Chef Bao La Is Turning Fate Into Good Food At Que Kaarem

“I was just trying to escape!” Chef Bao La laughs about the circumstances that brought him to Saigon. When he arrived early last year, he had no intention to work…or even to stay for long. Vietnam was a stopover on his way to a chef’s position in Europe. Then COVID-19 hit. And he’s still here.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

“The universe works in mysterious ways…” he shakes his head. We wonder if it’s made him reevaluate his view of destiny and fate. “100%,” he replies instantly widening his eyes, “Somehow life’s path led me back here and the experience has been really positive.” He does seem really at home here already. “Saigon’s a crazy city and I mean that in a good way. There’s so much positive energy and such an amazingly supportive community,” he confirms. 

“The universe works in mysterious ways…” Bao La, wearing chef’s shirt and apron by Kaarem, on fate leading him to a prolonged stay in Vietnam.

Chef Bao La had been spending a lot of time in Dalat until he was lured back to Saigon for a six-month chef’s residency at Que Kaarem on booming Pham Viet Chanh Street. “It probably rains for eight months of the year up there in Dalat. But when it doesn’t, it’s one of the nicest places to escape from city life and unwind. Even when it is raining it’s still a charming place. It’s also a morning city. When you’re there, wake up early and explore — some of the best places open and close really early,” he advises.

“There’s also so many ballsy young entrepreneurs in Dalat starting projects like Chill Chill Eatery and the cocktail bar, Fox’s Den, which guarantee a good time. Then there’s Primavera. No place better encapsulates the vibe of Dalat today. It’s a countryside trattoria that’s simple, casual, honest and approachable. I like Leonie Ha’s ‘Bees 4 Life’ project too. She works with local farmers to help them develop organic farming practices while moving towards self-sufficiency…amazing.”

Chef Bao La’s not taking the warm welcome he’s received and the experiences he’s had here and in Dalat in the last year for granted. In fact, he’s trying to give back through an ethical approach to making food at Que Kaarem where he’s doing all the prep and cooking himself. “Taking over a small kitchen has allowed me more control. I’m really finding myself again and I’m really enjoying cooking again,” he nods. You’ll find him there at the weekend after his shift has finished enjoying a glass of natural wine with guests. “But this model also helps me reduce waste, even though I’m just one person. I hope I can help spark that conversation…” he adds happily.

Chef Bao La’s food philosophy developed at the Hong Kong restaurant Le Garcon Saigon. It was a bold kind of French-style brasserie serving Australian-Vietnamese cuisine created on a wood fire that unapologetically looked to show the city’s residents, who mostly only knew phở, another side of Vietnamese food. “It was just a special place,” he smiles, “and one where I had a platform to explore, and where I had something to offer, supported by people who believed in my vision.”

“Actually, that’s not entirely true though,” he reminds himself. “I think my food philosophy formed way before that, back when I was growing up in Australia in my parent’s Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant. That’s especially thanks to my mother. No matter where I’ve decided to live since, she’s had my back 100%. I became a chef because of her and her encyclopedic knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine and ingredients.”

Like many career paths, it took Bao La a while to realize the dream. At university, he majored in accounting. “Accounting?!” he laughs, still shocked at the decision, “Man, I don’t want to do my own tax returns never mind anyone else’s…”

Committed to his career path and this residency, you can find Chef Bao La at Que Kaarem Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. That leaves him lots of time to explore. So we asked Chef Bao La about life at Que and some of the places he’s discovered in his downtime.

“Sit at the counter and keep me company,” Bao La suggests on where to sit during a night at Que Kaarem.

Where should a first-time guest at Que Kaarem sit? What should they order?

The menu’s short, so one of everything! We have five or six dishes per night, each one with its own distinct flavor profile. They’re meant to be shared. I suggest bring a friend…or make some new ones when you’re here. And where to sit in this space? Even though it’s cozy and intimate, there’s lots of variety in the mood depending on where you sit. Sit at the counter and keep me company while I cook. Sit outside by the bridge and watch the world go by. Or sit on the terrace, lounge out and watch the hustle and bustle of the kitchen and counter from afar. 

Personally, I’d order bread and noodles all day long — I’m a sucker for carbs. If I’m leaning towards something spicy, to drink I’d recommend a signature cocktail, Que’s Gừng Quế. We’re always playing around with our wine selection too, with a focus on natural wines that have minimal additives and sulfates from small-scale producers. But for the old-school purist who wants alcohol in its simplest form, I’d recommend any of Cù Rú’s floral- and fruit-infused rice wines served on the rocks. They’re all lovingly made in Dalat.

“There’s so much positive energy [in Saigon] and such an amazingly supportive community.”

Could you share a Que Kaarem recipe that we can try at home?

