorships, and he gained thousands of new followers.

Now, he has over 400 thousand followers on both TikTok and Instagram @dvdnguyen, and is a full-time cooking content creator. His mission is to create easy to follow recipes that people will enjoy and to keep following his dream and passion for creating and cooking Vietnamese cuisine. He hopes to be someone young Asian Americans can look up to and know that they can follow their passions as well.

He ended the interview with this piece of advice: for everyone to “keep going. You don’t know what life is going to hand you, but if you keep going, something good will eventually happen to you,” he said.

Reynolds Sandbox reporting by Kayla Smothers

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Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.