my 2 cents

12 tips for a healthier, happier life

**This post was originally published on NMO Diaries and has been slightly edited for this blog.

Many who have watched me on “MasterChef” or listened to me speak or follow me on social media often wonder what’s my secret to life. Unfortunately, like any other human being (except for maybe the Dalai Lama), I have no key to the universe. I don’t know what the hell is going on half the time, and the other half, I spend wondering how I’m going to make it through the hour, day, week, or year.

In spite of never having complete control over my life (which, if you are human, chances are you don’t either), I’ve been doing my best to control what I can. That is, I’ve been on a steady (albeit slow) path towards healthier living for almost two years now, and here are twelve tips I’ve picked up along the way. I must insert a caveat first: I am not going to pretend I have it all together and follow all twelve rules 100% of the time. But I do try to follow them to the best of my ability given the particular circumstance at any given moment. I’m no sage when it comes to enlightenment—even though we know what we should do, we often don’t do it—but these are twelve things I’ve been giving more thought to ever since: (1) being healthy got trendy, (2) I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and (3) I became more proactive at improving my standard of living.
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Everything you ever wanted to know about cutting boards

Having first learned to cook as a college student with very limited funds, I’ve had my fair share of crappy cutting boards. Moreover, as a novice cook, I did not know how to take care of these cutting boards, thereby contributing to their crappiness. My first cutting board was wooden, and although I knew not to run it through the dishwasher—oh wait, my first college apartment didn’t have a dishwasher—I had no idea wooden boards needed to be oiled to keep from splitting.

So for a long time, I used these dry, cracked wooden boards, ignoring the idea of bacteria teeming from within. I sliced raw beef on the same board I’d use to chop spinach. I left the board sitting in the wet sink until my roommates and I had our weekly argument about whose turn it was to do the dishes.
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Eating Saigon 3.0: Love the Lunch Lady & hanging with my pops

For now, this is the last in my Saigon series, covering my most recent trip to HCMC in January. (Read about my eats from early July 2014 and late July 2014.) This time, as usual, I ate more street food, but I also ventured to less traditional places and had lunch outings with my pops, who has since moved back to Vietnam after retirement.
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Eating Saigon 2.0: So much crab, I got hives + one of my favorite street foods in Vietnam

Following my early July 2014 trip to Vietnam where I attended the KOTO fundraising gala, I returned to Saigon just a few weeks later to do another guest appearance on MasterChef Vietnam season 2 and work with the show’s sponsor, Knorr Vietnam. You know I can’t go to Vietnam without eating Saigon, so here’s what I had this time around.
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Eating Saigon 1.0: 3 different regions, 1 city in Vietnam

Happy new year (again)! In continuing the closer look we’re taking at Vietnamese traditions, like those of lunar new year, today I’m actually taking you back to Vietnam.

I was born in California and didn’t visit the country of my heritage until I was 18. It would be another 16 years after that first pilgrimage before I’d returned to Vietnam again. Consequently, this second trip was after MasterChef, and I was going to Vietnam to appear in the inaugural season of “MasterChef” Vietnam as a celebrity guest judge. Since then, I’ve been back to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City an additional three times, and on each trip, I eat to my stomach’s content.

Food in Vietnam, especially the “street food,”* is delicious and inexpensive—it’s my absolute favorite stuff to eat over there.

And so in the spirit of street food’s no frills, no nonsense attitude, I’ll get right down to business and deliver the goods.
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Eating NYC 2.3: Sushi Nakazawa


Created with flickr slideshow.

Chronologically preceding theMasterChef reunion spanning three generations and my first visit to the Bronx, here’s my final installment of my New York City 2.0 series. Upon touching down at Newark, I checked into my hotel, freshened up, met up two friends and my cousin, and headed straight to Sushi Nakazawa.

If you’ve ever seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you may recall Daisuke Nakazawa, the chef who, under the tutelage of sushi master Jiro, learned to perfect tamago, a beloved Japanese egg custard, but only after having prepared it 200 times.

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Eating NYC 2.2: My first visit to the Bronx


Created with flickr slideshow.

I know very little about the Bronx. Actually, I’ve never been outside Manhattan to any of the surrounding boroughs, with the exception of getting to and from LaGuardia airport and a couple of trips to Brooklyn. I only knew three things about the Bronx: (1) it had a zoo, (2) the Yankees play there, and (3) J. Lo is from the Bronx.

From what I’ve gathered from media over the years, I pictured the Bronx as home to the blue-collared working class. Tell me I’m not that far off…?

The thing about the working class is they are a no-bullsh*t type of people, which means their food is usually unpretentious, inexpensive, and flavorful.

Eating was, however, the secondary reason as to why I came to the Bronx in June. Danielle, founder of Global Pop-Up, asked me to visit the Lavelle School for the Blind to inspire the kids with a little talk and cooking demo. I’ve been so fortunate to be placed in such a position—to be able to inspire others towards unbound heights—so I accepted the invitation since I was in NYC already for the AFB 2014 HKAAs.
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Eating NYC 2.1: Fior di latte, raw baby octopus, and fish sauce cocktails


Created with flickr slideshow.

Even though I was in New York City this June for the AFB 2014 Helen Keller Achievement Awards, I made sure I set aside time for some good eaten’ since NYC is such a gastronomical destination. Because MasterChef season 4 winner Luca Manfé’s cookbook, My Italian Kitchen had just published, I also made it a point to meet up with Luca to get my copy signed and for a little MC reunion.

Luca set up an evening of cocktails and pizzas at Zio Ristorante, a bumpin’ Italian restaurant from his friend, also named Luca. (Who would’ve thought?) There I met Christine Silverstein and Elizabeth Cauvel from MasterChef season 5 (which was currently airing at the time). That’s right, three generations of MasterChef contestants getting together to eat and drink. I was also ecstatic to meet up with some familiar faces from crew: Perry, Trask, and JP, who were like my guardians during my sequestered time away at MC3. (Perry and Trask even refer to themselves as my MC3 “mom and dad”—they’ve seen all of us contestants at our best and our worst.)

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Eating Denver 1.0: My first key lime pie, lots of sausage, and tons of goat cheese

I was in Denver this summer at a fundraising gala for Phamaly Theatre Company, a theatre group giving those with various disabilities opportunities to take the stage. As a writer and graduate of University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, I am naturally a supporter of the arts and jumped at the chance to support the performing and musical arts for a group of people With special needs.

As a person with a disability, I have firsthand experience on what sort of a toll it takes on the self-esteem. Phamaly provides a way for those with disabilities to take center stage, helping raise self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-expression.

But enough about my soapbox for the day. Let’s move on to what I ate in Denver!

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Chromecast: How I get my TV on

Growing up, summer breaks were equated to a ton of TV time. I had no siblings, so my summer companions were LeVar Burton at ”Reading Rainbow” at 9 AM, Jon Baker and the Ponch from ”CHiPs” at 10 AM, and Woody Woodpecker and Looney Tunes in the afternoon. (Mid-day TV always sucked, as soap operas and “People’s Court” didn’t appeal to my nine-year-old self.)

As an adult, the summer break is a sentimental thing of the past (unless, of course, you’re a teacher, which I am not). But that doesn’t mean I don’t get my TV on.

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