Five OG Saigon Chefs Tell Us About Cooking During Difficult Times, 24-Hours In The City, And Dream Dinner Guests

“Let’s do a ten-hands dinner!” Harold Ngo declares at the end of the shoot. The four other chefs all nod approvingly. “That’s 50 fingers,” Peter Cuong Franklin laughs. We’re at the Wink HQ. We want to know how the five esteemed chefs have survived the last few months, where they go in Saigon when they’re not working, and who they’d invite to a special dinner.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

They’re not all immediately comfortable with the OG concept though. “Why am I an OG chef? I’m too young!” Julien Perraudin had complained when we invited him to join. And “What’s OG mean?” a confused Harold Ngo had asked when we invited him. Sakal Phoeng admitted he wasn’t sure too. “It means someone authentic and old-school,” we reassured them. “Well,” Heath interjects, “at first the invitation made me feel rather self-satisfied. Then I remembered all the genuine OG chefs in Vietnam whose restaurants I pass on my way to work who do what they do without the fancy equipment and kitchen team…and I was immediately brought right back to earth.” 

“I’m OK as long as the ‘O’ in OG means original and not old!” Peter chimes in. “Yes, in that case, it does feel like a reward for all the hard years,” Harold finally agrees. “No, even so it’s too early for me,” Julien Perraudin shakes his head, “I haven’t done shit yet!” 

It’s not true. Quince Saigon took a difficult location at the industrial end of District 1’s Nguyen Thai Binh Ward and turned it into everyone’s go-to casual fine dining restaurant. And Julien is held in the highest regard by Saigon’s best chefs. He’s a real chef they usually tell us in awed tones when we ask about him. 

The other four are as well respected. Harold opened Ox Not Only Ox last year. The classy, high-ceilinged eatery quickly became a celebrity hang-out with his modern Vietnamese cuisine a major draw. Peter Cuong Franklin was Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam’s chef of the year last year. He’s the pioneer of new Vietnamese cuisine. And Sakal Phoeung is a gastronomic goliath who holds court at Le Corto – a perennial District 1 favourite – and more recently P’Ti in District 2. Finally, there’s Heath Gordon, the brilliant executive chef at Park Hyatt Saigon whose CV sparkles with the names of some of the finest hotels in the world – The Ritz Carlton, Rosewood – and who has now spent four years at the Park Hyatt Saigon.

Despite their experience, the five chefs are harder to control than the last group of chefs we interviewed. Peter steals Harold’s pestle and launches a surprise attack from behind during the former Masterchef’s portrait shoot. And Julien nearly knocks out Sakal by accident as he turns round with his custom-made flambadou slung over his shoulder. So, we move quickly on to the questions.

The five esteemed chefs [from left to right] Peter Cuong Franklin from Anan and Nhau Nhau, Sakal Phoeung from Le Corto and P’Ti, Harold Ngo from Ox Not Only Ox, Julien Perraudin from Quince, and Heath Gordon from Park Hyatt Saigon.

How would you describe your restaurant (or restaurants) in your own words avoiding the usual marketing blurb?

Julien Perraudin: I’d describe Quince Saigon as a relaxed but classy restaurant in a very local part of District 1. And it’s a brand which actually originated in Bangkok nine years ago. We stripped away the stuffiness of fine dining, but kept the quality produce, technique, and service. Great food, great wine, and great atmosphere.

Quince’s Julien Perraudin with his custom-made flambadou, a long-handled cooking implement with an iron cone at one end.

Sakal Phoeung: Le Corto is a Parisian-style bistro with some Asian elements. And P’Ti Saigon is focused on Provencal and Mediterranean cuisine. 

