10 (or so) questions with ... Justine Nguyen
Justine Nguyen, who runs a popular YouTube cooking show, the JN Cooking Channel
Rochester Magazine: Tell me about one of your first food memories.
Justine Nguyen: When I was four and lived in Vietnam we were very poor. I would go down the alley to meet a friend and we’d walk to school together. She would always wait for me with a sweet potato and we’d share that. It’s the most amazing sweet potato you can have because you are hungry, [your] stomach is growling. It tasted so good. That was my first love of food. I always wanted more and more.
RM: Do you ever try to recreate those sweet potatoes?
JN: Oh yes. The fun part about food is that it takes me back to the alley. To the stuff we eat in Vietnam. It always takes me back to those great memories. I have vivid memories of Vietnam. I’ve visited Vietnam many, many times. I remember everything. I remember going from a refugee camp to coming here on a boat. It’s like the back of my hand.
RM: Your family moved to Canada when you were six?
JN: Yes. Eventually, my parents opened a restaurant in Edmonton, in 1990. During the big Fringe Festival, my parents would put out the money to buy chicken skewers. I would stand in front of our restaurant and sell [them] for $1 a stick. I was 13. In the 10 days of the Fringe Festival, I sold $13,000 worth of chicken skewers. It’s always been business and family. We had restaurants. Then went into the construction of restaurants.
RM: What brought you to Rochester?
JN: My husband, Dennis Douda, brought me to Minneapolis, and then we moved to Rochester because Dennis got a job for Mayo Clinic [where he works as a medical writer/reporter/video producer].
RM: You were in the spotlight when you were in Minneapolis, since you were dating a WCCO-TV anchor.
JN: Oh, yes. When I first dated Dennis, I didn’t know he was a news anchor. I was a businessperson, and he was just someone my friends referred me to.
RM: Star-Tribune gossip columnist CJ was always talking about Dennis’ “captivating blue eyes.” Does he have captivating blue eyes?
JN: Oh, yes. Yes he does.
RM: Do you eat out a lot?
JN: No. Because I’m a cook, I am very picky. Most of the stuff I can make less expensively and more gourmet than going out to eat. We do go out here or there. We eat pretty well at home because I cook a lot.
RM: Except when you go to McDonald’s?
JN: How did you know that? Yes, except for when I have my McDonald’s cravings. Those are days when I am busy editing and it’s easier for us to go out. I do love my Big Macs.
RM: Last count, your YouTube channel (JN Cooking Channel) had like 20,000 subscribers. And you have like 70,000 followers on Instagram.
JN: It still seems strange to me. When I first started, I wasn’t that focused about it. It may seem like I’ve been on YouTube a long time, but I’ve only been aggressively posting videos the last two years. It was a way to share recipes with my niece, college friends of hers, and cousins who want to learn the family recipes. When I first started, it took me a day to shoot the video, a day to edit, and a day to do voice overs. That has gone down to two hours of cooking and two hours of editing.
RM: Tell me about Project Paris?
JN: Dennis and I write screenplays together. We have done five together. Dennis has a dozen on his own. Project Paris is a romantic comedy script we wrote. We’ve won some competitions, been semi-finalists, but not finalists. We were close in financing his $5 million project, Hero. We were about $500,000 short. We work pretty well together. We’re both very artistic. Dennis is a great writer and has a lot of patience. I work very fast. That makes us a good team.
RM: I’m going to find out how much you really know about Vietnamese food.
JN: Uh oh.
RM: This fish sauce has been called “the most important condiment on a Vietnamese table.”
JN: Nuoc mam.
RM: What’s the best selling Vietnamese beer?
JN: I don’t drink beer. So I don’t know that one.
RM: It’s called “33.” OK. The next one is a sweet-tasting, thick reddish-brown sauce frequently used in Vietnam as a condiment.
JN: Hoisin sauce.
RM: OK. I have verified your knowledge of Vietnamese food. But not Vietnamese beer.
RM: Tell me about your Spam avocado rolls.
JN: I created those for the [Post Bulletin] Spam recipe contest. We used Spam when I was a little girl in the refugee camp. That was our pork meat. We could get them because they were donated to us. We would make spring rolls and fried rice out of them.
RM: Tell me about family.
JN: I have a son who will be 20 in July. Tyson. He lives in Canada. Everything, especially cooking, is about family to me. Recently, my dad’s been sick. Everything I cook right now reminds me of him. It takes you back to the moment he tried to get you to eat something as a kid and you didn’t like it, and now you like it. It’s all about Dad or Mom that inspires. It’s all about seeing the happiness in someone’s eyes when they see that food.
RM: Like Dennis’ captivating blue eyes?
JN: Yes! Like his captivating blue eyes.