We spent some time hanging out and cooking with French Chef Olivier Corticchiato at his restaurant, Le Comptoir Danang, to find out what culinary delights are tucked away in his shopping bag.
Read on in Vietnamese
“I was born in Lyon. It is well known as the capital of gastronomy,” French chef Olivier Corticchiato tells us from his restaurant, Le Comptoir Danang. We are still contemplating the mouth-watering duck he cooked for lunch after a busy morning at My An Northern Market, watching him fill up his shopping bag with fresh produce for us.
It was in Lyon that he perfected his craft, starting as a dishwasher when he was just 14 (but shhh, he says, it’s technically illegal to work at such a young age in France!). Then he joined the kitchen of the legendary Paul Bocuse, known as the first TV chef in the 1960s and a man Olivier says earns respect “simply by being there. When he arrived in the kitchen he would shake your hand and he was always perfectly dressed…his apron was always perfect.”
“He was one of the first French chefs to travel to Japan, Asia, America to show the people this is our french cuisine.”
After moving to the South of France, aged 19, Olivier worked for some of the best Michelin restaurants in the region. There, he met his partner Myriam, also a huge food lover and wine expert who has joined us today, before moving to Hong Kong for a short time. He has lived in Danang for the past eighteen months. Now aged 28, he has opened up his first French-themed restaurant, Le Comptoir. So how does life here compare to his French culinary roots?
“I love the attitude of the Vietnamese people. They are quite closed, to begin with, but when you start to understand them and their story, they open their arms like you are part of their family. I have visited around 10 countries in Asia and Vietnam is the warmest welcome I have received: the attitudes, smiles, and mindset of the people. Vietnamese people are proud of who they are. We are Vietnam, we are all together, we are one. It’s exactly what we want to apply here. We are doing family time, all together.”
“In Lyon, it is quite easy to get connected to the food. Not only by working at restaurants but by hanging out at shops, markets, through suppliers, through everything! If you go to a French market in Lyon then you want to spend the whole day there. You’re for sure going to spend 500 there…” 500 Euros, not VND, he clarifies! “They have all the best products in the world there.”
“The big difference is that to properly discover Vietnamese food you have to travel to Vietnam. In Lyon, you can discover everything in one place, at the market. So first of all its convenient. In Vietnam, where can you find a nice cao lau in Da Nang? There is no such place. We are 30 kilometers away (in Hoi An), bun bo Hue? We can’t find it in Tam Ky but it’s available in Hue or Da Nang. Every region keeps its own identity. For me, there is no capital of food in Vietnam.”
“For Le Comptoir Danang, I feel like I’m back in Lyon. In Lyon, if restaurants are small and if they are full then you go and sit at the counter. You are alone so you cannot have a whole table to yourself because the restaurant will lose space.”
“Le Comptoir means the counter -– where you will have interaction. At Le Comptoir Danang we have two counters, one next to the bar so you can talk with the team when they are passing by and one next to the kitchen so you can exchange ideas with myself, the chef. I think that’s really important.”
“When people arrive and say ‘oh no, not the counter’, 95% of the time they will say at the end ‘thanks for choosing the counter for us, we can talk and see how the food is prepared.'” It’s the mindset of an open kitchen and having those exchanges that you wouldn’t get at a table on your own. It’s quite common in Asia, in Japan. You are next to the chef and it does feel like you’re in somebody’s kitchen.’
In many ways, it feels as if Olivier is trying to recreate the experience of a Michelin star restaurant in Danang, which he says is a lot about the way you take care of the guests.
“You welcome them…and it’s not, ‘let’s feed ourselves’, it’s ‘let’s have a moment at this place’. We are not talking about having dinner, we’re talking about going there and enjoying the whole night, the whole experience.”
Whilst Olivier runs the kitchen, Myriam is in charge of Le Comptoir Danang’s extensive wine collection. She modestly warns us: “Olivier’s not a bad chef and I’m not so bad at choosing wine!” In fact, one of the reasons they connected was because Mryiam always paired the perfect wines with Olivier’s food in France.
The wine Myriam has picked for their shopping bag has followed the couple on their journey across the world.
“Olivier’s father was from Corsica. We were at one restaurant in Corsica, we had a nice conversation with the manager and a great dinner. When we were leaving he gave us one bottle of Myrtus, Domaine Sant’Armettu. We tasted it and it was amazing. The wine has a beautiful deep ruby colour, with a rich spicy nose (there’s pepper, oregano, and sage…) and some aromas of black and red fruits. The wine is elegant and deep with a spicy final and very delicate tannins.”
“I found his wine again in Hong Kong when we worked there. I built up a very good relationship with the Corsican ambassador of wines and he is half Vietnamese.”
“So when I left Hong Kong for Le Comptoir Danang, I told him I love your wine and I want to promote it in Vietnam. Now, I think I’m the first person to import his wine to Vietnam.”
“You can pair this wine with meats most of the time but it works with cold meats as well and cheeses too.”