Heath Gordon: Timeless luxury with some of the most comfortable seating in the universe. The Park Hyatt Saigon has two main venues for dining: Opera and Square One, as well as our ever-popular 2 Lam Son Martini Bar and elegant Park Lounge with everything from breakfast through to late-night snacks, interspersed with lots of champagne, afternoon teas, canapés and coconut lollipops…

Opera is a Saigon institution which serves handmade pasta, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, and table-side Bistecca alla Fiorentina. And Square One is our signature restaurant which serves Vietnamese and French cuisine – where we do classics like Dover sole, foie gras en cocotte and an amazing coconut souffle alongside traditional Vietnamese cuisine that’s elevated with premium products. And Le Petit Chef show-dining experience is in one of Square One’s three private dining rooms.

Peter Cuong Franklin: Anan is a cool, modern Vietnamese restaurant hidden inside a wet market and Nhau Nhau is a hip ‘60s inspired cocktail bar with also with a great vibe, food and drinks.  

Harold Ngo: I’m a voracious reader, anything food-related, but especially anything by Michael Roux, Ottolenghi’s “Simple”, “Nobu The Cookbook”. TV shows too. I discovered Neil Perry 15 years ago – a Western chef using his pestle and mortar to grind up into a paste ginger, lemongrass and palm sugar with fish sauce. It took me nearly 20 years to understand the techniques of mixing Western and Asian tools and ingredients to create food that is reassuringly familiar, but challengingly new. That’s been my direction ever since, and it helped me to the Masterchef title in 2013. At Ox Not Only Ox, the direction continues: modern Vietnamese cuisine in a contemporary interior with an open kitchen. And the ox, both my and my business partner’s birth animal, symbolises working hard. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the moment you knew you’d be a chef?

Julien Perraudin: I don’t know about you guys, but for me it was a growing passion. It was always in me – I used to cook at home as a kid. And the results weren’t terrible. Then I was fortunate to attend a cooking program at my school shortly before it was disbanded. That was critical. It helped me to see becoming a chef as a feasible career choice. However, between then and now, I’ve considered giving up often. Working in Australia changed that…

Heath Gordon: For me, it’s easy. It was the day I learned that chefs could work split shifts and I could spend my mornings and afternoons surfing. Combined with my passion for eating, and the aspiration to become Marco Pierre White, and there was no other choice really.

Peter Cuong Franklin: After I graduated from cooking school with the 18-months immersion program’s Grand Diplôme, from Le Cordon Bleu, I said to myself: “Merde, Peter you better do something with this.” So I tried. The objective was to focus on Vietnamese cuisine. It’s where my heart is, and it’s where I feel I can make the most difference.

Peter Cuong Franklin: “I said to myself: ‘Merde, Peter you better do something with this [Grand Diplôme].’”

Harold Ngo: It was not on the agenda. I was a restaurant manager in Sydney, at a place called Radio Cairo. It served a mix of four different cuisines – South African, Moroccan, Sri Lankan and Indian. It taught me a great deal about hospitality. And I met great people who became my good friends right up until now. They taught me the language, and the culture, but also how to live and that I should follow my passion. And I always had this feeling of enjoyment and relaxation when I cooked something…

What’s the greatest thing about being a chef in Saigon today? And the most challenging?

Heath Gordon: It’s Saigon itself. The culture, positive energy, Honda Airblades, bright lights, noise, smells…and it’s the constant evolution.

Then there’s the endless access to the world’s best Vietnamese cuisine, coffee, juice and sweets within walking distance of my home at unbeatable prices, usually served with a big welcoming smile. The kindness, family spirit and pride of Vietnamese quickly affects all of us. And most challenging? Trying to cook as well as the locals. We literally test 20 pho or bun bo Hue stock recipes before we begin to even get close to our target. 

Peter Cuong Franklin: We’re so fortunate. While the world is still locked down figuring out the delivery game, we’re happy to be back making delicious food and creating dining experiences.

Saigon is a wonderful city to live and work in. I believe it’s one of the most exciting food cities in the world right now. The biggest challenge for me is to stay focused and not get too distracted by all the fun things the city has to offer…

Julien Perraudin: It’s a very young, exciting and growing market. And it’s only starting. And looking at the world, we’re perfectly placed to grow. The only challenge isn’t in the kitchen, it’s small things like visa challenges that allow me to stay in this beautiful country.

