ince Chef Dee Nguyen’s restaurant Break of Dawn, located in Laguna Hills, is a brunch-only establishment, the restaurant would sit empty and unused at night. This after-hours space became the perfect location for a pop-up in South Orange County. Two years later, the menus at the pop-up restaurant running at night, bear little to no resemblance to the brunch fare served in the mornings, and to think it all started with a friend and somewhat by accident.
One of Chef Dee’s friends had a sushi restaurant nearby that had closed. Not wanting his friend’s talent to go by the wayside, Chef Dee invited the Sushi Chef to create a menu for a pop-up restaurant hosted within Break of Dawn. The menu was written as a ten-course prix fixe and was scheduled to run one night only, limited to just ten guests. Chef Dee put the word out on Facebook, and before they knew it, they were fully booked. So they ran the pop-up for a second night. And then a third. This continued for a month with each night fully booked. It was more than just sushi; it was creative, original and handmade. Due to its success, at this point, it seemed as though this sushi pop-up could continue indefinitely. But rather than resting on the success of the sushi theme, Chef Dee decided to change it up and take a risk and do something completely different. By this point, his guests were hooked, the word was out, and people were watching him on Facebook to see what would happen next.
Chef Dee wasn’t so sure himself. To foster new ideas and inspiration, he took to the hills. As an avid hiker and mountain biker, Chef Dee would find himself taking in the sights and, more importantly, the smells of the forest and landscape around him. While hiking, he started to take a second look at the plants he had been past many times before. He began to stop and actually smell the flowers and leaves. He would take photos and post them on Facebook asking people to identify the plant, and then research whether it was edible. He came across sage, chamomile, mulberries and lemonade berries (yes, they taste just like lemonade). He became a forager and brought back the herbs, spices and unique findings into the kitchen. To Chef Dee, there is food all around us; we just need to stop and look for it. Through his pop-ups, he aims to introduce diners to food that is literally in their backyard and to educate about how we can use the land we live on.
“My heart has always been thirsty for dinner service. BoD makes me feel alive again with creativity, whereas the liberties of brunch at Break of Dawn can only allow me to do so much.” — Chef Dee Nguyen
The pop-up now runs every other month but for one night only. He can also now take reservations for up to 60 guests. In between pop-ups, Chef Dee is out hiking and collecting food to design a new concept, new menu, and new dishes each time. Nothing is ever repeated. Chef Dee uses different techniques for preparation, some of which he has never tried before.
And guests can follow everything Chef makes online from ingredient to preparation, all the way to the final dish. After all, once the night is over, the photographs will be the only remnants of the menu. Hopefully, by documenting this process, others will be inspired to create similar dishes including ingredients from the local hills.
January’s menu was all about wild fennel; something Chef Dee came across while hiking. He is also working on slow air drying persimmons he picked from his friend’s property in Silverado Canyon for use in a future menu. But what will be on the menu after that, only the hills know. It will depend on what is growing around the time of the dinner. Whatever is on the menu, Chef Dee looks to inspire people to look beyond the grocery store and into the outdoors. There is food all around us; you just have to stop and look.
Chicken Rice by BoD
Breast, Wings, Thighs, Drumstick, Feet and Giblets
I hope you enjoy my favorite childhood dish as much as I enjoyed preparing it.
You start with chawanmushi appetizer.
The soup is made from poaching liquid and homegrown opo squash.
Breasts are poached in an aromatic broth of lemongrass, ginger, onion, garlic and pandan, and are promptly removed from the rest of the chicken-which continues to poach to create the soup-cooled and served at room temperature.
Wings are also poached in the same broth as the breasts, cooled and removed to be made into a salad with pickled onion and herbs.
Thighs are taken off the bone, marinated with pepper, soy sauce, shallot, ginger and garlic, and rolled into roulades and sous vide then battered and fried.
Drumsticks are stewed along with giblets in a fish sauce caramel, lemongrass and ginger.
The skins are salt cured, then slow roasted in the oven until crispy.
Heads with neck skins attached are used as casing for sausages from chicken meats.
Cucumbers are lightly pickled with chili, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and lime.
Rice is cooked with caramelized garlic, onion, ginger, shallot, chicken stock with chicken fat.
The sauce is… well… you don’t need to know.
You end with passion fruit: candied ginger, chicken skin.
Break of Dawn
24291 Avenida De La Carlota, Ste P4, Laguna Hills, CA 92653
(949) 587-9418 | breakofdawnrestaurant.com