From Student to "Top Chef" to Chef-Instructor
Meet ICE LA Chef-Instructor Arnold Myint
A natural performer, ICE alumnus Arnold Myint (Restaurant & Culinary Management, '04) shares the perseverance behind his many television appearances. Follow his path from touring ice skater to culinary student to executive chef, cheftestant, and ultimately, inspiring chef-instructor.
If there’s one motto Chef-Instructor Arnold Myint can live by, it’s "if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again". Case in point: his road to competing on “Top Chef” was not an easy one — he auditioned three times over several years to land a coveted cheftestant spot. From his time as a touring ice skater to his multiple appearances on chef-competition shows to embracing his alter ego, drag persona Suzy Wong, Myint puts passion into everything he does. An ICE alumnus, Myint grew up in Nashville and recently made Los Angeles his home, where he is currently molding ICE students to become chefs with true talent.
It’s clear you were born to perform, but where does your passion for food stem from?
My dad was a professor of mathematics at Tennessee State and my mom was a restaurateur. She came to the U.S. from Thailand to get her MBA and that’s when she met my dad. There was nothing for her to eat in Tennessee, so in order to feed herself and her husband, she opened a grocery store in 1975. Then she opened a café that, after 45 years, just sold to the university built around it. I was raised in the restaurant on my roller skates, and I’d say my relationship with food started even before I was born.
What motivated you to enroll in culinary school?
Since the first day I started as a student at ICE in New York, my goal was to be on food television. I started culinary school in the era that reality shows began trending — “American Idol,” “Project Runway,” “Top Model,” etc. I was on tour as an ice skater on cruise ships and after skating, I thought I’d live in New York City to pursue a career in musical theater. After some time, I thought the dream might not come into fruition, so I did what people do and I started working in a restaurant. I soon realized that I hated front of house and I started thinking I wanted to be a part of the back of house. My parents were always supportive of everything I did, so I told them I wanted to go to culinary school. That plan worked and I enrolled at ICE. My biggest motivation was, if I can’t act on Broadway, I’ll be a big star on reality cooking shows.
What did you think on day one at ICE?
The first day of school, I had a pompous attitude that I had a background in the restaurant business and I would coast through school. I was thinking, I’m just here because I want to be on TV. Other students had goals of running a Michelin-starred restaurant, becoming food writers, etc., and I was very full of myself. That’s how it all started. But by day two or three, when we started to do herb identification, I realized that I really did need school because I knew nothing.
As a student, I improved and won two scholarship contests: Tabasco's Hottest Chef Competition in 2004, for which I made seafood fritters with four Tabasco dipping sauces, and the Cookin' with Allagash contest, at which I made moules (mussels) with Allagash white ale.
Did you move into TV right after graduation, as you had hoped?
No. As I was getting close to graduation, I started working with Jean-Georges’ company, knowing that’s where I wanted to do my externship. I worked at Vong, Spice Market, Mercer Kitchen and V Steak in Columbus Circle. The former sous chef from Jean-Georges’ Spice Market, Mohan Ismail, brought me on to work with him at Kalustyan’s Café and I wound up working there for a few years.
What made you leave the restaurant scene in New York?
To be honest, I got fat. So I decided to throw myself back into the skating world to do one more cruise ship show to lose the weight. I showed up fat and I got skinny again! But while I was on the road on the skating show, I realized how much I loved and missed cooking. I wound up getting another job with Mohan, but this time it was consulting with the Cheesecake Factory, which had recently launched Rock Sugar in Century City in Los Angeles. I was hired to do corporate consulting for the cocktail program. That felt like my first real gig as a chef. Around the same time, 2003 or 2004, my mom said she was going to open a restaurant so I could cook in it. It was called PM, a Thai-fusion restaurant, and I became the consulting chef. But I wasn’t there to oversee it; I was flying back and forth to LA. Eventually, I decided to go back to Nashville, to get hands-on in my family’s restaurant.
How did you wind up on “Top Chef”?
When I was living in New York, I was going out on casting calls and I’d get emails for food casting. I thought, even though I was still new in the industry, I had a sense about my style and what I wanted to do. At the time, “Top Chef” was in its second season and one day I did some research and found an open casting call for the show. I thought, this is my moment. I’m an aspiring chef, I’m skinny again, why not get on a plane to LA to make it happen?
I remember having my headshot taken and putting on a bright yellow track suit and a camouflage hat and thinking, I’m going to get on the show. I remember standing in a Hollywood cattle call of hundreds and hundreds of people and I thought, I’m gonna get on the show. Only it was so busy that they only let us drop off our headshots. Then they came out and said, "will the following people come in?" What I realized was they were looking for executive chefs and because I had a yellow outfit on, I stood out. I got my foot in the door and had my 10 minutes with them and then, nothing happened. I waited and waited. And I decided to go back and focus on just cooking.
