“I have this inborn connection with fire,” Quince Saigon’s head chef, Francis Thuan, explains. And it’s true. He really has blazed a trail through the industry to his current position at one of Saigon’s best-loved restaurants where food is served with a lick of fire.
He first entered the F&B industry in 2010 as a food shipper and dishwasher at a tiny restaurant in central Saigon. Since then, Francis Thuan has gradually asserted himself among the ever-expanding culinary industry here.
It takes a fearless, persistent chef to go all the way from a dishwasher to Saigon’s most polished eatery’s head chef. There have been some significant stepping stones along the way. Those included kitchen-hopping for a while – between Pasha, Snap Cafe, La Villa, Chill Sky Bar’s Steak House and MAD House. And the head chef has climbed mountains at the same time. Literally. Last year he scaled Mount Everest during a cultural exchange program in Nepal.
With all that experience under his belt, Francis Thuan is ready for the next milestone. Esta Eatery, his very first restaurant, will come to life in September, 2019.
But amid the piles of work and endless planning, Francis Thuan found time to meet The Dot Magazine to share with us his nine-year culinary voyage since he moved to Saigon…and some places that inspire him. So we took a walk with him around Chung cư Vĩnh Hội’s market in District 4 to get his guide to his second home. And so, this is the latest in our Guest Concierge series. Discover Saigon in Francis Thuan’s eyes.
Francis, could you give someone new to the city a primer to the districts?
District 1 is simply the heart of Saigon. District 2 is a peaceful life over there on the other side of the Saigon river – a growing enclave separated from the bustling city center. Then there’s District 5, the topsy-turvy Chinatown of Saigon.
And what does Saigon mean to you?
Saigon has made me a man. It’s where I’ve truly grown up – even though I’ve only been here for nine years.
I was actually born in Hue and grew up in Buon Ma Thuot. But it’s only since I moved to Saigon that I could experience a financially and spiritually rewarding and independent life. Saigon has also gifted me with a lovely wife. It’s witnessed me rise up from a dishwasher to a professional chef. And it’s also crystal clear to everyone here that Saigon epitomises progressive, fast-growing Vietnam. Another reason to love it.
Where should we go for some quiet time?
Red Door cafe on Le Van Sy street is my go-to hideout. This lesser-known cafe is set back in a leafy garden with charming decor and quality coffee beans. A relaxing morning sipping the shop’s signature espresso while sun-bathing is always good for the soul, especially before the insane pressures in my kitchen. There’s another in the 151 Dong Khoi building, but I prefer this location.
Where should we take a date?
Me and my wife like to have dates at Ivoire Pastry Boutique. Call me old-fashioned, but I personally enjoy dating at bakeries or dessert places. The idea of sharing sweets together in an adorable, intimate setting makes us comfortable to open our hearts. And that’s how I won her!
Where should we go for a party?
The spacious, tropical MAD House is suitable for all kinds of events. Whether it’s family BBQ dinners or company retreats, the resort-like restaurant satisfies both locals and foreigners with its Asian-Western fusion menu. I remember that MAD House once hosted an event for around 1000 people!
How about an important meeting, where would be the best place?
Yen Sushi is probably my first choice. My main reason is because of its exquisite interior design and the private rooms which are perfect for business negotiations. Besides, the ingredients are prepared conscientiously (and I say that from the perspective of a chef) – so the food is really high quality.
Where should we go for the best street food?
I was born with Hue genes. So, I adore dishes from central Vietnam – simple and delicious. My wife and I often go to Hương Giang – Ẩm thực Huế in District 3 when that Hue food craving kicks in. The owner-couple are originally from Hue, the same as most of the ingredients. Another great tick is their extremely reasonably-priced menu.
For lunch, I recommend The Lunch Lady in District 1. There’s no fixed menu here, each day the lady will surprise customers with one distinctive dish. Observing her dedication makes me fall in love with cooking all over again. She even wrote down her cooking recipes and printed them out for display and sale. I just love the simple and hearty noodle bowls there.
Where should we go for some late-night bites?
Quan 79 on 79 Quoc Huong street, Thao Dien. Our kitchen team often gathers to share a meal here after work. Delicious street eats are healing. Our common orders are grilled rice paper with chili salt, pork intestine with Vietnamese pickles and beef crushed with vegetables. Their special spices will make your taste buds dance. And it’s all best paired with a couple of local beers.
Which high-end spot is worth our money?
Sushi Rei offers the most high-end omakase in Saigon. The minimally-designed restaurant provides only eight seats around the sushi bar and a spacious backyard and VIP room. The Japanese head chef, Tomo, knows what he’s doing, looking at how meticulously he chooses and treats his ingredients.
I hope it doesn’t seem biased if I also mention Quince. Anyway, I always try to put myself in the shoes of customers to gain an objective opinion of how we are performing. And Quince Saigon is packed with both regulars and newcomers every night. I think that’s because of the constantly changing and creatively curated menu. It helps create a fulfilling experience every time.
Where do we go for the best cocktails?
Ryu is among the new boys in town, with its wonderful array of cocktails and spirits customised to each drinker’s taste.
Where should we go to get a different perspective on Saigon?
In the midst of the bustling city center stands the 40-year-old wet market called Chợ Cũ Tôn Thất Đạm. There you’ll find semi-decent food stalls and shanty-like apartments. Although Saigon is growing with a rapid speed, there still exists evidence of a conventional, community-oriented lifestyle in places like this old market.
Which newly opened place should we be most excited about?
The newly-established Sol Kitchen & Bar has added to the Mediterranean-influenced Saigon food scene with dishes that are also Latin American inspired. I’m glad to witness (and be a part of) the incessant changes in F&B industry here.
Can I also seize this opportunity to introduce my upcoming project – Esta Eatery? I was inspired so much by the multicultural cuisine in Melbourne, Australia. I guess it’s because all the quintessential flavours converge in this immigrant city.
Esta Eatery will have a combination of Asian, Western and American flavours. I promise to let your tastebuds and imagination take flight around the world – right in the center of Saigon.
Where should we go to escape the city? And where should we stay there?
I occasionally spare one or two days to slow the pace of my life a little. That’s to try to regain some balance in my life when I get too stressed at work. I love foggy Dalat city and Andante Farmstay. Sometimes I also go for an escape to Lagi and stay at Lara Homestay near the beach.
My Vietnam is beautiful. If your time allows, do head to the north and famous Sapa to get a panoramic view of this country. I recommend staying at the elegant Topas Ecolodge and eating your way through the holiday with the delicious dishes cooked by Christan, head chef at Topas.
Photographs by Nam Tran Duy and edited by David Kaye