3 Sous Chefs Making Modern Vietnamese Cuisine With The Masters

Chefs come with fearsome reputations. From Gordan Ramsey’s blistering take downs of failing restaurants to Anthony Bourdain lifting the lid (pun intended) on the simmering tensions in the kitchens of NYC, popular culture paints restaurants as tough places to work. Entry-level positions in restaurants can provide a ruthless right of passage into the profession. But stick around long enough, and you might graduate to sous chef or to become the same kind of head chef you once revered.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

In this, the second in our series highlighting the work of the chef’s right hand man (or woman), we explore what it’s like supporting chefs with illustrious reputations working in restaurants at the vanguard of modern Vietnamese cuisine: Anan Saigon, East by Ngo Thanh Hoa and Nous Dine.

Anan Saigon was named best restaurant in Vietnam by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2021. The restaurant, whose name means ‘eat, eat,’ is located in the middle of a wet market, and its dishes are inspired by the indefatigable ladies working on the stalls outside. However, contrary to expectations, at Anan Saigon there’s no white table cloths and fussy fine dining touches. Here, in the cramped open kitchen, the team, working under chef-founder Peter Cuong Franklin, serve a packed house nightly in unrelentingly intense dinner services. And Anan Saigon’s sous chef, Lan Anh, is only 23-years-old. 

Chef Ngo Thanh Hoa understands the tough trajectory required to make it to the top in restaurants. He worked as a dishwasher in Australia before gradually, through a series of promotions, working his way up to the dizzying title of Master Chef. At his newly opened 30-seat restaurant, East by Ngo Thanh Hoa, he’s serving contemporary Vietnamese cuisine infused with modern culinary techniques. Sous chef Trong Tu first met Ngo Thanh Hoa at an event. And that meeting led to Trong Tu enthusiastically joining the East project.

Nous Dine is doing things differently. Its chef, Nghiem Minh Duc, worked in Australia in famous restaurants like Nobu and Cumulus Inc. And at Nous Dine, which he joined in mid-2022, in its 10-seat space, he’s pioneering the idea of capsule dining. Around an intimate counter, the menu, which changes every couple of months, features incredibly creative touches – stock warmed in a Japanese coffee siphon, a mini-brazier to bake bread for banh mi – and each course comes with a detailed exposition of its inspirations and meaning. Nous Dine’s sous chef, Quoc Sinh, worked at Capricciosa and Jardin des Sens. Still only 25-years-old, he’s embraced the challenge of creating modern Vietnamese cuisine at Nous Dine alongside Nghiem Minh Duc. 

Chef Ngo Thanh Hoa with sous chef Trong Tu at East by Ngo Thanh Hoa.

What made you want to work at the restaurant you’ve joined?

Quoc Sinh: The restaurant landscape is definitely richer than ever in Saigon. So, as chefs we have more options too. I gravitated towards Nous Dine because it’s more experiential – an evening at Nous is more than simply dinner. It’s a chance to see, hear, and maybe even learn something about Vietnamese cuisine and culture, and the chef’s journey. 

Each seasonally-changing menu has a topic that Chef Nghiem Minh Duc decides upon. So far, they’ve included ‘Food from movies’ and ‘Tea and flowers.’ Once committed to an idea, we’ll research it deeply and then experiment by tying our ideas into Vietnamese cuisine. The process is incredibly exciting. It creates a spirit of self-study and solidarity. All the members of the team get to unleash their creativity. And, importantly, everyone’s ideas are recognized. 

Lan Anh: For me, it began with a sincere love of Vietnamese cuisine – especially traditional dishes. So, when I heard Anan Saigon was recruiting kitchen staff, I applied immediately. I was really intrigued how this restaurant could be taking staples of our national cuisine and evolving them.

Trong Tu: I guess I was looking for a modern kitchen to work in, preferably an open kitchen, where we would get to see, and interact with guests. Added that was a chance to work with Ngo Thanh Hoa at East. I wanted to learn from him; learn how he develops and creates dishes imbued with his 20-years in the industry. 

“The challenge they set me was to come to Nous and prepare two dishes – one salty and one sweet.” Quoc Sinh

And, how was the application process?

Trong Tu: Of course, I knew Ngo Thanh Hoa by reputation – he’s widely seen as a pioneer in modern Vietnamese cuisine. Then, I met him at a party! So, we started collaborating on a trial basis and I think we both felt there was a good fit. The rest is history.

Lan Anh: Anan Saigon’s signatures include Dalat pizza – a grilled circle of rice paper loaded with ingredients – spring rolls, and crab fried rice. To get the position I had to make all three. And, I had to get Peter’s approval while doing it! I remember how carefully he watched me, checking both my ability and the quality of each dish. I left nervously, not really knowing how I’d done. And then, finally, the next day, I got the news – I’d been selected to be sous chef at Anan Saigon.

