“We’re here because of food,” Esca Khoo says looking over at Hoang Tung. “It’s magical when you think about it.” It’s the day after their one-night-only dinner at Å by TUNG, called ‘The Explosive Collaboration.’ And we’re catching up in the now deserted dining room.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Esca Khoo is about to open a restaurant. It’ll be somewhere in Asia, although he’s not sure where yet. Anyway, before that happens, he’s taking the opportunity to partake in a series of pan-Asian pop-ups. He was just at The Hardware Club infusing their Italian cuisine with his Asian flavors. Before that, he was at The Moonhouse in Melbourne, and then there was Eat And Cook in Kuala Lumpur – Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants One To Watch in 2022.
And next he’ll be in Penang and then he’ll be in India. “I don’t want to overdo it though,” Esca Khoo says, even though it looks like he’s overdoing it. “A lot of people ask me to collaborate. But I need to preserve my creative energy – sometimes it’s not good to try to do too much…”
Hoang Tung rarely collaborates at all. He is, he admits, maybe too controlling in the kitchen. “As a chef, I focus on precision and planning, so the idea of diverting from that usually fills me with some trepidation,” he nods.
‘The Explosive Collaboration’ dinner felt like two chefs pushing themselves to some place new, and having fun doing it.
Esca Khoo discovered Hoang Tung while he was still in Australia, thanks to the waves made by his recognition from Forbes 30 Under 30 and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for his first restaurant, T.U.N.G Dining in Hanoi.
“And so I messaged him on Instagram – I think that was in July 2022 – to explore the idea of a collaboration,” Esca remembers. And Hoang Tung, surprisingly, agreed.
And the resulting ‘The Explosive Collaboration’ dinner felt like two chefs pushing themselves to some place new, and having fun doing it – a mini banh mi appears as a small donut sphere with the contents balanced on top. And a pigeon dish, called ‘Feed the pigeons’ consisted of a tender piece of pigeon surrounded by barley – it’s staple diet.
Esca only arrived in Saigon a few days ago – his first time in Vietnam – and together he and Hoang Tung created their 14-course menu in only two days. Then they served it up for one night only. “I really admire that,” Hoang Tung tells him. “You’re ready to take on a challenge and to create something quick. It’s not easy. You’re putting your credibility on the line. But we had some really successful dishes, and some of them even surprised me as a Vietnamese.”
“What I like about you is beyond being a great cook, and beyond any techniques or how much caviar you use, is your kindness as a chef and being your true self,” Esca Khoo says. “I don’t use caviar!” Hoang Tung quickly corrects him, completely ignoring the compliment.
Hoang Tung and Esca Khoo went knocking on doors
Hoang Tung and Esca Khoo are about the same age. “Actually, I’m slightly older by a year I think,” Esca admits. And both Hoang Tung and Esca Khoo became chefs despite first pursuing very different career trajectories.
Hanoi-born Hoang Tung studied economics at South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences. There, although he had a full scholarship, he worked part-time in restaurants and fell in love with the profession.
So, after graduating, he went knocking on the doors of Michelin-starred restaurants – places like Filip Langhoff’s acclaimed Helsinki restaurant, Ask, at the Telegraaf Hotel in Talinn, Estonia, and at Kiin Kiin, the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in Copenhagen.
Esca Khoo, who’s from Borneo, was on the path to become a professional footballer. When he moved to Australia at 14, he was still playing – sometimes busking by ball juggling. But he realized that kitchen jobs could help him fund his studies better.
Later, like Hoang Tung, after “lots of knocking on doors” he landed positions at restaurants like Noma Australia and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Eventually, he worked his way up to Head Chef at The Movenpick’s Miss Mi, in Melbourne, where he served Vegemite-glazed kangaroo.
“So to go from doing that – playing football to buy chicken and rice – to now being able to open a restaurant is mind-blowing. It means a lot,” Esca smiles. Both Esca Khoo and Hoang Tung’s work ethic have a lot to do with their ascent. “When I was in lowly positions, my objective was always to make sure the guy above me didn’t have to do anything. So, at the end of the night I’d get a pat on the back and a ‘well done,’” he remembers.
