Five Saigon Chefs Who F*ck With Fire

From boys fixating on fireworks to Dad telling Mom to stand-down when the BBQ comes out, there’s always been something macho about fire…and cooking over coals. So, we gathered five of Saigon’s best chefs, and asked them what it is about the grill.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt 

From Asador Etxebarri’s rise to one of the best restaurants in the world, to Singapore’s Burnt Ends’ perennial place in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, to Yoshiteru Ikegawa’s binchotan-grilled birds at the Michelin-star Torishiki in Tokyo, and Lennox Hastie’s Firedoor in Australia with its fireside dining experience getting a Chef’s Table special (and BBQ getting its own season on the show), globally food cooked on a wood-fired grill continues to fire the imagination of foodies everywhere. 

Let’s not forget, for most of our human history, cooking with fire was the only way to do it – for something like 2 million years. Historians even link that development to the evolutionary leaps of mankind. Then gas ranges appeared about 150-years-ago, and today 60% of BBQ grills sold are gas-propelled. Despite all that convenience, there’s still something romantic, and primal about cooking with fire.

Here, new places with a fire-cooking concept keep opening, building on the reputation created by restaurants like Quince and Stoker. There’s Chapter Dining & Grill and the soon-to-open KHỐI (which means smoke) in Hanoi. And in Saigon, there’s Fireworks and Sono. 

So, to better understand the fascination with fire, and to explore whether it really is a male preserve, we gathered the city’s most esteemed chefs who get their hands dirty every night manning the grills in some of the best restaurants in Saigon.

Chef Elliot Hardy
Elliot Hardy at Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar.

Elliot Hardy was proudly installed as the new head chef of Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar in August. The two Stoker restaurants (one in District 1 and the other in Thao Dien) always focused on primal cuts of meat, usually dry-aged. But Elliot, who trained at MoVida, a rustic Spanish restaurant in Melbourne that used the wood grill a lot, added his obsession with smoke – even his potatoes come out deliriously smokey. 

Jimmy Garside opened the doors at Aalto around the same time Elliot arrived, although he’d been plotting the opening through the dark, interminable days of lockdown. “Aalto is like being transported to the Amalfi coast with white plaster, terracotta and a seafood-heavy menu coming off the grills,” he says by way of a quick introduction. 

Chef Jimmy Garside
Jimmy Garside at Aalto.

Compared to them, Julien Perraudin goes way back. In the years since opening in 2018, he has made Quince Saigon a favorite casual fine dining restaurant, while gathering an armful of awards. He did that, he says, through “quality produce, technique, and impeccable service, and great food, great wine, and a great atmosphere.”

Francis Thuan worked his way up in some of the city’s best kitchens, before opening Esta, and hitting the ground running, at their first location in an alley off Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. A year on, they switched over to a new location on Tran Quy Khoach Street, as Restaurant Esta, which is “a celebration of Vietnam’s terroir, plants and seasons, through dishes cooked with fire.”

Francis in Esta kitchen
Francis Thuan [centre] in the kitchen at Esta.

And finally, Diep is head chef at newly-launched Thao Dien spot Sóno Grill & Bar. There he celebrates local ingredients in a space where they “play with fire,” cooking Vietnamese and Asian-inspired dishes in their open kitchen. 

How is your approach to cooking with fire different from regular kitchens? 

Julien: You can’t control fire as you can with the temperature using other methods of cooking. You can play with fire and try to befriend it. But, every time is different. You have to be willing to fail many times. It’s so instinctive. And you have to learn to go with the flow.

Quince Saigon chefs
Executive Chef Julien at Quince [right] with Head Chef Phong.

Diep: This style of cooking is still definitely not common. That’s perhaps because it requires more concentration and focus compared to other styles of cooking. 

Elliot: Cooking with wood, fire and smoke gives food a different dimension of flavor. You can’t achieve that cooking with gas or electric which you’ll see in traditional restaurants.

Jimmy: But this is a traditional way of cooking. For as long as we’ve been burning steaks, we’ve been doing it over fire. Comparing it to cooking on modern stoves, it’s completely different. You really have to be in control of your fire, and understand it. It’s not as easy as turning the heat down. Every movement of coals and change of position on the grill or oven can yield a different result

Francis: Also, wood-fired food cooks faster. That allows some nutrients and antioxidants to be retained in the food. You’d probably lose them by conventional cooking methods. Flavor-wise, for me, the longer food is cooked, the less taste it has. And I feel that’s especially true for vegetables.

Francis at Esta
Francis Thuan at Esta. “After 12 years of grinding and grilling I’m happy to say I don’t burn my hands any more.”

So, cooking with fire requires more attention and sensitivity. How did you develop that skill and how do you train it effectively?

Francis: Naturally, you learn by making a lot of mistakes. Through those experiences you learn to control fire. And then how ingredients deal with fire. But it’s all worth it for the flavor. It’s explosive on your palate and it makes your heart skip a beat. 

Elliot: Personally, I spent a few formative years training on the charcoal grill at Melbourne’s MoVida. From there I moved on to other restaurants with the same philosophy to further hone my skills in woodfired cooking. In terms of training, attention is critical – temperatures vary dramatically and you have to understand where the hot spots are on the grill.

