Eleven chefs dish on their passions and aversions, their culinary influences and their favorite places to eat, shop and play around town.
Hoa Lai of Four Sisters with his favorite breakfast: pho. Photo by Jonathan Timmes
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Chefs hold a certain mystique. As the architects of your dining experience, they are seldom seen behind the kitchen’s closed doors, although in this area they may well be shopping at the same farmers markets, frequenting the same watering holes, or growing heirloom tomatoes in that luscious backyard garden you pass each time you head out for a run. Where do our town’s best chefs go on their days off and their nights out? What do they stock in their pantries at home? And whose cooking do they like the best, other than their own? We talked to a handful of local culinary stars to learn more about the personalities behind the food.
Executive chef, Four Sisters, Merrifield.Lives in: Merrifield, Falls Church.
For the past 10 years, Hoa Lai has been executive chef of what is arguably the most sought-out Vietnamese eatery in the D.C. area. Formerly located at Eden Center, where it was named Huong Que (“essence of home”), his family’s nearly 20-year-old restaurant moved to Merrifield Town Center in the fall of 2008 and rebranded itself as Four Sisters—so named in honor of Lai’s siblings. With Lai at the wok, the kitchen has defined and embraced American/Vietnamese cuisine, melding the family’s Viet and Chinese heritage with French influences from back home. Bringing a light touch and sublime flavors to dishes such as grilled pepper beef and sea bass with black bean sauce, Lai has won the admiration of many fellow culinarians in the region, including Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., who is a regular customer.
My mother taught me everything I know about cooking Vietnamese food. We have similar palates and know how to balance salt and sugar. My father is my biggest critic. He’ll be sure to try my food every so often and let me know what I should change.
Favorite Arlington restaurant
Thai Square on Columbia Pike. The food is consistently good and a wave of nostalgia hits me every time I dine there. It reminds me of how my family started in the restaurant business.
Local market of choice
My family’s deli, Song Que (which means “two homes”), in Eden Center. I like the mango smoothie with tropical jelly.
What’s for breakfast?
Pho, or any type of noodle soup.
I’ve always wanted to sell cars. I’m a fast talker and I get a rush out of persuading people to try something they’re unsure about, like a new recipe at the restaurant. Sometimes you have to persuade people and make it sound more appealing.
What I like about Falls Church
I enjoy the diversity. I eat out a lot. There’s a restaurant for every type of cuisine you can imagine within minutes of where I live in Merrifield. I love the Peruvian joint, Super Chicken.
Fresh coconut water—the real thing, not the bottled stuff.
Guilty food pleasure
Bacon and anything with pork fat—on a burger, in fried rice, in a soup. It always tastes good.
Beyond the kitchen
I enjoy basketball and cycling on the W&OD Trail. I also have a newfound appreciation for gardening, growing different types of Japanese maples and hydrangeas.