Spinning Fables At Chef’s Tables With Cuong Nguyen At An’s Saigon

In the An’s Saigon garden, a soft breeze gently sways the palms above the sofas and seats. Inside, in the lounge, a family engages in quiet conversation around a table. And further in still, lies Cuong Nguyen’s intimate eight-seat Chef’s Table, exuding a reverential ambiance that’s a bit like entering the Rothko room.

There’s reasons for that: the high ceiling, the off-white and wood-paneled walls, the meditative volume and elegiac pace of things, and striking abstract art.

A breezy garden and lounge as living room, and beyond, Cuong Nguyen’s Chef’s Table.

It’s All About Perspective At An’s Saigon

“Those?” Chef Cuong Nguyen asks, glancing at the triptych of textural, abstract paintings on the wall beside the counter where they add the finishes to the dishes on the Chef’s Table menu. “They were painted by a friend of ours,” he smiles. 

“It’s called ​​’In The World Full Of Eyes,’ and it’s talking about people’s perspectives. We each might feel different things looking at it – for me, the red represents fire, the indispensable element of every kitchen.”

The texture in the paintings comes from plastic chips the artist has added to the oils, Cuong points out. “That reflects what we’re trying to do in the kitchen. We’re always looking for ways to make the most of every component, to optimize costs, reduce waste, and, of course, to be as sustainable as possible.”

Below the painting is a row of jars containing fermenting and pickling ingredients – some as garishly red as the splashes of paint on the canvases above them, hinting at the endless experimentation going on at An’s.   

Chef Cuong Nguyen at An’s Saigon, which hides inconspicuously in an alley on a side street in Thao Dien.

An Intimate Saigon Chef’s Table Experience For Only Eight Guests 

In the garden and in the lounge, which Vanny, the founder and general manager informally calls their living room because it’s so warm and welcoming, Cuong’s vibrant modern Vietnamese a la carte lunch and dinner menu features revisited Vietnamese comfort food.

For example, there’s Kho Quẹt – fresh vegetables alongside a rich caramelized dipping sauce – and Prawn Mì Quảng. And it deploys lots of fresh locally-sourced ingredients, like the Burrata & Dalat Tomato, or their Miến Xào Cua, crab fried noodles, with hand-picked Ca Mau mud crab.

But in the room reserved for the Chef’s Table, Cuong serves two set tasting menus as meditations upon a word or idea: ‘hoi’ meaning ‘the ticket’ on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (for VND2.345M) and their ‘đồng’ menu, meaning ‘bronze’ or ‘copper,’ and a couple of other things (more on that later) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (for VND2.810M), to only eight guests per seating around an L-shaped table.

Tropical vibes in An’s Saigon’s garden with its all-day a la carte menu.

Dishes As Delicate As The Stories Told

“So, ‘đồng.’ and the lower case ‘đ’ is important to give it a comfortable feeling, means ‘rice field.’ It also means copper or bronze, the color of autumn in my home city of Hanoi, another of the menu’s inspirations. And copper and bronze elements feature often on the plates we use. Finally, it means unity, ‘đồng lòng,’ and refers to the way the team, democratically put menus together, with everyone pitching in ideas.”

The ‘đồng’ menu skips between courses based around jellyfish and sweetbread, barramundi and artichoke, pomelo and persimmon. And it eschews the usual terminology – amuse bouche, appetizers, mains, and dessert for a ‘Hello’ (welcome drink), ‘Get To Know’ (starters), a ‘Gathering’ (of mains), and a sweet ‘Lots Of Laughs’ farewell. And the dishes are as delicately constructed as the stories are told.    

Chef Cuong Nguyen doing R&D for the next Chef’s Table menu.

Mindfully Put Together Menus

Despite the stately surroundings and the mindfully put together menus, the inspiration for the layout, Cuong tells us, is simple family meals served around a shared table, “where everyone shares their joys and sorrows of the long day.”

The intimacy allows Cuong and the An’s Saigon Chef’s Table team to deftly navigate the evening’s flow – adjusting pacing and portion size for each guest, and staggering the stories behind each dish, and elaborating a little, when there’s time.

The Perfect Host For The Intimate Space

Cuong is the perfect host for this kind of intimate space, amiable and articulate with a contended glow, delivering dishes with a backstory, adapting the table to emphasize the theme – a secret panel reveals a rice terrace diorama for the ‘đồng’ menu.