But the most important skill I can train is being comfortable with the heat. It’s hot standing in front of a blazing fire for hours on end. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!

Woodfired food at Aalto
“Like anything else, cooking this way requires practice, practice and more practice.” – Jimmy Garside

Jimmy: I’ve always had an interest in this style of cooking – right from burning sausages on a disposable barbecue grill in the backyard at home growing up. When I got my start, it was a lot of trial and error too. I really got into it when I moved to Australia. It’s a national pastime there. And I got to work alongside some passionate chefs who extolled its virtues. 

Like anything else, cooking this way requires practice, practice and more practice. But I find young chefs here are taking a big interest in fire cooking. It’s great to see. Enthusiasm makes training much easier. 

Diep: The learning, for me, never ends. Grilling a perfect dish takes a thorough understanding of ingredients – each one has its own characteristics and a different way of responding to fire – and also constantly exploring and developing modern cooking techniques. When training, we really focus on the concentration and sensitivity needed to manage the grill – a slight lack of attention and the outside becomes burnt and the inside undercooked. 

With such a macho image of the food, how do you appeal to female guests? And how can we involve female chefs more in the kitchen?

Elliot: With guests, I don’t think gender matters. Anyone can enjoy good food. And, as for chefs, I don’t believe in the importance of gender or even age where talent is concerned. I’ve worked with lots of chefs, male and female, young and old. It really depends on the individual. 

Stoker's Elliot Hardy
Elliot Hardy: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”

Julien: At Quince Saigon, I think our guest segment is very evenly split between men and women. And five of our cooks right now are women. That includes one who manages the grill. And to be honest, ever since we opened, I’ve preferred working with female chefs. They tend to be more motivated. But if a cook is good, that’s all that matters. In fact, for the whole team, race, gender, or sexual orientation doesn’t matter. You can either cook the line…or you can’t. That’s it.

Quince Saigon
“You can either cook the line…or you can’t. That’s it,” Julien Perraudin says about chefs like Phong [pictured] making it in the Quince kitchen.

Diep: We might assume that female guests appreciate the aesthetic aspects to a dish more. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a reminder that we eat first with the eyes, and that we should plate meticulously. 

Francis: Restaurant Esta has three female chefs in the kitchen right now. And they are our brightest stars. I think having their feedback, insights, and presence in the kitchen helps us to make Esta more accessible to female customers. 

Jimmy: For me, I don’t feel like that perception of dining is so relevant any more. If I take my wife to dinner, she would have tequila and a steak, and I’d be having a piece of fish and a frozen daiquiri! I feel people are more comfortable these days doing whatever they want. 

And I think it’s the same in the kitchen. Sadly, we don’t see enough female chefs here. But in other countries I’ve worked in, it’s changed a lot. We’ll see that happen here too. It’s a cultural shift that occurs organically, and with the help of chefs like us encouraging more women to enter the kitchen. And getting them the recognition and support they need when they do.

How can you keep flavors delicate and subtle with your masculine style of cooking?

Elliot: Personally, I like the caveman, primitive nature of it. There aren’t many components. And I like that too. I would say I don’t aim to achieve delicate flavors with my food. I’m looking for a depth of flavor that smoke and fire help me to achieve. It’s bold, intense food, but in the right ways. 

Francis: Growing up in Vietnam, we learn about yin and yang. So, even in food, we’re mindful of incorporating elements that balance the primal, masculine nature of a dish. But, at Restaurant Esta, we don’t mind a dish being a bit bold and a bit loud too.

Jimmy: I prefer to resist labeling food. But generally, when people use the words masculine and feminine around cuisine, they’re words that are synonymous with heaviness and lightness. At Aalto, we don’t tend to do delicate and subtle food, even though Mediterranean ingredients are super light and fresh. We go for big, punchy flavors. But we get them without employing ‘manly’ means. For example, we’ll use olive oil instead of butter. And we’ll use heaps of herbs and lemon that bring that lightness. 

Aalto's Jimmy Gardside
“We go for big, punchy flavors,” Jimmy Garside at Aalto.

Julien: Right, why is it masculine? Dancing flames are so feminine. But I agree that it is hard to be delicate with this kind of cuisine – perhaps some delicacy appears in our starters. But not when we cook a steak. Overall, I think everything cooked on the grill just tastes better; it brings out more umami flavor. But that’s not to say it’s better than pan cooking. I prefer fish cooked in a pan over a grill. Veal is another good example. Veal cooked on a BBQ or veal cooked in a pan are completely different. Pan cooking retains some of its delicacy, whereas the barbecue turns it more towards being a steak. 

How do you treat smoke as an element in a dish’s flavor and where do you draw the line?

Elliot: Smoke, to me, is one of the most versatile flavor elements you can add to a dish – and by dish I mean everything from a steak to a dessert. At Stoker, we have a woodfired meringue with charcoal syrup and vanilla ice cream on the menu. It’s finished with vanilla ash that we make from smoked, powdered vanilla beans. We do that to counteract the sweetness of the dish. 

