Today, America's Test Kitchen Kids is chatting with Andrea Nguyen! Andrea is an award-winning author, cooking teacher, and consultant (someone who gives expert advice to others in a particular field of work, such as the food industry). She lives in California’s Bay Area, where she experiments, writes, and publishes her website Viet World Kitchen. Andrea was an answer on the game show Jeopardy!, and smelly Limburger cheese is one food that she’ll never try again.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Nguyen

ATK Kids: Can you tell us your name and your job?

  • Andrea Nguyen: My name is Andrea Nguyen (“n-WEN”). “Nguyen” is like the “Smith” or the “Lee” of Vietnamese last names. And my job is my dream job, which is to be a cookbook author and cooking teacher.

ATK Kids: What does a cookbook author do?

  • Andrea: A cookbook author writes cookbooks. I like to think of them as a set of directions for cooking. They help people go from point A to point B. And if they follow the directions, I hope that once they arrive at the final destination with their food, they'll be excited about what they made and make that dish again.

ATK Kids: To you, what is the most important part of writing a cookbook?

  • Andrea: Explaining why you do something in a recipe is really important. But because I mostly focus on Asian food traditions, I'm also trying to explain to readers about cultures, flavors, and ingredient combinations that they might not know about. It's a combination of using food to teach global ideas and explain how we are all connected as humans and giving people directions on how to make that food.

ATK Kids: In your cookbook The Pho Cookbook, you mention that you first tried pho at 5 years old, when you were living in Vietnam, and fell in love with it. Do you have other special food memories from your childhood?

  • Andrea: I lived in Vietnam until I was 6. My family’s housekeeper used to take me shopping for food at this huge farmers’ market behind our house. It was so amazing to see all the different beautiful things—vegetables, fruits, and fish—displayed with so much love and care. Today, I love exploring all sorts of markets. It’s an adventure for me.

ATK Kids: What is the first recipe that you learned how to cook?

  • Andrea: Rice. Rice is something that we ate every day. My mom was very particular about washing rice. [Washing rice prevents it from clumping together as it cooks.] And she would make me wash the rice 10 times. I had to count aloud how many times I had rinsed the rice, and if she didn't hear me counting, she would say, "I can't hear you!"

ATK Kids: What makes Vietnamese cuisine so special?

  • Andrea: I think that people are drawn to Vietnamese food because they're familiar with Chinese food. They're familiar with Japanese food and Thai food. And the thing that’s so appealing about Vietnamese food is it’s highly customizable. With a banh mi sandwich, you can make it vegetarian, no problem. If you want lots of cool, different kinds of meats and pâtés, no problem. You can add all sorts of things, or leave them out, and it’s still a banh mi. It’s the same thing with pho noodle soup and rice paper rolls. You can really explore different ingredients.

ATK Kids: There are all sorts of delicious condiments used in Vietnamese cooking. If you could only use one, which would it be and why?

  • Andrea: Fish sauce. It's incredibly versatile for savory foods—you can do so much with it. Just give me a bag of rice and fish sauce and I can survive. I will catch or grow or forage the rest of my food. Good fish sauce is not stinky or yucky. The problem is the darn name! It sounds yucky, right? But it's loaded with savory depth and umami goodness.

ATK Kids: If you had to live on a desert island for the rest of your life, what three foods would you bring?

  • Andrea: First I’d take rice, because I know how to cook it well. Then I’d take salt, because it keeps for a long time; it doesn’t need to be refrigerated; and there are many uses for it, from seasoning to preservation. Lastly I’d bring peanut oil, because it’s versatile and it tastes like peanut butter—another favorite food!

ATK Kids: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a more adventurous eater?

  • Andrea: Explore. Read cookbooks. Watch videos. But also make the food and go out to eat and try different things. To become an adventurous eater, you want to be curious, right? Pick a culture that you're interested in and focus on that for a while. And then, cook. As soon as you cook, you understand how flavors come together.

ATK Kids: What advice would you give an aspiring young chef?

  • Andrea: Keep cooking and learning and experimenting. You can think of your kitchen as your little lab—that’s how I think of it. When you are trying to become a better chef, you want to experiment as much as you can. Practice is very important, because cooking is a craft. But you can eat all your little boo-boos on your road to perfection.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.