Were you discouraged by that experience?
At the time, I thought maybe it didn’t happen because I wasn’t ready. Instead I opened my second restaurant Cha Chah, a tapas and tea bar, food I had encountered in my life as a traveling skater. We were doing tasting menus with very lofty ingredients, which was very hard to get in Nashville. It closed sooner than it opened. I built it from the ground up; it still breaks my heart that I had to close. While it was open, I had a sous chef from LA come work with me and she had recently auditioned for “Top Chef”. When she got her call back I said, “that’s great” and “good luck”. She relayed to me that the casting producers said that they know a guy from Nashville (me!) and told her to have him call them.
Was the second audition different than the first one?
This audition felt way different than before. I made it all the way through and I had to fly to LA to meet with Andy Cohen. As soon as I walked in the door, I blacked out. I was full of nerves, but they still loved me. Back in Nashville, I was waiting for the call and that whole day I thought something was going to happen, it was my birthday. I was with my friends and we were going on a progressive dinner to a bunch of restaurants, and I get the call from casting saying, "I’m so sorry you didn’t make it," while I was staring at a cake that said, “Top Chef Arnold”. And I look into the restaurant next door that looked empty, and that place became Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, which was my third restaurant venture in Nashville. Things happen for a reason.
I’ll ask again, were you discouraged by food television?
I was devastated. Basically I auditioned for season three and this was for season six! And because of the woman who came to work for me, that’s how it got into my system again. I couldn’t believe I didn’t make it, but I told myself to just focus on this third restaurant.
Your life became about Suzy Wong’s House of Yum.
Yes. The restaurant was doing well, it was my dream restaurant, and I was cooking hard every day. I was winning local accolades, doing local television and really finding my groove. Then the following season I got the offer to be on “Top Chef” season 7. I wasn’t nervous this time and the timing was right.
Was it what you hoped it would be?
Coming from a show world when I’m in front of an audience all the time, I understood the assignment. But “Top Chef” requires skill in this industry, so even if I was comfortable in front of a camera, the integrity of the show was that they wanted to find the best chef. It’s not about what you look like, it’s about having clout in the industry and being respected. It is not for rookies. That being said, things didn’t go as planned.
What was the challenge that got you kicked off?
We had a hotel challenge about creating room service fare. I had to do breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were paired up and, well, the entire episode was me telling my partner to cook the pasta. The pasta wound up underdone and that got me voted off.
What did that experience teach you?
Overall it was great exposure, more than I could ever pay for. It taught me that I belong in the industry and I found where I wanted to be. I found my voice. I found my home. It enabled me to present my art and use my passion. It showed me that I wasn’t done yet, this was just the start of what I wanted and it got me hungrier for more. It also taught me there’s no B.S. in this industry at any level. You can’t fake it.
That opportunity seems to have launched a succession of television appearances for you.
Since then, I have been on countless TV cooking spots, national shows; I’ve made cameos on “Pickler and Ben”, judged “Chopped Jr.”; I competed on “Next Food Network Star” where I finished third; “Eden Eats” and a whole slew of others.
How was being on “Food Network Star” different than your experience on “Top Chef”?
I made it to the final three and fell short behind my friend, and fellow ICE alum, Dom Tesoriero. I really got to shine when I competed on “Food Network Star” and showcase my point of view. For our first challenge, “outdoor grilling,” I made a high-end version of a tuna nicoise salad with smoking salt, from-scratch herbs de Provence, quail eggs, roasted potatoes, pickled mustard seeds and asparagus. At one point [on the show], Giada De Laurentiis said she could bathe in my Mexican hot chocolate soup and that my food “falls from the clouds.”
What’s the hardest part of being on live TV?
The hardest part of being on live TV is being able to get your message completely out, still be conversational, not look rushed and not get flustered. The biggest thing is keeping things concise. And being ready for everything. (And you have an earbud in your ear, talking to you, so be aware of that.)
What’s your advice to anyone who may want to follow in your path?
You can only control your own actions, your brand, your product and how you cook.
After all your television successes, and they are successes, what was it that made you decide to teach?
I did the math, and said to myself that the one thing I haven’t done is teach culinary school. My father was a professor, so teaching is also a part of my upbringing. When I look back, my first teacher was Alex Guarnaschelli. I thought if Chef Alex could do it, I’m only one step from her.
Is it mind blowing to lead a class at ICE having been a student here?
Being back at ICE feels great and I’m loving every minute of it. I am teaching culinary school and it’s as if I’m going to culinary school again. It’s full circle. I feel the pressure of the responsibility, and now I approach the class knowing that these students need to come out; there is real potential for greatness in all of them. And I feel accountable for making that happen for them.
Reach your culinary potential with Chef Arnold at the Institute of Culinary Education's LA campus.