It’s alluring, CoCo Saigon, with its sleek exterior and secretive entrance that contrast with the construction sites and characterful yellow-painted buildings at this end of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street. Now, award-winning chef Võ Thành Vương has lit a fire in the space, at the newly opened CoCo Grill – the fourth venue to surround its central courtyard.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
There’s the Whisky Bar and Gin Garden, and the upscale dining experience at CoCo Dining, and now, Chef Vuong’s Coco Grill.
There, the winner of Top Chef Vietnam in 2019, has creatively crafted a menu called ‘The Flame Of Hestia’ – who, in ancient Greek mythology, was the virgin goddess of the hearth and the home. “It’s a primal approach, just wood and charcoal, making fire and food,” he smiles.
A Four Part Experience
The open kitchen at CoCo Grill – in the former CoCo Dining space which has moved to the intimate dining room deeper inside the venue – adds to the atmosphere. Smoke billows and aromas waft, and you get a ringside seat to watch the show. “So, I’ve divided the menu into four parts, Chef Vương continues. “There’s Preliminary – In Incipience – Burning – Flame – based on the cycle of a fire.”
To that, they’ve sourced the best regional ingredients from across Vietnam. “I’m really aiming to elevate and honor Vietnamese ingredients,” Chef Vương says passionately. So, the menu includes marinated and 7-day cured bluefin tuna, served with Son La Arabica coffee and fragrant, fermented Da Lat strawberries. Or, there’s CoCo Grill’s Que Son wild chicken accompanied by corn purée and beurre blanc.
And, like the mythological Greek figure that inspired it, Chef Vương prepares the dishes around the homely hearth. “To me, it’s always been a place for family and friends to gather based on four virtues: family, respect, kindness, and goodwill. But the concept also allows us to explore the connection between European and East Asian cultures. And, personally, developing this concept has helped me to find my place.”
Contemporary French Cuisine First Hand
But it’s been quite a journey up to this point in his career. From simple beginnings growing up in a fishing village in Binh Thuan Province on Vietnam’s south-east coast, Vương moved to Saigon at 20, and, following the suggestions of friends, embarked on a culinary course, before meeting and working under the legendary Cambodian-French chef Sakal Phoeung for over 8 years.
“It was both a great opportunity and a great challenge,” Chef Vương recalls.
He’s still full of praise for his mentor. “He wasn’t the first mentor I had, but he probably will be the last because he left such a lasting impression on me. I had the foundation skills before I worked with him. But he made me far more open minded and creatively expressive.”
Sakal has been such an esteemed figure, and pioneer of French cuisine, at the Sofitel, and then later at his own restaurants, Le Corto and P’ti, that Le Corto was chosen to service dinner for the French President Francois Hollande in 2016. Chef Vương remembers it clearly, and he remembers welcoming a host of MICHELIN-star chefs over the years, like Anton Frederic, Hervé Rodriguez, and Thierry Drapeau.
“I really got to see contemporary French cuisine first hand. And, working alongside those luminaries, you have to step up your game,” he smiles.
Don’t Play With Fire
There are romantic notions of cooking with fire, and something, in the flavors that it produces, that resonate deeply. “It’s special,” Chef Vương agrees. “Fire has this way of elevating cuisine and giving it a new level of flavor. With the right finesse and skill on the grill, dishes turn out amazing,” nodded Chef Vương who already seems restless to get back into the kitchen. “I love the whole process,” he decides. “The spark that lights the flame, and the way the smoke flavor insinuates itself into every cut of meat or piece of vegetable. I even love the crackling sound of the burning wood and the way the smoke swirls. I even like to watch the embers as they twinkle and fade.”
But enough romanticism, Chef Vương declares, “Let’s start with the ‘Flame’ menu!” as he carefully selects some dry firewood for the fire before igniting them into spectacular bursts of flames.
CoCo Saigon Restaurant is located at 143 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ward 6, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Open daily from 18:00 – 23:00.