At Ngoc Suong Restaurant’s headquarters at 106 Suong Nguyet Anh life goes on as usual. Dapper middle-aged waiters serve up wild boar and fish carpaccio with the effortless manner – attentive but never fussy – of service professionals who have been honing their skills for a lifetime. “They have been with us for as long as I remember,” Vinh Q. Le says proudly.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
The CEO and executive chef of Ngoc Suong has history. There’s the 64 years since Ngoc Suong first opened in Cam Ranh Bay and the 14 years since this Saigon establishment (one of two Ngoc Suong’s in Saigon) opened up with its mock ship’s masts and sweeping wooden staircases. “I still remember my grandparents goi ca, their fish carpaccio with unforgettably fresh, simple flavours that we still aspire to replicate today…” Which brings us to Vinh’s cooking philosophy: recreate emotions and moments through food.
As tables of dating couples and happy families nod contentedly to the hits played by the in-house pianist, Vinh explains how his career trajectory has been unique among the three generations that preceded him in the family business.
That’s because, he says, he moved to the States at 17 to study cooking eventually graduating with a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu. Then he tripped between the US, China, Spain, and Japan, working in different kitchens. “But man, I do miss LA,” he sighs lost in his own thoughts, as the big-hearted but introspective chef often seems to be.
His return to Saigon has reinvigorated the restaurant brand. At their newest location, Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar on a breezy sidestreet off Thai Van Lung (which we left an hour or so ago to visit this HQ) Vinh’s head chef Daniel Hohng had brought us out dish after dish of modern Vietnamese seafood and street food classics with a gastronomic twist – like bap xao with bone marrow. “Some things have changed, but some things stay the same,” he smiles, “the freshest ingredients, service and ambience are still essential, but now its about embracing sustainability while pushing boundaries, creating experiences, and focusing on the visual side when presenting dishes more than ever…”
Even before the restaurant opened Vinh organized a party in the building site showcasing his other passion – music. “Besides cooking, music is everything,” he shrugs. “Back at elementary school, bands like Green Day ignited a spark of love for music in me. And then much later, in the States, I went to Coachella for the first time, and there was no turning back…”
So instead of following the usual chef’s interview format, we decide to ask Vinh about the music that changed his life…with the odd question about food.
Who would you invite over to eat with us now if you could invite anyone?
Anthony Bourdain. Hands down. His character and personality resonated with me as much as they did with lots of people here in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world. Humour, modesty, knowledge, and he was a decent chef too. What would he think to Ngoc Suong? I’d hope someone as iconic as him would appreciate what we’re doing. We worked hard here to create a quality experience, and I think that’s something he’d appreciate…
How does music fit in with your life leading the Ngoc Suong brand?
Music is an everyday thing. And it sets the tone of the day. Meetings aside, I’ll always have something playing – and my taste is diverse. For example, when creating a new dish I’ll play classical music. During or after service I’ll listen to electronic music. Chilling its melodic house. Or when I’m down acoustic Vietnamese songs. But, overall, for me, techno takes the win.
Techno might feel cold and synthesized…but it’s incredibly deep. It can take you on a sensory journey.
Which artists stood out during that first time at Coachella?
I remember being in the VIP area – actually at some point I was stood next to Bradley Cooper – and I recall three very different artists clearly. There was a live set by the English duo Disclosure, another set by the French DJ and producer Gesaffelstein and a show by the legendary Guns N’ Roses. All very different. But they each made me feel emotions I hadn’t felt for some time.
And how about your music tastes – how have they changed since you first started listening?
They have…but I feel you remain true to your roots. I started out getting into rock and then I got into harder stuff, trap and hip hop, but I still listened to popular Vietnamese music at the same time. As I’ve got older, my taste has matured. Now, I appreciate music that’s richer in narrative, music that takes me on a journey, maybe with its harmony, its drums, basslines, chords, or even through the history the music embodies…
What do you listen to when no one’s around?
Vinahouse! No, I’m kidding. Honestly, some heartfelt Vietnamese pop ballads. Not cool, but I feel them anyway. Songs like “Loi Tai Mua” by Vicky Nhung or “Co Chang Trai Viet Len Cay” by Phan Manh Quynh.
You have one track to play someone to make them love music. What do you play them?
There’s too many. But here’s two. “Lose Control” by Meduza, Becky Hill and Goodboys, and “Throwaway” by SG Lewis and Clairo. Two tracks from very different ends of the music spectrum, but both of them can touch the soul.
Wait. Or maybe Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” or 2Pac and Dre’s “California Love”! This is too difficult…
And which track would you like played at your wedding? And which track at your funeral?
For my wedding, Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” with those lyrics “I have died everyday, waiting for you, darling, don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years, I’ll love you for a thousand more…” And at my funeral Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise”.
Tell Us About This Ten Track Mix You’ve Made For Us…
First, a disclaimer: this wasn’t an easy task. How can I reduce a love of music down to ten tracks? I’ve tried to do it anyway. And the music should take you on a personal journey marking a lifetime of highs and lows, and taking in some finer artists and songs that have come out over the years since I’ve been listening. It’s diverse, which reflects my tastes, and it should feel nostalgic and uplifting too. Listen to it in your room, on a mountaintop, in your car…or while you’re cooking.
Describe the tracks you’ve chosen for us.
We start with “Cho Lan Cuoi” by Le Uyen Phuong. It’s a song that I’ve listened to since I was a kid up until now. It reminds me of family times.
Then “Yeu Anh” by Uyen Pim featuring Boo, which takes me from my family to the love of my life.
Neyo is probably my favourite R&B artist ever. So, next I’ve included his “So Sick”. After that Maroon Five’s “She Will Be Loved” which takes me back to my school days. Good times. And then Eminem’s “Mockingbird”. This guy and his music always resonate with me. And this track is a stand-out.
Then there’s Linkin Park Featuring Jay-Z with “Numb/Encore”. Two of my favourite artists teaming up.
Then Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”. While I was in America, EDM really blew up, and this song reminds me of that period. After that, Solomun’s “Somebody’s Story” which reflects my maturing music tastes, moving towards less commercial tracks.
Next, Boris Brechja’s “The Darkest Night” and finally, back to one of the groups from that first Coachella. “Sweet Child Of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. It’s a classic…
Photos by Khooa Nguyen and video by Johnny Viet Nguyen and Jerry Tuan Tran.