The chef life might seem romantic. Guest praise. Prestigious dinners. Magazine articles (like this one). But it’s not that easy. And mom doesn’t always approve. That’s how it’s been for Alain Pham, executive chef at BỜM Gastronomy, who’s still only 25.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Then there’s the tricky task of elevating a cuisine like Vietnamese food with a long tradition, and strong opinions on the preservation of the classics. It’s treacherous territory. That’s really true when tastes vary, as they do, from north to south. But when it’s done brilliantly, as at BỜM Gastronomy, by Alain, supported by restaurant co-founder Jon Do, the dishes simultaneously remind you of childhood, and make you feel all grown up, in the fine-dining way.
But the chance to evoke childhood flavors and their associated memories is an impossibly alluring idea. “My dad used to take me to one spot for pho all the time. These days I get the same flavors at Pho Minh on Pasteur Street,” Alain remembers, “so there was that, and then com tam, and then…” he says disappearing in his childhood reminiscenes.
For all its terrible tribulations, the lockdown changed destinies. And on the positive side, chefs like Alain Pham stuck around, helped open places, and lent their globally-learned skills to the evolution of the cusine here in Vietnam. It could have been so different. Alain was supposed to be in Paris. BỜM Gastronomy wasn’t supposed to happen. And we wouldn’t have had the chance to fall in love with his takes on kho quẹt, pho and many others.
Even though we’re happy, Alain’s mom couldn’t understand how twelve years of dedication could end up with a life spent in kitchens. But he was committed. That’s thanks to pioneers like Luke Nguyen. “I saw Luke making mango salad with fish sauce, and I was hooked,” he reminisces.
And it’s that attitude and willingness to put in the work and the hours that led to a position at Paris’ one Michelin-starred Le Taillevent under chef David Bizet. It’s since received two stars. Then he was off to Helsinki to OLO as Chef de Partie. Not that his school friends, or family, could believe it. He really couldn’t cook growing up. “My friends and family used to tease me about that,” he laughs.
So how did the idea for BỜM Gastronomy happen?
Alain: Destiny, maybe?
Jon: We had a lot in common, I quickly discovered. And then there’s this guy, who was only 24 at the time and so experienced, and he aroused my curiosity. We talked more, and it was obvious Alain was the person I was looking for.
Why the name BỜM Gastronomy? And what’s cooking?
Alain: I discovered BỜM is the name Jon’s parent’s used to call him, as well as a character in the Vietnamese fairy tale.
Jon: I hated it though! It felt childish. But then, looking back, it was kind of special, and when I was searching for a name, that came to mind.
Alain: And we’re borderless, taking inspiration and techniques from lots of places. Of course, we use and love to promote Vietnamese ingredients and produce out of respect for this cuisine, which we adore. And so while the Vietnamese cuisine we make is focussed on texture, and taste; we capture the original flavors, and take them somewhere new.”
If you were guests at BỜM Gastronomy, where would you sit and what would you order?
Jon: For me? A table on the 2nd floor balcony. There we get to see the food being made, and to see Alain at work, and we get to enjoy the art and traditional decorations.
Alain: I would suggest ordering the mille-feuille pho, a fusion of French cuisine and the classic Vietnamese noodle dish. In it, I wanted to layer the flavors, the beef, the basil and herbs, alongside a broth that’s poured on at the table.
How has the reception been to BỜM Gastronomy so far?
Alain: We knew it would be a challenge. But it was one we wanted to take on. People are passionate about food here, and we are too. Cuisine is becoming more borderless and local palettes are more adventurous.
Jon: I think people fall in love with BỜM Gastronomy immediately. One guest fell in love with the food so much she returned a week later with a gift: a plant that still grows in the entranceway for good luck.
Finally, do you have any words of advice for aspiring chefs?
Alain: Whatever your background, or chosen path, it’s never easy to achieve great things. Nothing in life is free. And learning never ends. I’m still expanding my repertoire, growing every day, and learning to be myself inside and outside the kitchen! I’d recommend any aspiring chef to have the same mindset…
Photographs by Nghia Ngo and translation by David Kaye.