3 Vietnamese Bar-Chefs Who Take A Culinary Approach To Their Cocktails

Vietnamese bar-chefs

There’s an obvious relationship between bar and kitchen. Between cocktails and cuisine. And, inevitably for related industries, there’s a drift of bartenders becoming chefs, and kitchen talent taking the opposite career trajectory. We set out in search of 3 Vietnamese bar-chefs who take a culinary approach to their cocktails.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

First up, ‘Rex’ Hoang Duy has had a 15-year career as a bartender, with the highlight coming in 2015 when he won the prestigious DIAGEO World Class Vietnam competition. But exhausted by battling to the top of the Saigon bar scene, Rex moved to Dalat. There he opened the hidden cocktail bar Fox’s Den. And, more recently, Chill Chill Eatery, where he works directly with his chefs to create new dishes and drinks. 

For Tom Nguyen, it all began with a desire to cook. And a struggle to pay his tuition fees. So, Tom put his last remaining savings into a bartending crash course. Then, he dived into the deep end of Saigon’s bar scene. Fortunately, there he came across ‘Rex’ Hoang Duy and became his student. Today, according to Rex, Tom Nguyen is the bartender who best combines the twin attributes of bartender and chef. But his culinary influence comes from the delicate art of the pastry chef, a combination you can discover in Hanoi, because Tom Nguyen is currently headbar-pastry barchef at Funtasia Cocktail & Winebar on Tong Dan Street while also running Tovi De Tarte bakery.

In truth, Trung Nguyen never found studying fellow bartenders very informative. So, starting out, he preferred to watch YouTube videos…of cooking shows. Perhaps it was his mom’s cooking that peaked his interest. Or a love of street food. Either way, these days that passion manifests in the cocktails he makes. They’re drinks with rich umami flavors. In recognition, in 2018, Trung Nguyen was runner-up at the Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin competition. After a brief sojourn into the restaurant business with two places in District 11, right now Trung is the general manager of 444 – Cocktail Lovers and Don Quixote, both in Dalat. 

Bartender Trung Nguyen 444 Cocktail Lovers and Don Quixote Dalat
About two years after becoming a bartender, I realized there’s no going back!” – Trung Nguyen

When did you start incorporating culinary ideas into your cocktails?

Trung Nguyen: About two years after becoming a bartender, I realized there’s no going back! With my brain immersed in the art of the cocktail, suddenly everything I consumed took on additional meaning. Every bite of food or sip of drink reminded me of something else. I’ll give you an example. One time, I was eating sour soup, and immediately the flavor made me think of a cocktail with lychee and dry gin. Since that moment, I’m constantly fusing cocktails and cuisine in some way. 

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: It happened very naturally for me. But the funny thing is, I’m a bartender, but if I drink even a small amount, I get a red face, and cold sweats and feel dizzy! Maybe that’s surprising. But I feel lucky. My body’s adverse reaction to alcohol means I have a different relationship to it. 

One time, at the end of September 2015, I was in Cape Town, South Africa to attend a whiskey tasting and pairing session. I remember the moment very clearly. I tasted a shot of Bulleit Rye Whiskey that came with chocolate cake, macadamia nuts, golden berries, and a jam made from lemon zest. And we had very clear instructions: sip some of the whiskey, listen to the introduction to the flavors contained within, and then eat a bit of cake, before taking a second sip. The whiskey lost its acidity. Its spiciness became lighter. And it was a little bit sour, sweet and crisp. Perfection. 

And that, of course, made me excited and curious. 

I liked how the food and the drink interacted with each other. And gradually, reliving that sensation became a hobby, and a passion. And it’s fun. Since then, I’ve watched countless cooking videos and I’ve read countless books to find new ingredients, and to help me apply cooking techniques to drinks in different ways, and vice versa.

Rex Hoang Duy The Rex cocktail
‘Rex’ Hoang Duy’s ‘The Rex’ cocktail, a drink “indebted to cooking and flavor combinations taken from the kitchen.” 

Tell us a good example of cuisine helping to produce a good cocktail?

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: Jam is a good example. It’s a simple mix of sugar and fruit. Then, there’s three commonly used techniques: dehydration, fermentation, and infusion. Dehydration preserves texture, and changes texture – juicy ingredients become crispy. Fermentation incorporates helpful bacteria to enhance flavor. And infusion uses heat to extract flavor. 

I employed all of those techniques for a drink I called ‘The Rex’ – it was the first drink I’d perfected, and it took over two-and-a-half years. The drink is served in a large round glass. Inside is Ciroc Vodka, soaked in cinnamon, Chambord black raspberry liqueur, lychee and fermented lemon. 

Then, I put oak-wood smoke into a cloche under which I placed the drink, rotating the glass jar to bring the drink’s surface into even contact with the smoke. And I served it with a piece of dried green apple, a little blackberry jam cooked with ginger, some yellow lemon zest and a rosemary leaf. 

With the first sip, you’re hit with the powerful smoky aroma and the taste of the cinnamon. Then you eat the slightly acidic apple, allowing all those flavors to coat the palate. With the second sip, you’ll find the flavors of cinnamon and smoke softened by the blackberry and ginger jam, and smoothed by the rosemary, lychee and lemon. All that, for me, is completely indebted to cooking and flavor combinations taken from the kitchen. 

Tom Nguyen: My ‘Hành Ký Của Cây’ or ‘Plant’s Diary’ shows my pastry-chef-meets-bartender style. The inspiration for it was the laws of nature and the life cycle of plants. Seeds make trees. Trees produce fruit. And fruit contains the seeds that begin the cycle again. 

Inside, is brown butter. It’s made the way French pastry chefs do it by boiling unsalted butter with a high fat, to brown it. 

