Aalto Restaurant’s Chef-Patron Jimmy Garside Loves To Cook, Smoke, Cure, Ferment And Eat

Jimmy Garside Aalto Saigon

Cannonball Adderley spitting rolling, melodic bebop lines. Clyfford Still daubing jagged, flaming red and yellow abstract shapes into his canvas. The name, Aalto, conjures up jazz solos and vivid abstract art. “What would my food sound like as a song?” Jimmy Garside, Aalto Restaurant in Saigon chef-patron, wonders, “something funky, cool, upbeat and fun. There’s a Swedish band called Goat that I’m into right now, and their eclectic music takes the best bits from everything. So…something like that.” 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Manchester-born Jimmy Garside looks a bit like Post Malone (according to our team) and a bit like Action Bronson (according to his wife). “I’ve occasionally been likened to Gordon Ramsey too, but more for my foul British mouth than for my looks,” he laughs. 

Jimmy Garside with Aalto sign
Jimmy Garside at the entrance to Aalto Restaurant on Thao Dien’s Tran Ngoc Dien Street.

Inside Aalto, the rustic wooden ceiling beams are painted Clyfford Still yellow and there’s framed abstract drawings and paintings on the wall and Mondrian squares of lighting, but elsewhere it’s less Cannonball Adderley and more Manolis Mikelis, the Greek jazz legend who played piano in clubs from Beirut to Barcelona in the 60s – there’s Mediterranean stucco walls and arched floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a Greek patio out back. And the opening menu “that’ll be constantly evolving” includes Southern European and Middle Eastern saffron and labne, hummus and almonds.  

Aalto and Jimmy with housemade fermented sodas
Chef Jimmy Garside with some of Aalto’s house-made, fermented sodas.

Reputation Isn’t Everything 

But the menu owes a lot to Jimmy’s experiences in kitchens in Australia, and to growing up the son of two amazing cooks in England, a country he admits has “a bad rep for food.” 

Jimmy remembers his dad skinning rabbits and filleting trout and his Austrian-Polish mum “who was a bit more of a hippy traveler” making spiced tagines, sauerkraut and sausage, and coq au vin while Motown blasted out of the radio. 

Truffle shaving at Aalto
Aalto Restaurant’s Ricotta and Pumpkin Rotolo With Sage And Hazelnut…and truffle shavings.

Getting Schooled In Sydney

By 21, Jimmy Garside was head chef at family-run Reubin Stubbs in Congleton, Cheshire. His rapid ascent had provoked a bit of overconfidence. “I really thought I knew it all,” he says lifting off his Ralph Lauren cap and rubbing his shaved head in consternation at the memory. 

Sometime later, he found himself at Sydney’s The Apollo with Jonathan Barthelmess – his first job in Australia. And it was a revelation. “We made produce-driven food and we were cooking over wood and charcoal,” he remembers. There was something special about the kitchen culture there too. “It didn’t click at the time, but looking back it proved you can operate a kitchen successfully by making people happy…and not riding them to breaking point.” And sometime after that, there was Mary’s Underground, also in Sydney, where Jimmy learnt that developing a concept meant losing the ego. “Well, not everything works, and you’re not always right,” he smiles.

He’d been planning to start a project in Bali, when his friend, James Brown, who was designing Aalto, reached out and suggested he come to Vietnam to work with the Hylo group. So he did. “I’m not sure about destiny,” he muses, “it’s more about luck and timing. I’m a big believer in making your own destiny by working hard and making the right decisions.” 

Ricotta and pumpkin rotolo
Aalto’s shared table full of bread just out of the oven and dips and pickles, and dishes like Jimmy’s blood cake and squid, and ricotta and pumpkin rotolo.

Aalto Restaurant’s Big Flavored Cuisine Is Full Of Contrasts 

His food is also incredibly big on flavor, with lots of fun contrasts of land and sea, and different temperatures and textures. “Overall, I’d say we’re closest to a casual Aussie dining experience with good wines, an interesting and ever-changing menu with some solid specials and dishes that rely heavily on local produce,” Jimmy Garside explains. 

A moment’s respite after a chaotic first week at Aalto Restaurant.

Like an alto sax solo it arrives in cascades and bursts – a dusted mussel on a potato raft leaking labne and a volcanic ricotta and pumpkin rotolo spewing hazelnuts and billowing truffle smoke; a round patty of purple blood cake with a Medusa’s hair of squid and a peri peri chicken as smoky as a Salford working men’s club, and done up like a Peking duck.

“I really like tasting as much as possible on a restaurant’s menu,” Jimmy says. It’s something you can do easily at Aalto Restaurant with way more snacks and small plates – deviled eggs with caviar and dill and roast pumpkin on blackened chili – than large plates like their whopping 1kg lobster with (more) caviar and finger lime, and their shrimp and seaweed butter. 

“If I wasn’t cooking I’d be propping up the bar – good bar seating like Aalto’s is a must – and ordering the fresh flat breads just out of the oven with dips and pickles, then grazing through the rest with a few Negronis and some bottles of natty wine,” Chef Jimmy Garside nods.

blood cake, squid, salsa verde
Aalto’s Blood Cake, Squid and Salsa Verde.

Plating With Purpose At Aalto Restaurant 

All the dishes come with eye-catching but fuss-free plating. “I love to cook, smoke, cure, ferment and eat,” Jimmy says, “and it’s not that I don’t like decoration, but what I would describe as decorative would also be purposeful – a lemon cheek, a herb oil or a dusting of sumac are all amazing garnishes, which all bring a lot to a dish too. I don’t like micro herbs, flowers you can’t eat, anything that requires tweezers…and truffle oil.”

“You can operate a kitchen successfully by making people happy.”

And, like Action Bronson himself might say if he visited Aalto Restaurant and tasted first hand his lookalike’s (according to Jimmy’s wife) incredibly flavorsome wood oven-fired dishes inspired by his mum and dad in Manchester, and the restaurants he worked in in Australia like The Apollo and Mary’s Underground: “Fuck, that’s delicious.”

Photos by Nghia Ngo.

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