Epiphanies have a way of flinging us into a tailspin of deliberation, partly because they don’t always line up with what one might call sensible terms.
Preston Nguyen was a precocious junior at Martin High School a few years back, so proficient and fervent that while students at Arlington ISD’s Career and Technical Center are expected to be senior-level before snagging internships, an exception was made for his boiling-over capabilities in architecture.
Before long he was sitting behind a desk at an actual architecture firm. Therein lay the conundrum.
He liked architecture. Being nailed to a desk? Not so much.
Apparently, Preston thrives on movement.
Days are now spent at Dallas College El Centro, where he’s a student in the renowned Culinary, Pastry and Hospitality program with evenings reserved for current employer Dallas’ Mansion Restaurant. After that, he’s back home where he, his dad, Peter, and mother, Emma, converge on the kitchen of their Lake Arlington home to train for the World Food Championships’ Final Table, beginning April 30 in South Carolina.
They are in that hunt because Preston, at a mere 18, captured first place in the 2021 World Food Championships in the chef category (mom and dad served as sous chefs). Second-place went to Fairmont Hotel executive chef Jean-François Fortin, who has been at this longer than Preston has existed.
It seems Preston made the right call in leaving that corporate existence of white shirts and high heels for an office full of fire and knives.
Post-epiphany, Preston headed back to the CTC where he went all-out culinary, something that always lurked in his mind, thanks to a family food lineage. Preston’s internship shifted to Prince Lebanese Grill, on West Randol Mill, where he quickly established himself as a kind of culinary wunderkind.
“He rocks,” gushes Aziz Kobty, Prince Lebanese Grill owner. “He came into my place with a hunger to learn about not just food but the industry. “
Preston developed his skills at Prince, learning how to be good and fast. Says Kobty: “You should have seen him handle a 300-person lunch in a few hours.” Kobty knew he couldn’t keep wonderboy. “In my place, you can get to kitchen manager, that’s it,” Kobty says. “Unfortunately, he can’t replace me – not yet, anyway. He had to move on.”
He did, to the Mansion, the plush restaurant in Turtle Creek, where he spends 50 to 60 hours a week developing more resonate skills.
More on that lineage: His father watched his own parents run a cafeteria-style Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth. Emma Nguyen was a culinary student when she met her husband, who took a class at El Centro just to drive her home after night classes. (Nice and romantic).
Peter Nguyen was in the midst of transferring from the University of Texas-Dallas to the University of North Texas where he would eventually attend law school. Emma Nguyen completed her degree at the Culinary School of Fort Worth.
“Ever since I was in my early 20s we would have the holidays at our house,” Peter Nguyen says. “We cooked, and Preston was always relatively involved, even as a little kid.”
Sometimes he’d do. Sometimes just watch.
“Still to this day they have their little debate [over] which turkey method is best for cooking for the holidays,” Preston says. “I just loved watching and seeing how many different ways there are to cook different things. It helps you be creative. Usually I look at something that is by the books and ask, how can I incorporate this into my style of cooking?”
While law is still Peter Nguyen’s main gig, he has returned to culinary school with his son, and like him, puts in about 30 hours a week at a Dallas restaurant. Surely a Nguyen family restaurant isn’t far off.
For Preston, he’s found his calling.
“Kitchens are definitely one of those occupations where it is a lot of hard work, but it pays off to see people have a really good time through food,” Preston says. “For me, it’s also a constant adrenaline rush.”