Quoc Sinh: My experience was similar to Lan Anh’s. I’d applied to Nous Dine to be chef. And the challenge they set me was to come to Nous and prepare two dishes – one salty and one sweet. Before that, in the places I’d worked, I’d just prepare recipes as instructed. No need to think or be creative and now I had to come up with two different dishes. It was stressful. After lots of thought, I took a risk and opted for two completely new dishes – duck breast with tapioca puree and curry sauce and a lychee panna-cotta with whiskey jelly. 

Chef Duc and the restaurant’s manager tried them. And, after some deliberation, they offered me the position of chef. A year later, after lots of hard work, I was promoted to sous chef. 

“Modern Vietnamese cuisine can help shine a light on the diversity of our food.” – Trong Tu

Anan Saigon, East by Ngo Thanh Hoa and Nous Dine are all doing exciting things at the vanguard of Vietnamese cuisine. What are your personal feelings on modernizing Vietnamese food?

Quoc Sinh: Oh, it’s always been a goal of mine to help put Vietnamese cuisine on the world map. I think it’s so critical, for two reasons. First, for foreigners, modern techniques and some cross-pollination of flavors might help the food to be more familiar to them. And that might be an entry point for them to fall in love with Vietnamese food. And secondly, for Vietnamese people we might become so accustomed to our food, that modernizing it helps us to view it in a new light. And maybe, to value it even more. 

Trong Tu: Despite global trends around food, modern Vietnamese cuisine is still quite rare. Added to that, lots of people still only know our cuisine because of pho and banh mi, and modern Vietnamese cuisine can help shine a light on the diversity of our food. It’s definitely a trend I expect to see grow more and more. 

Lan Anh: Everything changes. Society has been through such seismic shifts, but food often resolutely stays the same – or as close to the original as we can get. So, I think modernization is a way of accepting the reality of our changing world. And embracing it. 

“Stepping into Peter Cuong Franklin’s kitchen was daunting.” – Lan Anh

OK, real talk. How is it working with these formidable chefs?

Trong Tu: Working with a renowned chef comes with pressure. Rightfully, Ngo Thanh Hoa is meticulous. He’s obsessed with making everything as good as it possibly can be. But that’s what I want – I want to feel the pressure to constantly do better and be better. 

Lan Anh: Oh, me too. Stepping into Peter Cuong Franklin’s kitchen was daunting. It’s not simply cooking. There’s the need to communicate, differences in personality and ways of thinking and much more. Thankfully, it didn’t last long. I quickly got used to the workflow. And it no longer felt like pressure – it began to feel like a wonderful challenge that I had to pass in order to improve. 

I have the same feeling as Trung Tu. Only the best is good enough for Peter. And it’s the work of the kitchen to bring it to the plate again and again and again. No exceptions. Chef Peter is there along the way with guidance and always with a word of appreciation…when we deserve one. 

How about memorable moments in your kitchen? 

Trong Tu: Honestly? I haven’t worked with Chef Hoa for too long. But, I do remember that time before the lockdown in Saigon. Everyone had to flip. We had to develop takeout menus and concepts quickly. Relationships forged in that kind of fire last for a long time. 

Quoc Sinh: Alright, I’m going to be honest. In those early days in the kitchen, like a lot of chefs I know, I wanted to prove myself. Maybe too much. As a young chef, or an inexperienced guy in any industry, there’s a temptation to try to impress your seniors that’s greater, sometimes, than the need to develop your skills. And that’s wrong. Because of that, I didn’t do things well enough, I rushed around too much, and paid too little attention to the task in hand – in kitchens that’s dangerous. And I learnt from that. 

Lan Anh: I’m here to learn. So, for me, it’s not about having a boss – like Peter Cuong Franklin – it’s about finding someone you can learn from. He’s that person. I view this profession I’ve embraced as a lifetime project, and being connected to and having the chance to work with Peter is an incredible early milestone. 

“As a young chef, or an inexperienced guy in any industry, there’s a temptation to try to impress your seniors that’s greater, sometimes, than the need to develop your skills.” – Quoc Sinh

Finally, what do you need to improve to reach the next level?

Quoc Sinh: I could definitely develop my soft skills. And I want to learn to plan and organize kitchens better.

Trong Tu: I want to learn more languages, and I want to learn more about regional cuisines both here and abroad – maybe those two goals are connected! In terms of my cooking, I want to be more creative and explore combinations of different spices and different ingredients. And I’d like to work on new Vietnamese-style desserts…

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