And how would your kitchen team describe you when you’re not listening?

Julien Perraudin: Haha, I’d prefer not to know. But I actually asked them the other day in preparation for this interview. They complained that I speak in French to them too much and it confuses them! 

But seriously, I feel they’re pretty honest, never blowing smoke up my ass nor talking about me when my back is turned. We’re family. And most of us have been together since the start. I hope and feel that they appreciate working with me at Quince Saigon as much as I appreciate them. It’s a cliché but it’s true that you’re only as good as your team.

Sakal Phoeung: They describe me as like Mowgli from the Jungle Book! I’ve heard that they’ve decided that I look like him, especially when my hair is long. Or Bruno Mars when it’s a bit shorter…

Cambodian-born Sakal Pheoung prepared a menu for the French President in 2016.

Heath Gordon: Happy, talks too fast…expects a lot! Me and the team have quite an open and honest relationship. There are ninety-five unique personalities. And they don’t mind giving me feedback too. I’ve been working alongside many of them ever since I arrived. They are a big part of why I feel so at home and welcome here in Vietnam — my family away from home and my dream team.

Peter Cuong Franklin: I think “boss” most of the time. And a few other choice four-letter words at other times…

How did you get through the last few months?

Julien Perraudin: We took the decision to close quickly during lockdown. After that, we pivoted to a delivery model. However, that presented its own challenges; we knew the Quince experience couldn’t be realized in a takeaway box. It didn’t make sense to even try. So, we had to quickly work out how to do something new. That became Staples by Quince. It helped us retain staff  – we didn’t let anyone go – and now we have a new business model. In fact, we’re looking for a new location for Staples while we’ve returning to normal at Quince. 

Harold Ngo: We’d only opened Ox Not Only Ox in December, so it was good and bad really. We were still working to establish ourselves as one of the best places to eat in Saigon, and so we simply had to temporarily press pause on that.

Peter Cuong Franklin: We worked quickly to develop a completely new delivery program from scratch, like Julien did at Quince. The results were satisfying, bringing our dining experience to homes and offices. Our delivery menu includes Vietnamese comfort food such as banh mi, pho and chicken salad done with style, plus a few gourmet dishes as well. We also quickly sourced some eco-friendly packaging. Things like fresh banana leaf, sugarcane fibre boxes, wooden utensils and brown paper bags. We’re still providing delivery service while pivoting back towards the dining experience.

Heath Gordon: Professionally, the well-being of our guests became the priority. And during the stay-at-home period, we moved to a delivery model, and learnt lots in the process. Delivering perfect meals is not as easy as it might seem. Outside of work I rarely stand still or find time to unwind and relax. So, I used the time as an opportunity to connect with family and friends, train more, eat healthier, relax…and ponder what the future holds for our planet in the short and mid-term.

Heath Gordon knew he’d be a chef: “the day I learned that chefs could work split shifts and I could spend my mornings and afternoons surfing.”

Which one street food dish sums up Saigon for you, and where do you eat it?

Julien Perraudin: It has to be com tam. For me it feels really Saigonese. Like kra pao feels like Bangkok to me. I used to go to a stall beside Tan Dinh Market. It’s still the best I’ve had, but I haven’t been back for years. Maybe it’s time to pay a visit!

Harold Ngo: I love the bun thit nuong served on the corner of Nguyen Trung Truc and Le Loi Street. I could easily eat it every day.

Heath Gordon: Predictable? Maybe. But it has to be the mighty banh mi. Pound for pound, simply one of the greatest sandwiches on the planet. Accessible to and enjoyed by everyone. My go-to banh mi guru is no secret; I’ve been going there since I arrived in 2014. It’s just inside the alley at 37 Nguyen Trai. And a buzz runs through me every time I join the queue for this piece of culinary perfection. 