“Now, I’ve learnt to stay true to who I am.“
Despite all those similarities, Hoang Tung and Esca Khoo are very different. In the kitchen, Hoang Tung is straight-faced and serious. Esca Khoo is all smiles and high-energy. Hoang Tung applies an obsessive precision to dishes like his reimagined pho. Esca Khoo is creative and spontaneous, constantly (and courageously) flirting with failure.
“The jelly layer of the pho took three months to perfect,” Hoang Tung tells Esca. “You have to use the exact amount of gelatine so the jelly arrives at the table with the perfect consistency – and that amount will change depending on the temperature and time of year. And I still haven’t perfected it in Saigon, with its tropical climate, so it’s a dish you can only enjoy in Hanoi…for now.”
Added to that, at T.U.N.G Dining and at Å by TUNG, Hoang Tung serves a predominantly local clientele. Esca Khoo is used to diverse diners. Sometimes there’s Malay, Chinese, and Indian in the restaurant for the same dinner, like at Eat And Cook. “People here – and in other countries too – have a strong image of traditional dishes. It’s always a big debate on the Internet. Like in Italy, there’s always the discussion about where’s the best pizza. But there’s no right or wrong answer,” Hoang Tung explains.
“I feel like Australians are easy to please. You cook something with heart and love, and they’re happy. Elsewhere, I’ve been discovering some different opinions – you hit a certain price point and some people just want wagyu, caviar, uni and otoro. Now, I’ve learnt to stay true to who I am,” Esca shrugs.
“Why can restaurants charge $45 for pasta and only $12 for noodles?“
“I do feel pop-ups like this can be forgiving. Guests understand that we’re here to get out of our comfort zone,” Esca Khoo adds. And, despite the spontaneity, he approaches collaborations carefully.
“I’ve been searching for my culinary identity for a long time. I’ve figured out that what I am is being brave and being open to taking different routes to what is normally done; just being creative about what I do. And I look to apply that to what a restaurant is doing,” Esca Khoo says. “I want to merge with them and be one with them.”
It’s about learning too. “You don’t want to be limited to what you already know. I want to see how people move, behave, talk, how they use ingredients,” he adds.
As part of that here Esca headed straight off to the market. “There’s a woman out there frying shallots,” Esca says, nodding towards the street outside. “She cooks them perfectly in 30 seconds – something I’ve seen fine dining chefs struggle with,” he laughs.
“In Australia there’s a big debate about why restaurants can charge $45 for pasta and only $12 for noodles. Even though the pasta probably isn’t handmade. Labor cost is the same. Food cost is the same. And so, I want to shine a light on developing Asian countries. To show the world that a pho, a banh mi, a nasi lemak, a fried chicken, or even a snail from the lady selling snails out there can be presented and enjoyed in a higher form. Before I leave here, I’m going to go to the lady selling snails and show her the picture of our snail dish and tell her she inspired us to do it,” he promises.
“For me, I always think in fine dining terms,” Hoang Tung says. “I want to reimagine Asian food as fine dining. And I want to create something people haven’t seen before – which is going to be challenging for traditionalists. With the pho it’s a hot soup, but I wanted to give people a cool feeling. How to embrace that idea, and to make it ‘fine’ is a slow process. Eventually, I had the idea of an amazing jelly pho.”
“I do want to go out and discover.“
Esca wonders if the collaboration has given Hoang Tung the desire to travel more. “I do want to go out and discover,” Hoang Tung says. “I really want to go to South America. To me, it feels the same as Vietnam…but different. The people appear to have the same vibe and energy as we do in Southeast Asia. And their culture revolves around food too. It’s a similarly healthy cuisine. Take a ceviche, with sweet, sour, salty flavors – we do the same here. And there’s lots of greens. I feel we have a common language.”
And Esca will travel again in a couple of days too, on to Penang and then India. But he’ll say goodbye to the lady selling snails first.
Photos for The Dot Magazine by Nghia Ngo.