Akuna Restaurant’s Sam Aisbett Is Going With The Flow

Sam Aisbett in Saigon

Sam Aisbett’s Akuna Restaurant has opened to great excitement. That’s because in January 2016 Sam became chef-owner of the modern-Australian restaurant Whitegrass in Singapore. And the accolades followed.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

But, in 2018, he suddenly left. Now, all that’s in the rearview. Reinvigorated by the swirl of Saigon, Sam Aisbett’s back, and, like the restaurant’s name, Akuna, an Australian Aboriginal word meaning ‘flowing water,’ the food is at the same time complex but carefree, or, as Sam calls it, ‘cooking without boundaries.’

Sam had been playing around with the concept for Akuna Restaurant for a while – a place to “expect the unexpected.” He was even considering opening it back in Singapore before this opportunity arose in Saigon.

Akuna Restaurant's dining room
Inside Akuna Restaurant in Le Meridien Saigon. [Image courtesy of Akuna Restaurant]

Going With The Flow At Akuna Restaurant

So, to the space on the 9th floor of Le Meridien Saigon that had already been furnished and earmarked as a 140-seat chef’s table concept, he stripped back the number of seats to a more intimate 45. And, among the renovations he requested, he added a swirl of suspended glass decorations around the central kitchen to imitate the flow of water, like the name Akuna itself.

Although Sam claims to have tempered some of the OCD that had him fretting over the tiny details at Whitegrass, you wouldn’t know. The dishes are so delightfully decorative, it’s gratifying to discover they taste so good too – like sticking out your tongue and discovering that snowflakes taste sensational. 

Chef Sam Aisbett interview
Sam Aisbett at Akuna Restaurant. “I try so hard to do the opposite [of what everyone else is doing].”

A Place Where People Want To Come To Work

Sam Aibsett says he gets a lot of that from Quay Restaurant Sydney’s Peter Gilmore. “Peter must have won every accolade going,” Sam says approvingly. He’d layer dishes and play with textures the way Sam stlll does now. “I mean, of course, he’s my mentor,” Sam accepts.

“Plus, Peter Gilmore would have these ideas,” Sam recalls, still in awe. “He’d just come up with stuff. He made one dish, with sea pearls – these little balls, all to do with the sea.” 

The story goes that Peter drove past the Australian Museum in Sydney and saw “a great big poster” for an exhibition about pearls that showed how varied they were. The complex dish it inspired started off as a collection of flavors and textures – using sashimi, caviar, sea scallops, smoked eel, mud crab and abalone – that he reformed into clusters of ‘pearls.’

But in case all that delicacy and precision at Quay – one chef was solely tasked with putting the complex Sea Pearls dish together every day – suggests a small-scale operation, that’s not the case. “He’s a beast,” Sam adds. “Forty chefs. Probably bigger now. You’d do 100 covers for lunch. And another 100 for dinner.”

Peter was a calm presence too. “I never once heard him raise his voice,” Sam recalls. And that’s something he’s trying to emulate at Akuna where he “wants to create a place where people want to come to work.”

Composing a dish with Sam Aisbett
Sam Aisbett with his striped amberjack dish at Akuna Restaurant. “I’m in a phase now where I like neutral colors – browns and whites. And I layer stuff.”

Working Under “A One In A Million Chef” 

The balance of flavors in the dishes at Akuna Restaurant also owes a lot to Tetsuya Wakuda, “a one in a million chef” as Sam describes him. Although working with Tetsuya offered a different experience to Sam’s time with Peter and Quay: cold, stern and “once you left you were nothing to him.”

But still, Sam’s mostly full of praise. “Tetsuya Wakuda probably has the best palate of any chef I’ve ever known,” he decides. “We had a sauce with foie gras and crab. I’d make it every day. I thought it was bang on.” Although he wasn’t at Sydney’s Tetsuya Restaurant all the time, when Tetsuya Wakuda was there he’d test things. “I pictured him coming in and trying my sauce and thinking I’m a legend.”

Instead, Sam remembers the chef shaking his head “in that non-committal Japanese way” making some “mmm” and “ahh” noises, before playing around with the sauce by adding this and that. “I tasted it. And that’s when I got it. What a chef. He really taught me to train my palate. To know about umami flavors and lots of other things besides.”

Chef Sam Aisbett is going with the flow
“You know what it is? I get bored just like that,” Sam says, clicking his fingers.

A Timely Break

So, when he opened Whitegrass, the recognition came quickly – a MICHELIN star in 2017 (and again the following year) and a foot in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018 at #50.  

But Sam had fallen out of love with the restaurant already. “You know what it is? I get bored just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers for effect. He’s visited the decision before – why he left his Whitegrass restaurant in Singapore in 2018.

It comes up in interviews a lot. Especially lately, now that Sam has opened his first restaurant in five years.

“Whitegrass was in this heritage building,” he remembers. “It was stunning – the second oldest building in Singapore.” And by the end, “the restaurant, with 50 seats, was finally fully booked for lunch and dinner everyday.”

So, he quit to the sound of everyone around him reminding him he’d made it. And that the Asia’s 50 Best announcement and the MICHELIN star were just the start. “But, I didn’t care. I was like f&ck it. I’m moving.”

It turned out to be a timely break. He went home to Australia, spending time with family and old friends. He went to Thailand. And ate everything. And then, when the pandemic hit, he didn’t have the burden of a restaurant to continue to run.