Peter Cuong Franklin: Great choice, Heath. But for me banh mi and pho is everywhere in Vietnam. So, I’m choosing bun mam, the funkily-flavoured seafood noodle soup from the Mekong Delta. It uses two types of fermented fish. And it’s only really found in Saigon. The dish is robust and packed with contrasting flavours, textures and colours…just like the Saigonese. I get mine near Anan, from the lady on the corner of Ton That Dam and Huynh Thuc Khang Streets. And it’s available Tuesdays from 11am until around 1 or 2pm, basically until the whole pot is sold out.

And what’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten either in Saigon or anywhere in Vietnam?

Peter Cuong Franklin: Eating is about the experience, the ambience, drinks, service, but most importantly the people you share the meal with. I was reminded of this during a trip to my birthplace of Dalat around two years ago. I went with a friend and we met up with a reclusive artist who took it upon himself to show us places way off the tourist trail – the first of which, discovered by a winding drive into the hills, served rabbit in three different ways. That’s all. It came grilled with lemongrass, stewed in a curry, but first, as rabbit tiet canh. Basically, a bowl of fresh blood containing chopped internal organs and a showering of herbs and peanuts. This village restaurant was a kind of nhau drinking joint. So, we washed the rabbit down with local beer and ruou gao. It left such a strong visceral impression on us all. I’ll never forget it…although I don’t think I could find the restaurant again.

Julien Perraudin: I’m choosing a simple bowl of bun cha. The one I had in Hanoi years ago, during my first real visit to Vietnam, I guess around 2009. I cannot tell you exactly where it was. It was on the street…near a roundabout…not far from a train track! And...it blew my fucking mind. No bowl of bun cha has ever compared since. For something Saigonese, it’s the bo la lot on Ton Duc Thang when I first started work at Quince Saigon. Back then, lots of vendors set up as night fell…

Harold Ngo: Normally, I don’t eat goose meat. But I’m choosing the goose noodle soup, bún ngan nhàn, I had in Ha Noi while I worked at a Hennessy OX event. It was the best. From the broth, to the tender goose meat right through to how Mrs Nhàn handled her demanding customers in the inclement weather.

Harold Ngo watched Neil Perry mixing Western and Asian tools and ingredients, and has followed the same philosophy” to create food that is reassuringly familiar, but challengingly new.”

Heath Gordon: It was six weeks ago. In Hue. A bowl of bun bo dac biet with congealed pigs blood thrown in at Quan Bun Bo Hue Ba Tuyet. I’m craving for more now. It’s a dish steeped in royal origins, and deeply rooted in the history and culture of Vietnam. The balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty make it one of the world’s best noodle soups. 

You have guests visiting from out of town. What’s the 24-hour Saigon food tour you’d take them on?

Julien Perraudin: Tough question. Let’s start at Saigon Coffee Roastery. Then we swiftly drink our coffee and move on to a real pig out of a breakfast at Lang Nuong Nam Bo. I’m talking a whole suckling pig. Their suckling pig is amazing. That means we’ll need takeaway boxes so we can take some away and keep snacking on it all day. 

Next, a light lunch at The Monkey Gallery. Then, we walk a few blocks over to Park Hyatt Saigon to see Heath Gordon and to pay a visit to their Opera Restaurant. I know Heath. He’ll bury our pasta order in a pile of black winter truffles when the season permits.

I’m guessing we’re getting full by now, so we’d move over to the Park Hyatt Saigon pool…and order a bottle of wine. I mean, why not? Then as night falls, we go to Binh Thanh to the up-and-coming Pham Viet Chanh Street for Kiyota’s omakase. Then we finish the evening over at Quince Saigon. A few bites. And then we head upstairs to Madam Kew for cocktails…and maybe some more Asian-inspired snacks if our stomachs can take it!

