- Oliver Parini
- Chef Chiuho Duval
Chef Chiuho Duval
- Position: Chef and owner at A Single Pebble
- Location: Burlington
- Age: 45
- Cuisine type: Classic Chinese, plus Taiwanese street food
- Education: New England Culinary Institute, graduated 2003
- Experience: NECI Commons and Smokejacks, Burlington; started at A Single Pebble in 2003, became a business partner in 2005 and became sole owner in 2017
- What's on the menu? At the restaurant: mock eel, dry-fried green beans, tangerine peel chicken, double garlic broccoli; at the food truck: scallion pancake wrap with chicken, crispy beef shank rice bowl, steamed sweet rice pork dumplings, rice pouch with barbecued pork and pickles.
Construction is haunting chef Chiuho Duval. Across the street from A Single Pebble, the downtown dining landmark she owns, a rubble-strewn crater marks where the Burlington Town Center mall redevelopment is in process.
And on Friday, business was slow at her new food truck. It was parked for lunch on Pine Street, where a major road repair project had reduced traffic to one lane.
Duval was OK with that, though, she said as she moved smoothly between the order window, wok, steamer and flat-top grill, getting accustomed to the new routine of working solo. She'll have help at busier events, but it's clear that the chef is enjoying her own space.
"I'm having fun," Duval said with a grin.
The menu at the food truck is not a downsized Single Pebble menu. While the truck can handle restaurant favorites such as mock eel and dry-fried green beans for private catering gigs, its public lunch and dinner offerings are more akin to the portable street and market food Duval grew up with in her native Taiwan.
Before she came to Vermont to attend culinary school, Duval told Seven Days, "I did not know even how to properly boil eggs, because I'm the youngest in the family, and my mother and sister are great cooks. And in Taiwan, it's just very convenient: Day or night, you can just grab food on the street."
After the truck was finished in December, Duval admitted, "I had a freak-out thinking about my upcoming year [and] ability to do everything. And then I thought, OK, just do what you can." All told, she said, the truck cost about $80,000. "It's a really expensive toy if you don't use it," she remarked.
Duval talked about taking the reins of a cherished dining destination, her love of 100-year-old eggs, and learning how to cook Chinese food in Vermont.
SEVEN DAYS: You came all the way from Taiwan to Vermont for culinary school. How'd that happen?
CHIUHO DUVAL: I had a BA in journalism and was doing documentary video. I got a part-time job at a bistro in Taiwan and started learning the wine, waiting tables. It just kind of opened the door for me.
Eventually, I made up my mind that I needed to learn how to cook. I could make instant noodles, but that's it. The chef of that bistro, he went to NECI. He talked about school all the time. I'd never been to the United States. I didn't do any research; that was just the place I wanted to go.
SD: You always loved to eat?
CD: The question in our family was always, "What are we going to have for lunch?" And then, "What are we going to have for dinner?" We lived across the street from a traditional market. One of the things I really liked for breakfast on the way to school were fresh-made noodles with very simple minced pork sauce and a little bit of soy-braised eggs. When it was Saturday or Sunday, I would say, "Mom, I'm going to the market." And I'd walk around and eat all the food.
SD: Any other favorites?
CD: There's a running joke in our family that one day I would marry the guy whose family made the 100-year-old preserved eggs. They're really stinky, kind of like blue cheese-stinky. I love them.
SD: So, does your guy make them?
CD: No, but Craig [Sampson] can make really good crêpes. And he built my food truck. Well, his company did.
SD: After all these years, why launch a food truck?
CD: Our kitchen is very small, and I always tell the staff I should just buy a van, build it into a food truck and park it back by the kitchen for more space. But I never did it, because I'm really a control freak, and I just don't have enough time.
The [Burlington Town Center] construction was really a kick in my butt. I'd gone through a couple weeks last year that were really worrisome when they started the whole process. I realized the success of my business was not on them, it's on me. If people can't come to us, then we have to go to them.
SD: How'd you first land at A Single Pebble?
CD: I came here to learn Western cuisine. I thought I was going to go home and do a small bistro. But then I graduated, and A Single Pebble had just opened in Burlington. Steve [Bogart, the restaurant's original chef-owner] interviewed me, and I said, "Chef, I look Chinese. I can eat Chinese food. But I don't know how to cook Chinese food." I just wanted to get it out there. He was like, "No problem. I'll teach you."
SD: Did you hope to become an owner at some point?
CD: Not until my father passed away in 2005. He was kind of mad at me for getting married here and getting the job here. He said, "Before you went to United States, you tell me you're going to come back to open your own restaurant. Now you work for somebody else, and now you have your life there." He accused me of forgetting my dream.
Steve had already offered me to be a partner, but I had turned it down. When I came back from the funeral, I said to him, "If the offer's still on the table, I'll take it." I decided I needed to stare down the bear.
SD: How does it feel to be the one in charge?
CD: It's hard. I love to cook; that's not hard. But people who like to work in the kitchen, they usually don't like to deal with people. That's why I choose to cook. Chicken or vegetables [are] not going to come to tell you, "I don't want to be cut into slices." A human always has something to say to you.
SD: Has A Single Pebble started to feel more like your restaurant?
CD: For a lot of years after Steve retired [in 2008], I didn't do anything different. There was this fear. This is Steve's, what he created, his little kid. The logo and story were Steve's: a young Caucasian takes a boat down the Yangtze River and what he experienced with the food and the culture.
I realized that to survive, to carry on, I have to make A Single Pebble become my story. I did a new logo. [She shows a new business card.] Chinese, we're a big fan of seals — like signatures but different. The word in this seal means "gather." Gather, discover, connect is my tagline. It will resonate with my own story and customers and coworkers.
SD: It sounds like the truck menu is starting to tell that story?
CD: It's a totally open playground for me. I want to focus on Taiwanese street food, things that are easy; you hold it with your hand. Every time of day you go out on the street in Taiwan, you can get whatever you want to eat.
SD: Can you describe a few examples?
CD: I pan-fry scallion pancakes, and then I wrap them with crispy chicken, lettuce, pickled cabbage and Hengyang sauce made with Sichuan peppercorn and vinegar. I'm doing a lettuce wrap with minced shrimp, watercress, scallions and crunched-up Chinese doughnuts.
There will be rice pouches stuffed with different kinds of filling, like Chinese barbecue pork, pickled carrots or beets, and a little bit of dry meat floss. [When I was a kid] this is what I eat on the way to school or after I get home from school. I buy them on the street and, especially in wintertime, they're warm, and I tuck them in my little jacket.
SD: What do you do to relax?
CD: I practiced yoga regularly up to a few years ago. Right now, I paint. Seems that's the only thing [that] can take my mind away from everything. I am also relaxed when I hang out with Craig and the kids, but that's a different kind of relaxing.
SD: If you could travel anywhere in the world to eat, where would you go?
CD: There's a place in Shanghai I promised Craig I would take him to. It's a little dumpling shop. They make those soup dumplings. It's so awesome. The wrappers are so thin that when you bite into it, that feeling you have, that is happiness.