Once that’s done, I fat wash rye whiskey with it. Then, I poach Asian pears in red wine. After that, I add spearmint, clovers, and fragrant roasted cinnamon, and boil them in the wine for a couple of minutes before removing them and reducing the liquid. I put the blanched pears back in and leave them to soak in the refrigerator overnight. 

That makes the pears release their sweetness, as they absorb the acidity from the wine. Then I add the brown butter back in to finish the cocktail. And for garnish, I turn the left-over pear into a candy, to decorate the glass. 

Plant life cycle cocktail
Tom Nguyen’s ‘Hành Ký Của Cây’ or ‘Plant’s Diary.’

What advantages do you think you have over bartenders who focus only on their cocktails, without taking in influences from cuisine?

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: I don’t think any of us would disparage the work of other bartenders. There’s lots of approaches to creating great drinks. And a diverse array of influences to explore. But, for me, culinary influences give me a broader palette to create with. 

Trung Nguyen: It’s a double-hit of learning – absorbing knowledge from the kitchen and the cocktail bar. There’s a lot to take in, and it can be quite complex, especially for a novice. 

That challenging aspect is also one of its strengths. At first, you’re looking up at this unscalable and imposing mountain of knowledge. But, just like climbing a mountain, the ascent is slow but valuable and the knowledge is hard-earned. And at the summit, you’ll have developed a very distinct identity. 

Does combining culinary techniques and bartending always work?

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: Definitely not. I’ve personally failed a lot. Often, the ingredients you thought would work just don’t. For example, I once attempted a foie gras grenache using smoked jackfruit whiskey. The grenache didn’t set in the freezer. And the taste of the jackfruit, plus the smell of smoke, and the taste of foie gras amounted to about 30% of what I hoped. But failure prefigures success. 

Tom Nguyen: Failure is normal. It happens in pastries and in cocktails. A little like Rex, the issue is usually that the ingredients don’t complement each other as I’d hoped. 

World Class Winner Rex Hoang Duy
“Culinary influences give me a broader palette to create with.” – ‘Rex’ Hoang Duy

Are there any major milestones marking a change or breakthrough in your career?

Trung Nguyen: For me, it happened in Istanbul, Turkey, in the world finals of the Ophir competition. I got to meet many champions from their respective countries around the world. And the judges were all world top ten bartenders. Still, I felt confident that my culinary knowledge would give me something extra to bring to the table. But I was shocked to discover that the other eight finalists had an even better knowledge of culinary techniques than me. It was humbling. But that feeling was so motivating for me. 

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: I would pick two personal milestones. The first was when I worked at Saigon’s Urban Kitchen + Bar. There, I had the freedom to create. And I was surrounded by passionate people. 

The second milestone was competing in the DIAGEO World Class Cocktail Competition. I was fortunate to win the Vietnam round. That meant I would represent my country in the international final.  I can’t tell you how much I learned. And it reminded me about the importance of following my passion and where it could lead me. 

Do you cook at home? And what’s your specialty?

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: I cook a lot, for family and friends! What I make depends on the occasion. And the location. Mostly, I make uncomplicated and honest comfort food. 

Trung Nguyen: I cook just about every day. I love grilled dishes. That way of cooking preserves so much flavor. To those I’ll add a range of dipping sauces. And, I do love red meat. Some days I’ll add a chimichurri sauce from Argentina, other days I’ll make a Turkish roasted garlic and fig sauce. Besides having a varied and satisfying taste, making these sauces is my way of traveling the world without leaving my house. 

Tom Nguyen: I know my limitations. I make good cakes. If I do try to cook something, it will be something savory, and probably a fusion of different cuisines. 

If you could start all over again, would you prefer to be a chef and not a bartender? Or would you ever change jobs and become a chef?

Tom Nguyen: I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. I simply want to learn more, and I’m receptive to whatever direction that takes me – whether as a cook, a bartender, or whatever. 

Trung Nguyen: At this point, the bar and the kitchen are so closely connected to what I do, that it doesn’t really matter. I do this, primarily, to watch my guests and my loved ones become satisfied by what they’re consuming. That’s all I need. 

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: Fate made me become a bartender. Although I’ve learnt a lot from the kitchen, I feel lucky to have found my vocation in life, and I won’t be changing – I take pride in what I do as a bartender and I genuinely love it.

Tom Alexander is a bar-chef
Tom Nguyen at Funtasia Cocktail & Winebar on Tong Dan Street, Hanoi.

Can you name a bartender influenced by cuisine who you really admire?

Tom Nguyen: Frankie Solarik. He’s the author of ‘The Bar Chef’ and he’s the co-owner of BarChef in Toronto, Canada. BarChef was chosen by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the top seven most innovative bars in the world. And The New York Times dubbed him ‘The Legendary Experimenter.’

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: Two people have inspired me since the start. There’s Volker Seiberts, from Barkeeper, and Marian Beke, owner of The Gibson Bar.

Trung Nguyen: Chef Claus Meyer. He’s co-founder of Noma, and he’s considered the creator of ‘The Nordic Kitchen Manifesto.’

Last question. What do you have planned for 2023?

Tom Nguyen: My plan is to keep on along this path. And to keep learning. 

Trung Nguyen: In 2023, I’m going to make time for personal projects. That includes supporting young people to access this industry more easily. 

‘Rex’ Hoang Duy: Go to more places. Discover more ingredients. Spend more time researching. Besides that, I have a new restaurant coming to Dalat. It’s a project I’ve been working on since 2021. 

Nghiem Minh Duc is the Executive Chef at Nous Dine. He’s also a culinary consultant and author and writer.

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