David Blackmore full-blood Wagyu beef at Akuna Restaurant
“I do plate in a certain way,” Sam Aisbett says about dishes like this, his David Blackmore full-blood Wagyu beef. [Image courtesy of Akuna Restaurant]

The Scary One 

There’s an accumulated wisdom and a calmness about Sam that comes with experience, and from simply growing older, these days. “I have calmed down a lot,” he agrees. 

He’s often learned the hard way – like the time he was a judge on a Masterchef-style TV show in Singapore. “I was the scary one because I was the MICHELIN-star chef beside two other judges: a restaurateur and a more casual chef.”

“So, we did some short promo videos. In one, I off-handedly described chicken rice as ‘a simple dish.’ And the backlash!” 

But he’s still willing to go in at the deep end some more. “I want to do a show where we go to restaurants and take over. When you get to the level I’m at in my career, you don’t get to really cook much anymore. Throw me into a busy fish and chip shop and watch me drown!” he pleads.  

On the subject of TV shows about cooking, he feels recent depictions, like The Bear or The Menu, while exaggerated, are reasonably accurate. 

“I think The Menu was good. I think they got Dominique Crenn to do the food and at that level that’s kind of how restaurants run. Obviously, you don’t kill people…but maybe you want to.”

He understands the against-the-odds energy of The Bear too, where the protagonist, Carmy, tries to turn his family ailing sandwich shop around. “I mean, it is rough like it is in The Bear. I can relate to it. You don’t have any money. You’re working your ass off. You’re either busy or you’re dead. Everyone’s swearing. And they hate you. And that’s just your life. It’s madness really,” he shrugs. 

It was like that for a while, before Quay and before Tetsuya. He had a combi van. And he’d drive up and down the Gold Coast and work shifts wherever he could pick them up. “I was a bit of a hippy,” he admits. “And I’d have all these parking fines in different places for sleeping in the van.”

Chef Sam Aisbett's tattoos
“It is rough. I can relate to it. You don’t have any money. You’re working your ass off….And that’s just your life.” Sam remembers about his formative years in the industry.

“It’s getting harder to be creative.”

But, despite the present peace of mind, he does still wrestle with questions of creativity and culture. 

“It’s getting harder to be creative,” Sam acknowledges. “It really is so hard to be original these days because you see so much, on Instagram for example. And, maybe unintentionally, you copy it because it’s in your head. So, I consciously try to do the opposite.”

Calmer days for chef Sam Aisbett
“I guess I’m trying to be a bit more Zen.”

He does have rules for composing a dish. Visitors from Singapore who know Sam’s cooking have said they recognize it at Akuna immediately just from how it looks. “I do plate in a certain way,” he accepts. “And I’m in a phase now where I like neutral colors – lots of browns and whites. I like to layer stuff. But I don’t use smoke. And I don’t add purees. I have thought, sometimes, that I’d add a puree to a dish. Then I look at it and it’s so tacky. I guess I’m trying to be a bit more Zen.”  

And he still works with the same artist who designed the menu at Whitegrass. At Akuna, the menu comes in an envelope. There are holes cut into it that reveal the illustrations of the main ingredients — an aggressive-looking crocodile, a goose, a striped amberjack, a David Blackmore full-blood cow, and a bar of chocolate — on the menu that’s inside. At Whitegrass, he says, it was only pictures. Here, when you pull out the menu they’ve added the ingredients.

“The guy that makes them is from Colombia, but he’s based in Germany. But I first met him in Sydney. His name’s Rodrigo Hernandez. He’s an eccentric artist. I’ll send him a picture of a crocodile and two days later he’ll send me back something.” 

Akuna Restaurant’s Rose & Lychee, with a frozen lychee souffle, rose meringue, rose apple jelly. [Image courtesy of Akuna Restaurant]

The Other Way Around 

He’s not sure what to call his cuisine any more either. “I’m a bit wary of the modern Australian moniker now,” he explains. “If you say you’re modern Australian, people think you’re a steakhouse or something. But look at me. What else can I say? I am mod-oz!” he says laughing again.

There are a few giveaways about his roots on the menu too. There’s the Australian octopus. And there’s the crocodile that he uses from tail to tongue – although this one is sourced from nearby Hoa Ca Farm.

Sam Aisbett in an old building in Saigon
In Saigon, Sam Aisbett’s: “Using Vietnamese produce and showcasing some Australian stuff alongside it.”

Plus, there’s the David Blackmore full-blood Wagyu beef – a dish that shows all of Sam’s culinary prowess: crispy shards of green leaves, some fermented quinoa and some acid from pickled mustard leaves and that tender charcoal-grilled beef enclosed within. 

“How Australian am I now? Oh man,” Sam says, shaking his head, “I’m 100% Australian.” Then he quickly backtracks. “Actually, maybe I’m 10% Vietnamese now. I don’t go back to Australia anymore and I don’t know anyone besides my family. So, maybe I’m even 30% Vietnamese?” he muses. 

“And for Akuna, it’s the other way around really. I’m using Vietnamese produce and showcasing some Australian stuff alongside it,” Sam explains, about his new approach to just going with the flow.

Akuna Restaurant is located at Level 9, Le Méridien Saigon, 3C Ton Duc Thang, HCMC. Open daily from 18:00 – 22:00. For more infomation please visit https://akunarestaurant.com/

Photos for The Dot Magazine by Nghia Ngo unless otherwise stated.

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