Chef Ton At Hanoi’s Chapter Dining & Grill Is A Modern Day Larvae Story

Chef  Quang Dung and Chef Ton

For one dish, from their one-time-only collaborative event at Chapter Dining & Grill, featuring ant caviar – a centerpiece of the menu that came in two parts, a tartlet atop a soup – Chef Ton and Chef Quang Dung had spent the previous few weeks devising it together. Think of it as a kind of cross-border, modern day larvae story. 

By the time Chef Ton touched down in Hanoi, the ingredients for a Nusara and Le Du greatest hits list of dishes – their Madai and Mantis Shrimp, Southern Crab Curry and Dry-aged Duck – had been locally-sourced or safely sent ahead, or stashed in the check-in luggage. And Chef Quang Dung had already finalized a one-time-only menu of dishes from Chapter Dining & Grill that explored the crossover in cuisine and culture between the two near-neighboring Southeast Asian countries. 

The kitchen at Chapter Dining & Grill
The Chapter Dining & Grill team serving up a very special collaboration with Le Du and Nusara.

Meeting The World’s Most Exciting Food City

The Thai capital’s reputation as a food destination has been on the ascendency for some time. With three of the top five places in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list (and lots of anticipation for the 2024 announcement in Seoul), and Chudaree Debhakam of Baan Tepa becoming the first female Thai chef to lead a two MICHELIN star restaurant, it feels more relevant now than ever. There’s no wonder people are calling it the most exciting food city in the world. 

There’s something special about the way you can drift between street food, costing a dollar or two, to MICHELIN-starred fine dining, sometimes only meters apart. 

And there’s a refreshingly female-centric edge to the scene too — besides Chudaree Debhakam, Garima Arora, at Bangkok’s Gaa, also recently claimed two stars – a first for a female Indian chef.

A Vietnamese version of Larb
Chapter Dining & Grill’s larb, a delicate curve of lettuce filled with fresh Vietnamese greens and Wagyu beef.

Chapter Dining & Grill: Part Of Vietnam’s Wave Of New Culinary Energy

In terms of regional and global attention, Vietnam is some way behind. There’s one restaurant – Anan in Saigon – perennially edging into Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and the MICHELIN guide, which only arrived last year (it was first unveiled in Thailand in December 2017) doled out a measly four stars nationwide, with no two-star restaurants. 

So far, subtle Vietnamese cuisine lacks some of the acclaim Thai cuisine receives too. With French and Chinese influences it’s light and loaded with fresh greens, and mostly known only for a couple of break-out dishes: banh mi and pho. Thai cuisine, with punchier Indian and Malay influences, is world famous for pad thai, and its colorful curry dishes.  

Admittedly, and admirably, in the inaugural MICHELIN list for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, two stars went to female-led concepts – Gia and Tam Vi, both in Hanoi. And, at a restaurant like Anan, you couldn’t be in closer proximity to the inspirational dishes served on the street (or in this case the wet market) right outside. 

Plus, there’s a wave of youthful energy about the fine dining scene in Vietnam that suggests – at least with regards to awards and accolades – things are about to change. 

Le Du chefs at Chapter Dining & Grill Hanoi
Chef Kim from Le Du who joined Chef Ton and the team in Hanoi.

Finding Common Ground Between Thai And Vietnamese Cuisine

“Thai and Vietnamese cuisine have more in common than you might think,” Quang Dung, one of the chefs leading the scene’s emergence explains before service begins at his Chapter Dining & Grill for lunch with guest chef, Ton

Chef Ton runs two of those restaurants in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 top 50’s top five – Le Du and Nusara in Bangkok – and, stirred by the challenge of creating a collaborative menu, Quang Dung set out to create original dishes “to be served at the event only” to sit alongside some of Chef Ton’s greatest hits from his two restaurants. 

And that meant deep diving into the common ground between the neighboring Southeast Asian countries’ cultures and cuisines. 

A dish made with ant larvae
Lifting the lid on the commonalities between Thai and Vietnamese food with the co-created ant larvae, or ant caviar, dish.

“I feel it’s certainly underexplored,” Quang Dung continues about the over-lapping space where the venn diagram of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine becomes populated with acidity and sourness, and toasted rice and ant larvae. 

“Right, I think both Thais and Vietnamese prefer things on the sour side with some acidity, and also some spice,” the host continues. “And then, in Vietnam, we use ingredients like toasted rice – so finely ground you may not notice it – in dishes like nem chạo or nem tai. The Thai equivalent, such as you find in their larb, is more coarse, giving the dish a palpable crunch when you bite into it. But the flavor you get is the same.”

“And ant larvae is a delicacy in Vietnamese cuisine, and it’s very common in the north of Thailand. Here, it features in xôi trứng kiến – ant larvae sticky rice. It has to be the golden ant that lives in tree tops where they connect the leaves to form a hive.”

Chef Ton and Chef Quang Dung in Hanoi
Chef Ton and Chef Quang Dung with the team in the Chapter Dining & Grill kitchen.

It Resonates With Our Shared Way Of Eating

Leading up to the event, Ton and Quang Dung were in regular contact. “We’d call each other and ask: ‘What kind of flavors are you using – what spices and aromatics?’” 

“That led to the two part dish, mine, the first part, a tartlet – made out of sticky rice and pigeon, topped with ant larvae – and the second part, Ton’s soup,” Quang Dung explains. 

The Chapter team stepped up to offer a local-take on larb – serving a delicate curve of lettuce filled with fresh Vietnamese greens and Wagyu beef. And a rendition of the classic Thai dessert, mango sticky rice, only instead of sticky rice “using young Vietnamese rice – making it a kind of sticky rice pudding and some rebellious slices of rhubarb.” 

A Vietnamese version of mango sticky rice.
Chapter’s take on the iconic Thai dessert, mango sticky rice.

Tam, the sommelier at Nusara and Ledu, provided the tasting notes that helped Chapter Dining & Grill’s sommelier Trâm to pair a wine from legendary wine-maker Nicholas Joly, and a Junmai Ginjo sake Amabuki Ichigokobo Omachi Nama, from Saga prefecture in Japan, and the Artazu Pasos De San Martin, from the under-appreciated wine making region of Navarra, Spain.

And for the ant caviar dish, “the flavors go from mild and textural in the tartlet, to the intense soup below. Also, when you finish rice in both cultures, you move onto the soup so it resonates with our shared way of eating.”

And may the Thai-Vietnamese larvae story continue to intensify too. 

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