Spending time in An’s urban allotment behind the villa undoubtedly helps Cuong keep his beatific presence. Back there, he grows Vietnamese herbs: húng quế and rau răm. And soon, they’ll expand the project into a collaboration with farmers in the Mekong Delta.  

Braised pork with quail eggs; part of the ‘gathering’ section of the ‘đồng’ menu of progressive Vietnamese cuisine at An’s Saigon.

Facing Up To A Formidable Foe

All this adds up to a satisfyingly mature expression of Hanoi-born Cuong’s evolving culinary philosophy. 

Lots of chefs have been forged in the heat of a kitchen beneath an intimidating superior. Cuong tells us that he had an even more formidable foe: his own mother. 

They’d argue about how to cook and then even more when he decided to commit to the profession. Eventually, she acquiesced, knowing full well how stubborn, but also how passionate, Cuong could be. But, to placate his family, he studied a regular major, Business Administration, alongside culinary arts at the CHM Culinary Institute

After that he hopped between the usual entry-level positions: the hotel kitchen of the Pullman Hanoi, the kitchen of Oak Wine Boutique, and different cruise ships, before moving south, “to start a new life in a foreign land, at Anan Saigon.”

The splashy, abstract art at An’s Saigon, beside’s the counter where Cuong puts the finishing touches to the dishes on the Chef’s Table menu.

Coming Of Age

It was a coming-of-age for Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan Saigon. In 2021, it was named best restaurant in Vietnam by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, while reaching #39. Although the restaurant slid out of the top 50, in a pandemic-affected list, in 2022, it returned at #40 in 2023, the same year it claimed Saigon’s only MICHELIN star in their inaugural list of accolades. 

By then Cuong had left. He’d already worked his way up, mentored by Peter and Head Chef Steve Yook, to become sous chef after only one year. In August 2022, three years after joining, he became executive chef at An’s Saigon. 

Cuong’s still full of praise for Peter and the opportunities he offered him, including getting on stage at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (even though Anan slipped to #65 it was still named best restaurant in Vietnam) with the other red scarf-wearing chefs who had achieved a top 50 place that year and could attend.

There that day were chefs like Sorn Restaurant’s Ice Supaksorn Jongsiri, Le Du’s Chef Ton, Sühring’s Thomas and Mathias Sühring, Odette’s Julien Royer and many others. 

And so, at An’s Saigon, to Peter’s endless experimentalism and technical acumen, Cuong has added thematic menus with whimsical storylines, and a playful approach to the presentation of his dishes.  

Bánh bột lọc with prawns, tomatoes, and a consommé, with chive oil, coriander and cilantro.

At The Vanguard Of Young Vietnamese Chefs

It feels llke Cuong is among a new wave of Vietnamese chefs blending their history and heritage into creatively curated tasting menus and dishes.

For instance, for one of his favorite creations, he drew inspiration from the grilled goose of his childhood to create his Dry-Aged Duck with Burnt Garlic. By infusing modern techniques, his duck boasts impeccably crispy skin and tender meat, a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation.

“I do feel that not only in restaurants, but in lots of industries, young, talented Vietnamese are reinvigorating things,” Cuong nods. It is, he feels, propelled by national pride, the accumulating opportunities for exposure to new knowledge and experiences, and a firsthand understanding of local cuisines and hometown specialities.   

So far, to celebrate their one-year anniversary An’s Saigon have hosted Chef Hau Tran of The Monkey Gallery and Chef Hanh of Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar, and Cuong has done a dinner at Nous Dine with Duc Nghiem — all of whom he rates highly. He discovered special affinities with the Monkey Gallery team, he says, which has lead to lots of exciting follow-up projects.

An’s Saigon was MICHELIN Selected in its inaugural list in 2023.

Presiding Over An’s Saigon’s Chef’s Table

Similar to the art on the walls, An’s Saigon presents a choice of perspective. At first glance, it’s a relaxing or cozy dining destination in Thao Dien that’s perfect for any time of day. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice Cuong at the Chef’s Table, serving a menu that elegantly defies tradition with dishes crafted from seasonal ingredients, including herbs fresh from An’s garden.

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