Peter Cuong Franklin: Masion Marou would have to be in there somewhere too. Guests can also buy gifts while we’re enjoying their fresh chocolate chip cookies and a rich mocha. I’d also take them to Pizza 4Ps, the Ben Thanh Market one for its cool remodeling of one of those rustic buildings in the area. We’d order the Parma ham and burrata pizza. And besides that, just the normal coffeeshops I like to inhabit, places like Hanoi-style Cafe Muoi at 29 Huynh Thuc Khang. I love it so much I sneaked round during lockdown and found a few other regulars there. And then the police arrived…

Heath Gordon: Step one is my recommendation to fast for 24 hours before arrival. Then, our mode of transportation for the day will be xe om. We start with scrambled eggs at the Park Hyatt Saigon, with freshly shaved black truffles – Julien did warn you – toasted sourdough bread and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then it’s over to Runam Bistro on the riverfront for an egg coffee and lemongrass kumquat tea. Then we go to Banh Xeo 46A for a mid-morning snack and to watch the action in the kitchen. And then it’s either over to the lunch lady. Especially if it’s a Saturday when she makes banh canh cua or for a plate of banh cuon at Banh Cuon Tay Ho at 127 Dien Tien Hoang. 

Then we cross the street. At Quan Thuy 94 Cu at No 84 Dinh Tien Hoang we feast on mud crab fried rice, mud crab claws in tamarind sauce and crispy soft shell crab. Then it’s undoubtedly siesta time. So, we chill beside the Park Hyatt’s pool in preparation for the evening.

Rejuvenated, we grab an iced green tea latte from Phuc Long on the way to District 3 where we have the ultimate banh flan, coconut, and coffee dessert just inside Cho Nguyen Van Troi. Next up, District 5 for Com Ga Xoi Mo at 402 Tran Phu. This is deep-fried chicken at its finest. And then it’s dinner time.

We start at Quince Saigon. Julien’s one of the most charming French chefs you’ll meet, which I credit to his time spent in Australia. Every dish there is on-point so we leave it up to him to decide on the tasting menu. Then it’s over to Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan for his rightly famous Vietnamese tacos. While we’re there, we’ll head up to Nhau Nhau for a few of Peter’s anecdotes, and his coconut worm shots. The secret then is to escape before it gets too crazy as Peter is a formidable host. So, we seek safety at Square One at Park Hyatt Saigon for the Iberico pork and Alsakan king crab banh khot, or maybe Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar for a taste of Adrian and George’s latest bar snack creations. Then last orders of amaretto sours at Firkin or 2 Lam Son at Park Hyatt. 

Harold Ngo: For breakfast, beef noodle soup at Thai Son’s at 178 Le Lai, Pham Ngu Lao Ward. The broth has this immense flavour. Somewhere between Northern and Southern Vietnamese. Then to the bun thit nuong spot I mentioned earlier for lunch. Then we snack on goi cuon that we pick up beside Ben Thanh Market. I just like it and the salty fish flavoured dipping sauce only adds to the allure. 

Later, we’d grab some bo la lot for dinner at Anh Ba Bo La Lot at 460 Phan Xich Long in Phu Nhuan District. The taste is great and there are lots of vegetables and more special dipping sauce. If we’re still going, for supper, Hu Tieu Nam Vang at 56 Vo Van Tan, District 3. When my parents first moved to Saigon, we lived near there. Until today, it brings back memories of childhood…and surviving in a foreign place. Once we moved to Phan Thiet, I lost the chance to eat dishes like this for a while.

As Vietnam’s range of quality produce increases, which new ingredient excites you most? And what dish do you use it in?

Peter Cuong Franklin: I have been working more with products from my home town of Dalat. I’m now testing a sacrilegious seafood pho that also includes beautiful Dalat vegetables such as baby carrot, radish, asparagus and tomato. But no rabbit tiet canh yet…

“Visiting my own place as a guest? First, I’d go up to the rooftop for a sunset cocktail. Then I’d head down to Nhau Nhau…and I’d order a wagyu beef banh mi…” – Peter Cuong Franklin

Harold Ngo: I like figs. And now we have local figs even though I had to go to Syndey to first try them. Now I serve fig with foie gras. The texture of the figs pairs well with the rich foie gras.