I’m going to choose a dish from Le Garcon Saigon: Charred sweetcorn, salted chili ranch, furikake. I’d describe it as super textural with juicy popping corn kernels, fresh herbs, a creamy tangy and spicy sauce, and crunchy puffed rice and cheese shavings. 

At Le Garcon Saigon, I’d serve this dish whole and cook it by burying the corn in wood fire embers. That gives it some deeper caramelization and a more smokey flavor. It’s inspired by the Vietnamese street-food classic, bắp nướng mỡ hành, which I figured was too simple to make in a Hong Kong restaurant like ours. I’ve traveled in South America, so I combined the flavors of there with the dish…and that’s how I got muối ớt with elote. A friend once asked why we need to eat meat when vegetarian food tastes this good which is a nice compliment. 

For the salted chillies: 250g long red chillies, 25g salt.

For the salted chilli ranch: 250g sour cream, 125g Japanese mayonnaise, 75g chopped salted chillies (recipe below), 5g garlic powder, 5g onion powder.

For the corn: 3 cobs of corn, washed, 1 lime, cut into wedges, 1 bunch coriander leaves only, 150g Parmesan, grated, 50g furikake.

Wash the chillies and dry well. Slice into 2mm rounds, keeping the seeds. Place in a bowl with salt and use your hands to thoroughly massage the salt into the chilli slices. Place them into an airtight sterilized jar and leave in a cool, dark place to ferment for about a week. You’ll notice they look kind of limp when they’re ready and they’ll have lost lots of moisture. Wash them under cold running water so they taste less salty. Drain and dry. 

For the salted chilli ranch, whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl until combined and set aside in the fridge. 

Finally, for the corn, steam or boil it for 10 minutes or until tender. Put it on a hot chargrill pan or barbecue and cook until charred. Remove from the grill. Cut the corn kernels off each corn and place into them a bowl. Add a generous dollop of chilli ranch into the bowl and give it a good mix. Spoon it onto a plate and scatter coriander and grated parmesan over the top and finish with a sprinkle of furikake and lime wedges.

Chef Bao La with a jar filled with his sourdough mother. “I named it Patrick…” he says mock-seriously.

Which has been your favorite high-end dining experience in Saigon?

I’ve really enjoyed trips to The Monkey Gallery. The head chef Viet Hong is incredibly talented. He’s very knowledgeable about local ingredients too. Usually, I don’t like sitting at a kitchen counter, but a seat at his counter during one of his ‘magical ticket’ dining experiences, with him telling the stories of each dish, is very special, especially for someone with a Vietnamese palate.

Where do you get your fix of Cantonese food here?

I think the Eastin’s Tung Garden is on par with places in Hong Kong for their dim sum and sui mei.

“Taking over a small kitchen has allowed me more control. I’m really finding myself again and I’m really enjoying cooking again.”

Where would we find you eating after-hours when you’ve finished your shift?

At the Vietnamese-Chinese noodle cart Mì Nguyên Lợi that’s operated by the 3rd generation of the family. It’s open 24/7. And they serve these incredibly bouncy, chewy noodles like Cantonese bamboo noodles. I suggest you order mì hoành thánh xá xíu with an extra side bowl of egg noodles. Amazing craftsmanship…

Otherwise, what’s your favorite street food spot? And what do you order?

Most mornings, I’ll be perched on a stool outside the shop at 10 Pham Viet Chanh devouring a bowl of bún chả giò chay, even though they’re famous for their hủ tiếu chay. Out of all the diverse eating options here in Saigon, this might be my favorite especially as I get to sit and watch the neighborhood buzz in front of me. It’s perfect for this weather too: a light fresh salad with loads of different textures and flavors…washed down with ice tea. Perfect!

Chef Bao La on the terrace at Que Kaarem where you can watch the energy of the kitchen from afar.

And which vegetarian restaurant would you recommend besides Que Kaarem?

Even though I’ve been once, Hum Vegetarian in Thao Dien impressed me. They make this wonderfully crispy nem vuông square spring roll. It’s loaded with different mushrooms and vegetables. The ambiance, design and decor are coherent; the food well-seasoned, plated and presented.

Where’s the best food but worst service you’ve experienced?

There’s one banh mi spot that has so many inviting options I can never decide what to order. It’s called Bánh Mì Xíu Mại Trứng Muối Chị Lành at 6 Ho Xuan Huong. It’s pretty busy, so the owner rushes you to order, and if you’re really indecisive, like me, she’ll mutter some choice words and get a bit agro. Maybe it’s my fault. But being there really does remind of the ‘Soup Nazi’ episode of Seinfeld. 

Que Kaarem has a constantly updated selection of natural wines. You’ll often find Bao La enjoying some with guests well after his shift has ended.

And finally, where’s the best place to unwind after a long day in Saigon?

Home. Take a cold shower, scrub off that Saigon sweat, park yourself on the couch, put on some music and read a book!

Photos by Nghia Ngo for The Dot Magazine.

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