Chef Nai Kang Kuan ’02, Culinary Ninja

Nai Kang Kuan '02 Executive Chef Morimoto Napa
Nai Kang Kuan ’02, Culinary Ninja, Tyson Innovation Lab

CIA Alumni Bio

Nai Kang Kuan was born on July 1, 1973 in the city of Taipei. He lived a happy but unremarkable childhood until he immigrated to the United States with his mom and an Italian heritage stepfather when he was 12 years old. It was a huge cultural shock to not only move to the upscale town of Brentwood, CA, but to live next door to the house in which Marilyn Monroe died.

Taipei to Brentwood

Chef Kang was introduced to international cuisine at a young age—his first Christmas meal in his new home was bacalao (salt cod), pine nuts, raisins, and oil cured olives in a tomato sauce. He spent much of his teenage years helping his stepfather remodel the house as well as doing chores on the family farm in the Napa Valley. Some of these chores were nothing more than jobs…digging, pruning, and moving rocks. But there were many other chores that became life lessons, such as rebuilding the engine of the resident farm vehicle, a red 64 Jeep, and the slaughtering and butchering of six Angus steers.

A Hobby Turns into a Career

After graduating from Pacific Palisades high school in 1991, Chef Kang attended the University of California Riverside, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Soil Science in 1996. He then moved to Cincinnati, OH to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Medicine. But he was an indifferent student, making average grades in high school and college. It wasn’t until grad school that he faced real academic challenge and realized he was spending more time outside of the laboratory instead of in it. This realization inspired him to turn to his long-time hobby, cooking.

After working in many restaurants in Cincinnati and Ontario, Canada, he enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America, where he met his future wife on day one, and went on to a restaurant fellowship after graduation. He has worked for Certified Master Chef Rudy Speckemp in Baltimore, MD, and for Fabio Trabocchi at The Ritz-Carlton, Tyson’s Corner in McLean, VA. With Chef Trabocchi’s encouragement and support, Kang moved on to The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, and worked for Thomas Keller, Cory Lee, and Tim Hollingsworth. During his five-year tenure at The French Laundry, he rose through the ranks from commis to sous chef.

From the Kitchen to Research

In October 2010, Chef Kang was invited by Jeffrey Lunak, the opening chef of Morimoto Napa, to join the Morimoto team. In 2014, Chef Kang joined Tyson Foods as the executive research chef. Three years later, Chef Kang was a founding member of the Tyson Innovation Lab.

His philosophy in the kitchen is simple but profound: “I would like to think that when we cook for passion instead of for a living, when we transcend from the obligations of a job to the fulfillment of a dream, we will do amazing work.”

Chef Nai Kang Kuan majored in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the culinary ninja at Tyson Innovation Lab in Chicago, IL.