Julien Perraudin: The caviar from Da Lat is also wonderful and keeps getting better. Then, there are the ducks we get from near Hanoi. They’re a cross-bred type of Barbary duck. I’ve also been impressed with a lot of the leafy vegetables from Orlar. Their produce is reliably flavor-packed and organic. And the seafood here is always interesting. But to get the best stuff, you have to go to places like Phu Quoc, Vung Tau or Nha Trang. The wild tiger prawns in particular are sensational. 

However, I was reading an interview with two esteemed food critics recently. They were talking about the provenance of products. Locavorism – actively seeking out and eating only local products – is something admirable. But the question I often ask myself is whether the products that are grown in Vietnam are better or even on a par with seasonal vegetables from France or seafood from Japan or South Australia? And the answer, I feel, is no. That’s despite the extra freshness local produce offers. So, there’s still lots to do including streamlining the journey of Vietnamese products from farm to restaurant.

Heath Gordon: Nowadays we have a huge selection of local and imported produce. It rivals any big city in the region. So, what excites me most is sustainable, organic or single-use plastic-free. As chefs, we have the opportunity to make a small impact on our planet’s future and every small contribution counts. My current favorites are sustainable barramundi raised off the coast of Nha Trang, served whole and prepared tableside in our Park Hyatt Opera restaurant. And Hanoi plums, used in a foie gras and plum jam crispy sandwich, served on the Park Hyatt Saigon’s Le Petit Chef menu.

Imagine you visit your own restaurant as a guest. Where do you sit, what do you order? 

Julien Perraudin: I’d sit at the counter in front of Quince’s open kitchen. And I’d order the hummus and merguez. I’m a sucker for hummus. And my hummus is superb! Unless I want a good steak, I’d probably stick to the appetizer section. It changes regularly depending on my mood and the season. 

Peter Cuong Franklin: First, I’d go up to the rooftop for a sunset cocktail. Then I’d head down to Nhau Nhau, get a corner seat or a place on the balcony and I’d order a wagyu beef banh mi with a bowl of truffle pho and a Tra Da cocktail.

Harold Ngo: Honestly, I would sit near my open kitchen. That’s so I can see how my kitchen staff are doing preparing my signature dishes — shrimp salad with white basil, green chili and mixed herbs sauce, beef steak with ‘pho sauce’ that contains star anise, glove, cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce and roasted mixed vegetables. 

Heath Gordon: A quiet unassuming corner. To watch the staff too! There I’d be able to watch the restaurant in action from a different perspective. And I’d order something I’ve not had recently. Quality check.

“Right now my dream dinner party would be for my family I can’t see because of the travel restrictions: my mum, dad, brother. And I’m cooking.”

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Who would cook?

Julien Perraudin: Nothing elaborate. A nice dinner with my family. Maybe I could choose my family members both alive and who passed away. That would be nice. My grandma would cook. And I’d ask Anthony Bourdain to host.

Peter Cuong Franklin: Trinh Cong Son, the legendary singer-songwriter and Bruce Lee, the film star and martial artist. And Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk. They’re all inspiring in different ways. Sadly two of them are no longer with us. And the third, Thich Nhat Hanh, is in poor health. I would love to cook a vegetarian menu for him and the other monks at the temple he’s sequestered at. I visited the temple in Hue recently. I desperately wanted to meet him and took along a gift of a box of yellow kiwi, his favourite fruit. But unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

Sakal Phoeung: Just my girlfriend and I, and it would be made by a dear Italian friend, Diego Maltesi, who isn’t a chef. He’s actually an architect, but I love his cooking.

“After work? You might find me at Bam Bam, if I feel like it. Or the BBQ chicken place at 57 Nguyen Du Street near Notre Dame Cathedral called Mai Xuân Canh Restaurant.” – Sakal Phoueng

Harold Ngo: Those old friends I talked about earlier from Radio Cairo…

Heath Gordon: Right now, being unable to go back home, it would be with my family – my mum, dad, brother. And I’m cooking. 

At any other time, I’d follow the standard dinner party rules: make it fun, a bit crazy, with lots of surprises. To help me do that I’d invite Tran Thanh to be host and MC for the proceedings. DJ Levi Oi would be on the decks. And around the table would be Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Stark, Chi Pu, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, our GM at the Park Hyatt Saigon, Frederic Boulin, because he knows how to throw an awesome dinner party, and then Donald Trump…and The Village People. 

