Food & Beverage

Don Nguyen

Houston, Texas

After studying at West Point and the University of Texas, Don Nguyen's life took a turn after an impulse buy at a grocery store made him the proud owner of a smoker.

From there, he and his brother Theo dedicated themselves to the craft of smoking meat, taking breaks from their day jobs to check on the fire and learning from every resource they could find. But Don’s love of Texas barbecue wasn’t just a hobby. Later he would incorporate those smoking techniques with his mom’s traditional Vietnamese recipes and form the Houston-based barbecue project, Khói.

Fish sauce is one of his favorite ingredients, and while it’s not known to pair with smoked ribs or brisket, Don knew it would, and that’s what makes his cooking so crave-worthy. Born in Vietnam and raised in Houston, Don relies on his roots to create a menu with the likes of Brisket Pho and Beef Rib Ramen. Don’s creativity, his respect for his roots, and his get-it-done attitude have us anxiously checking our phones for the next Khói pop-up.
What culinary/cultural background inspires your barbecue?

My barbecue is a reflection of my childhood growing up in Da Nang, Vietnam, and Houston, Texas. It is inspired by Vietnamese dishes from my mom, restaurants in Houston’s Chinatown, and barbecue traditions from Central Texas.

At what age did you know you would be a Pitmaster?

31. I’d wager I’m on the latter side of the spectrum, as being in the food service industry professionally never really crossed my mind until then. But looking back, pursuing Khói makes complete sense. Many of my childhood memories revolve around food – waking up on Sunday mornings to the smell of pho broth my mom was simmering, end-of-month potlucks at the Vietnamese church my parents took me and my brother to, weekday stir-fries at my grandparents’ house. Vietnamese food was what kept my family and our community together. As immigrants, it was the touchpoint we shared with our past and the motherland. The senses of community and belonging are what I want to foster with Khói.

Any heroes? Pitmasters that you look up to?

I owe a great deal of inspiration to the Texas barbecue restaurants my dad would take my family to when I was a kid – Luther’s, The Salt Lick, Goode Company, County Line, and Luling City Market. Chefs and pitmasters that I admire and who paved the way for me to do what I do today include Martin Yan, Charles Phan, Roy Choi, Hisako Roberts, Aaron Franklin, and Meathead Goldwyn.

How do you improve as a pitmaster each year?

I try to avoid becoming complacent and strive to learn something new as often as possible. For example, I recently learned how to cook sausages in a banana leaf during my collaboration with chef John Bates of Interstellar BBQ. We were both discussing similarities between Southeast Asian and Latin cuisines, and banana leaves were the common denominator we explored. They’re used in tamales in Latin culture and used in tapioca dumplings in Vietnam. So we made lemongrass sausages, molded them like tamales in banana leaves, and smoked them. They were delicious. 

Learn to keep what’s working and discard what’s not, but always continue to tinker and question how things can be done better. Continually ask, “What if we did this? What if we used this ingredient instead of that?”

What haven’t you accomplished yet that you aspire to do?

Opening the KhĂłi brick and mortar location.

Where will we find you on your days off?

At the park with my dog Buster, a 9-year-old Weimaraner with still seemingly boundless energy, or riding around town on my scrambler.

If you weren’t a BBQ ambassador, which kind of YETI ambassador would you be?

An outdoor one! I love being outside in the mountains. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Nepal and trekked to the Everest base camp.

What is an ingredient you love?

Fish sauce. It’s so emblematic of Vietnamese cuisine and culture and indispensable to how I cook. It’s also something I was embarrassed of as a kid, but have learned to love and embrace it. I use it all the time in the food I cook – from sauces, spritzes, and hand-crafted sausages. It adds umami and depth and goes so well with barbecue, smoke, and all the sides and fixings.

I am happiest when I am preparing a meal with ______________.

My mom. Even though she rarely lets me help her, as she says, it slows her down.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a Pitmaster?

I’m a huge proponent of sustainability and would most likely continue my career in renewable energy. I just approached my 12-year milestone in the renewable energy space and am transitioning to doing barbecue full-time.

If you could hang with any Pitmaster, past or present, who would it be?

Miss Tootsie. She’s a Texas national treasure. 

Why do Pitmasters need gear that’s Built for the Wild?

Barbecue is outdoors, low and slow. That means holding things hot or cold for a long time in the elements. Having gear that can hold the product at the correct temperatures for long periods of time outside and also be portable and durable is important.

What YETI gear can you not do without? Why?

Barbecue life, maybe life in general, would be very difficult without the Tundra, Tank, or Roadie. I use the Tundra to hold whole hogs, briskets, and ribs cold before I trim and smoke them. After cold-smoking sausages, the Tank is used to shock them in an ice bath for extra snappiness. The Roadie 60 is used as a hot box to keep briskets, ribs, and sauces warm after cooking and to transport them to wherever we’re having our pop-up for service. The wheels and handle make the Roadie perfect for a barbecue operation that’s on the move like Khói.

Can you describe what YETI means to you?

Uncompromising, thoughtful design, relentless pursuit of excellence. Family.

If any YETI product allows you to do something you could not easily do before, please let us know:

It’s difficult to give an ice bath to 80 sausage links at the same time, but the Tank makes it quite effortless.