“I paired this Myrtus with the duck that we just cooked because duck – even if you do the seasoning well – can still be a little bit flat. So it needed something with a punch that complimented the fattiness and the sweetness of the dish. Myrtus gives a touch of freshness and spiciness to the dish…”
Every chef needs a great knife. Although there’s a section of the market selling kitchen utensils – pots and pans, cutlery and knives – Olivier barely looks at them. He prefers his own knife. It was hand-crafted for Olivier on a birthday trip to Japan.
“Everybody says that Japanese knives are the best. I think that’s true.”
Why a knife? “Because a good product has to be transformed, to create good food you have to carve your identity on to it and a knife is the first step in that process. You’re going to cut it, dice it, mince it. You’re going to use your knives to create a new shape, a new texture.”
3. The Pepper
“Vietnam is a huge producer of pepper. You have Pho Quoc black pepper, pepper from the forest…white, red and green pepper, even passion pepper.”
“The peppers are part of the seasoning, which is the most important part of the preparation of the dish. If you have all the right techniques but you forget to season it, then it will not work.“
‘Today, there is one green Sichuan pepper and one red Sichuan pepper that we are using. Sichuan is a province in China. Sichuan cuisine is some of the spiciest food you can find in China. But this pepper is not like a chili, it’s more flavourful. It makes the food powerful but fresh. So when you bite one of the cloves of these peppers, you get the zest. Then, after a few moments, it’s really intense. If something is flat and we put these peppers on top, then it can completely change the taste of the dish.”
“If you don’t roast duck properly or add some spices, it’s not that tasty.”
4. Garlic and Herbs
“Whatever I am cooking I always use garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Always.”
“The garlic that I use is called Ly Son garlic. I discovered it in Vietnam three years ago. It’s the smallest garlic you can find and for me the tastiest garlic but by no means the strongest garlic. It’s a light taste, a bit like a spring onion.”
“In France, we have pink garlic but Ly son garlic is a product that I will use for a long time to come, even if I leave Vietnam. You can do a lot of things with it. Take a nice stick put it in the pan, play with it, glaze it.”
“And these herbs are Provence style, classic cuisine from the south of France.”
5. Calamansi and Citrus
At the local market in the morning, Olivier makes a beeline for the calamansi from one of the local sellers. “Đẹp trai!” the market ladies mutter as he haggles for the best price. We all laugh.
“Whatever you are doing, if you feel something is too flat, try to add a zest of lime, a zest of orange or another citrus.”
“It will change your recipe, especially for white meat and fish. It will explode in your mouth and I use this idea a lot. Calamansi is one of the best fruits to use for zest.” And luckily it is here in abundance in Vietnam.
6. The Honey
“Vietnam is a huge producer of honey. There are two things to balance any recipe: citrus or honey. If I’m not using citrus, it’s going to be honey. Acidity and sweetness will always balance a recipe. In Vietnam, you have coffee honey, white forest honey, a typical honey from Sapa flowers, so many choices…”
Today, at Le Comptoir Danang, we’re using wildflower honey.
“For me, simple is the best. It doesn’t have to be too complicated. In five minutes today, the glaze was finished. If you use the right product then you will be fine.”
7. Pommery Mustard
“In France, we are proud of our mustard, especially our Dijon mustard. This is the one most people have heard of. But Pommery mustard is the perfect combination to go with a green salad or a nice steak or to go with a nice cheese plate. It’s another great product.”
“Sometimes there are ingredients that are going to change the tone of the recipe and Pommery mustard is one of those ingredients.”
“You can put the mustard on the table and give the customers a big spoon and you can tell them the story of the mustard. Then it’s really like we are in France.”
So what is the story of this mustard?
“This mustard is not that common. And it’s not mild. This one is very strong because it’s a little bit fermented. It’s definitely powerful. You don’t have to use a lot of it, you can just use a small teaspoon and it will change the flavour of the recipe completely. But you can play with this product. This product doesn’t change, the packaging or the recipe or the way they grow the mustard seeds, doesn’t change. This is a French product and one of the products from France I’m most proud of.’
The Final Result: Pan-Seared Fillé of Duck, Glazed with Honey and Salad
Pulling the ingredients together from his shopping bag, here’s what Olivier cooked up for us at Le Comptoir Danang.
“I finished late last night and I was a bit tired when I arrived today. I had no inspiration, to begin with. But we go to the market and I start to think about what I’m going to buy.”
“I’m not bothered about the number of calories, I care about the taste. The kale cabbage I bought gives you the taste of the soil.”
“I started with a fresh salad and then I found some passion fruit to give it a kick. I saw the chickens (still alive!) but I changed my mind and thought let’s buy a duck. Why? Because the chickens were tough, too fresh. So I thought let’s go for the duck.”
“Then, in the Healthy Farm Shop, I saw the cherry tomatoes, super tasty, so I picked them up for the salad. Then lavender. Lavender, honey, duck! It works so well together. So let’s do a pan-seared fillé of duck, glazed with the honey and the lavender but it’s missing something…when we are on the way back after buying the duck from the market I see some small calamansis and here we go: it’s done!”
“I don’t follow any recipe card, it’s more about instinct. This is what I was missing when I worked in hotels and why I opened my restaurant. I now get the opportunity to create what I want, when I want! I have the chance to make people happy.”
Photos by Chris Love