In the kitchen would be Luke Nguyen and his wife Lynne, Huy Tran, and Camilla and Casper from MAD House Saigon.

What’s the one moment in your career you’ll be telling the grandchildren about?

Julien Perraudin: I’ll talk about the decision to move to the other side of the world, leaving behind my family and friends. In retrospect, it was a great career choice. But the fact I hold onto is that it wasn’t a career-driven decision. And that’s what I like about it.

“These days my wife and kids keep me grounded. And they take my mind off work when I’m with them.” – Julien Perraudin

Sakal Phoeung: It would have to be cooking for the President of France, François Hollande, when he visited Saigon in September 2016. It was the first visit by a French President in 12 years. They booked out the entire first floor for 24 guests. And I tried to mix in some Vietnamese flavours into the special menu, the Menu Du Président, that’s still available today… 

Peter Cuong Franklin: We made a $100USD banh mi for a cooking show. And continue to offer it, off menu. So, I’ll tell my grandkids about the time we got a takeaway order for ten!

Harold Ngo: I think it would be about the lesson I learned coming to my calling in life much later than most people. It really is never too late.

Heath Gordon: This sunny morning ranks pretty highly working with you and your crew from The Dot Magazine and these four — straight up four of the city’s finest chefs. 

Do you have any special strategies for staying sane in this stressful industry?

Julien Perraudin: Besides wine? Haha. Well, martial arts used to do me a lot of good. But it’s been a few years since I trained. These days I’m more reliant on my wife and two kids. They keep me grounded. And they take my mind off work when I’m with them.

Peter Cuong Franklin: Travel. And escape Saigon’s addictive madness for a moment. I like to travel to other cities such as Dalat and Hue to relax and enjoy the local food and learn about the local culture. 

Harold Ngo: I don’t take the joys of being a chef for granted – I really do appreciate and cherish this chance every time I step into the kitchen. Also, I view stress as normal, whatever profession we pursue. It’s part of life. When it builds I jog, swim, hit the gym, and my calm and focus usually return. I encourage my staff to do the same, to help balance their lives.

“When it [stress] builds I jog, swim, hit the gym, and my calm and focus usually return. I encourage my staff to do the same, to help balance their lives.” – Harold Ngo

Heath Gordon: Be kind. Find solutions and avoid being part of the problem. And always keep things in perspective – we are cooking meals to nourish people and ultimately to try to make them happy. 

Which bars, restaurants or street food spots would we find you at after service?

Julien Perraudin: I don’t go out much after work. Occasionally, I will go with the team for some street food in Thao Dien at Quan 79 at 84 Quoc Huong Street. It’s a popular after-work place with F&B workers. At the weekend, I might be found at Aperitivo also in Thao Dien having a drink while I wait for my Italian sandwich to be made.   

Sakal Phoeung: Maybe at Bam Bam, if I feel like it. Or the BBQ chicken place at 57 Nguyen Du Street near Notre Dame Cathedral…called Mai Xuân Canh Restaurant. They do amazing BBQ chicken feet!

Peter Cuong Franklin: After service, you are likely to find me somewhere nearby. I usually go to one place called The Pub on Pasteur. The staff there have mastered table football. I like to pit my wits against them…usually unsuccessfully even though my game has improved a lot. There are a couple of good street food places nearby too, maybe crossing Ham Nghi Street for a bowl of Hanoi pho at Pho Ha.

Heath Gordon: The list is long: Bam bam, Commas, Firkin, Drinking & healing, Dram, 2 Lam Son Bar, Mad Wine Bar, Climb Hidden Cocktail Bar, Layla…then most likely Bam Bam again! For late-opening restaurants, Racha room, Roka Fella, Kiyota Sushi, Sol Kitchen & Bar and the newly opened Taco Del Sol from the same team. For street food, Pho Hung on Nguyen Trai, Pho Ha on Ham Nghi, or Giang Lam Ky at Tan Dinh market for their Mi Xa Xiu. 