As for drawing the line, smoke can definitely be overdone, just like any element. A dish can be too salty, or underseasoned, or just right. The same applies to smoke. A dish could be perfectly smoked…or taste like an ashtray. 

Diep: Right. Smoke, to me, is an integral part of a dish when used carefully. It adds this indelible aroma to everything it touches that becomes quite addictive. 

Chef Diep at Sóno
Sóno Grill & Bar’s Head Chef Diep in the open kitchen.

Francis: There’s so many interesting variables. The kind of wood, the ingredients you’re smoking, the temperature – whether it’s hot or cold smoked – the equipment, and the time you’re smoking it for. To me, smoke is like aging wine. You infuse the flavor of wood into the food, as you do with wine in a wine barrel. 

Jimmy: It’s all about understanding your ingredients and knowing what they need. We have a really simple approach to food here at Aalto and we try to let the produce speak for itself. Once you start overpowering it then you’ve lost. 

And you should understand the components too. We cook in three ways. With the grill, the wood oven and the smoker. With that, we use three different fuels, with some dishes going through all three until we get what we want.

And which dish exhibits your approach to cooking the best right now and what does it taste like?

Jimmy: Right now, our grouper dish is a pretty good representation of what we do. We use fresh-caught grouper and local clams that we cook in the wood oven. And we prepare them with smoked Dalat tomatoes, and an espelette and lemon balm butter sauce. It’s super simple. It’s made with great local ingredients. And it’s light, fresh, floral, and smokey – everything you want from a seafood dish. 

Julilen: That’s hard. It’s like asking me which of my kids is my favorite!

From our starters, I think right now it’s our foie gras & tuna. It’s eclectic and all over the place. It just contains so many elements. There’s the raw element with the Akami bluefin tuna, an elegant dressing, a large piece of foie gras that’s been barbecued, and some smoked tomatoes. All that gives it a diversity of flavors: sweetness, acidity, saltiness, smokiness, and some sourness. And there’s all these textures because it’s creamy, fatty, and crispy. Then there’s the variance in temperatures – hot, warm and cold. 

Julien at Quince Saigon
“Which dish sums up our cuisine right now at Quince Saigon? That’s like asking which of my kids is my favorite!”

Elliot: One dish? It has to be a smoked, dry-aged steak cooked over a wood fire. Before grilling, I’d gently smoke the steak by hanging it above the fire for a couple of hours. That imparts a really deep smoky flavor into the meat. Then I’d season it with salt and finish it on the wood-fired grill. Less is more. For a great steak you just need three things: good quality beef, fire and salt. Simple. 

Francis: I’m choosing our 4-day dry-aged whole mallard served in its jus with grilled sticky rice. It’s a summation of everything we’ve learnt in the last three years. Part of that is a deeper exploration and understanding of Vietnamese ingredients. The mallards are from North Vietnam and they have a special flavor profile. Then we use the dry-aging technique. We played around with dry-aging them for 14 days, and seven days, but we settled on four. 

Then comes the fire. Hanging the mallard above the fire smokes it and partially cooks it, while drying the skin. It takes on this wonderfully subtle scent of chestnuts and almonds. Finally, we grill it on embers. The heat brings the duck to life. The flesh becomes pinker, the skin crispier and more taught – which we notice because we don’t use any glaze on the skin. The deboned legs and breast are served in a jus made from the left-over mallard and a marinated and grilled sticky rice.

Restaurant Esta's mallard dish.
“The deboned legs and breast are served in a jus made from the left-over mallard,” Francis Thuan says about the dish that epitomizes the cooking at Esta right now.

Diep: At Sóno Grill & Bar, I’d choose a grouper dish too. We do it in the Vietnamese Lã Vọng-style. We get the grouper fresh from Phu Quy Island. Then we marinate it with galangal, turmeric, fermented rice and Vietnamese fish sauce. And we grill it over embers. It has a sweet taste – which comes from the fish – and the wonderful aroma from the galangal, and some vibrant color from the turmeric. Most importantly, it’s modern but full of Vietnamese flavor. 

Finally, how often do you burn your hands?

Francis: Haha! In the beginning probably weekly! But after 12 years of grinding and grilling I’m happy to say it doesn’t happen any more. Fire’s my best friend. I guess we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well.

Elliot: Never. Not anymore, anyway. Over the years, I think I’ve become immune. In the industry, we call it having “asbestos hands.”

Sóno Grill and Bar
Diep at Sóno Grill & Bar, talking to his team.

Diep: It’s rare if a chef is concentrating. It does still happen from time to time when I’m experimenting and playing around a bit, and when I’m brave (or foolish enough) to not have gloves on or use towels. 

Julien: I always cut myself and burn myself in the most ridiculous situations – but never in the kitchen, at least not anymore (it used to happen a lot). I’ll pick up papercuts and random scissor injuries at home! At Quince Saigon, the biggest issue is the constant heat coming from the oven – you feel your hands becoming drier and drier. 

Jimmy: That would depend on how many times I put my f*cking hands in the oven! But, in general, I don’t burn my hands often. If I’m training someone new on the grill, there’s always a chance they’ll leave something hot where it’s not meant to be…

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