How long do you think it will be till a female chef appears in articles like this about top chefs in Saigon? 

Julien Perraudin: Tough question. How long did it take to have a famous female chef in France, to draw a comparison? A long time. I feel it’s more about culture than talent. There are more talented women in kitchens here than in the West. So then, back to the question, how long? I don’t know…but it will happen.

Heath Gordon: I think the recognition is real and it’s already happening even though it’s just the beginning. I’m thinking of people like Jay Fai, Camilla Bailey, Anne Sophie-Pic… 

Peter Cuong Franklin: We’ve got a long way to go. I think we need to support and help develop female chefs right from the ground up. That includes making kitchens more female-friendly places. I’m trying to recruit more young and talented female chefs into our kitchen…

Sakal Phoeung: Women do feature on lists of top chefs, globally at least. So maybe, in part, it’s an issue of the media not giving them enough respect and attention.

And how about Vietnam featuring on Asia’s Top 50 lists and the Michelin Guide?

Julien Perraudin: The more interesting question is: when will Vietnam make a major impact on Asia’s Best 50 Lists? When there’s more recognition for Vietnam, it will be huge and it will make a difference to the tourism industry…and the country will deserve it. But when the Philippines made the list, did it really make an impact? I’m not sure. As for the Michelin Guide, as a French chef, I am sentimental about the guide’s recognition and I dream about it coming to Vietnam. But I don’t see it happening any time soon…

Peter Cuong Franklin: I believe our cuisine is one of the best in the world. And I feel it’s important for Vietnam to be on the global culinary map. The knock-on effect I hope, will be that inclusion helps push the standard even higher.

Sakal Phoeung: I’m with Peter on this. There’ll be an inevitable boom in tourism, but it will also help push chefs and restaurants to achieve more. 

Harold Ngo: Right. Vietnam has a unique cuisine with some colorful ingredients, it’s only right that the country appears on best restaurant and bar lists. And an award might elevate cuisine here with even more creativity. Personally, I like places like Julien’s Quince Saigon which already appeared on Asia 50 Discovery list. I like open kitchens and that style of cooking reminds me of the flavours I loved back in Australia.

Heath Gordon: It would be welcome recognition for one of the world’s great foodie cities. There are rumors that the Michelin Guide is coming, but for me Saigon and Vietnam should have made an impression on both lists already. But does it matter? To some yes and others no…

Our five chefs looking forward to Vietnam’s hopefully bright future for bars and restaurants.

Finally, what’s in your fridge at home? 

Julien Perraudin: It doesn’t vary much. There’s always some dark roast coffee made by K’ho Coffee from Dalat. There’s some salami, ham, or other cold cuts and cheeses. There’s plenty of homemade chilli sauce and other condiments, some Dijon mustard, milk…and a cheeky bottle of wine. 

Harold Ngo: I love chilli, so usually a bowl of that. And tropical fruits, most often pomelo already peeled and ready to eat. Other than that, the usual family provisions.

Heath Gordon: It’s pretty eclectic. Right now (because I checked) Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate, Mortadella, Persian feta, Emmental cheese and some French butter. Chin-Su Tuong Ot and Maggi sauce, soy milk and full cream milk, water, coconut yoghurt, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, Hanoi plums and plum jam, mini mangoes, coco butter, hummus, and dal makani, a bottle of Baron De Rothschild champagne, a bottle of Le Puy Marie Rose, a bottle of Le Puy Marie Cecile, and one McDonald’s sweet and sour sauce, and two slices of Pizza 4Ps shrimp and brocolli pizza.

Sakal Phoeung: Right now just orange juice and coconut water to help with my detox.

Peter Cuong Franklin: Living in the same building as Nhau Nhau and Anan, my apartment only has a small fridge. Some water, some wines.

Photos by Khooa Nguyen, and video by Johnny Viet Nguyen and Jerry Tuan Tran.


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