In his 61-year career, Auguste Escoffier laid the foundations for modern cuisine. “Good food,” he famously said, “is the foundation of genuine happiness.” To honor his memory, the Young Talents Escoffier competition was created in 2003. It’s an event for cooks and waiting staff under the age of 25. As part of that, the Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022 event attracted 16 up-and-coming finalists. But there could be only one winner.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Auguste Escoffier, “emperor of chefs,” revolutionized menus. He re-organized kitchens. He developed the art and practice of cooking. And he wrote cookbooks that are still used today, including the “bible of French cuisine” Le Guide Culinaire. Not bad considering he was born in 1846.
The competition, Young Talents Escoffier, launched an Asian branch of the event, the Talents Escoffier Asian Trophy, in 2008. And the preliminary round here, Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam. It allows emerging talent to learn more about the work of Auguste Escoffier, to receive professional coaching – this year with a masterclass from Barilla, the main sponsors – and to meet (and learn from) industry leaders, and to develop their craft, hopefully on the way to Bali for the Asian Trophy, and on to a place in the international finals for one young chef.
The Prestigious Industry Leaders Joining Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022
For Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022, the prestigious line-up of industry leaders on September 29 included Sakal Phoeung of Le Corto and P’ti, one of the competition’s organizers here. And Peter Cuong Franklin, the chef and founder of Anan Restaurant and Nhau Nhau. Then there was Hoang Tung of T.U.N.G Dining and Å by TUNG and Matteo Fontana, executive chef of Da Vittorio. Also, there was James Audou, pastry chef at The Brix and CLAY Saigon, and Chairman La Chaine des Rotisseurs Vietnam, Raj Taneja. And Frank Sampere, executive chef at Annam. And on the day before the competition, Andrea Tranchero, from Barilla Group, dropped by to give the masterclass.
The 16 finalists represented a broad selection of the best hotels and restaurants in the country. People like Vo Le Hong Thang from Tinto, Le Nguyen Quoc Dat from Nikko Hotel Saigon, Ho Quoc Trung from Ngọc Sương, and Truong Gia Loc from The Tevere.
French Gastronomy Meets Italian Products
“I couldn’t possibly say which cuisine is better,” Da Vittorio’s Matteo Fontana laughs when we ask him to compare the cuisine of his homeland with that of the competition’s lauded inspiration. “Let’s just say both Italian and French cuisines are good, and each has its own unique characteristics.”
Plus, the main sponsor this year, Barilla, is an Italian pasta company that goes almost as far back as the inspiration for the competition, Auguste Escoffier himself. The family-run company was founded in 1877 as a bakery shop in Parma. And it evolved into a pasta production factory in the early years of the 20th century.
“Of course, pasta is a main ingredient in Italian cooking,” Matteo says. The Milanese chef makes some playful versions of it himself over at Da Vittorio – a tuna dish where long, thin strips of tuna stand in for spaghetti, and a fun Vittorio-style paccheri pasta, which they make at the table after giving guests splash-proof bibs. “So, it was interesting for me to see how the young chefs incorporated pasta as a side dish, served with a main course that was made in a French style,” he adds.
“I was surprised at how prestigious the event was.”
“I was surprised how prestigious the event was,” The Brix and CLAY Saigon’s James Audou says about the finals held in District 7’s Q Industries, “and how passionate the contestants were.” James was surprised at how knowledgeable lots of them were too, “with a really good understanding of flavors.”
Naturally, judges like Matteo and James were on hand to help them and to provide some high-level industry insights. “To me being a chef is the most beautiful job in the world,” Matteo says. “But it’s not easy. You have to have lots of patience. But, as I told the contestants, through the pursuit of passion you get satisfaction.”
James had some pragmatic advice too. “Like Matteo says, it’s not easy being a chef – it can become really stressful. But I think there’s strategies to help alleviate that like good planning and staying fully focused on the task in hand.”
Learn, Practice, Create
In fact, one of James Audou’s kitchen assistants from The Brix, 22-year-old Truong Ngoc Nam, won the Best Dessert award. “Our kitchen that Truong Ngoc Nam works in is hot. But he’s a very talented cook and I see him soaking up the knowledge we share with him every single day,” James nods proudly.
“I was quite immature when I started out,” Truong Ngoc Nam remembers. “I didn’t really listen well, and I didn’t really know how to work well as part of a team. I’ve learnt to become more open-minded – which opens me up to lots of good advice I receive and good examples I see – while at the same time honing my skills.”
The competition was still nerve-wracking. “Looking at the quality of judges, we knew it was going to be a strict competition. The judges told me my main dish was quite dry, and visually it wasn’t very well presented. But it was good feedback. To be honest, I can’t say that I overcame my anxiety during the competition – I just tried to do my best, and when I did make a mistake I tried not to dwell on it.”
Despite that, Truong Ngoc Nam was up to the occasion. “Any favorite moments? Probably when we were preparing to cook. I was standing there surrounded by some really formidable opponents, and it gave me the feeling of being a warrior going into battle.”
One of those opponents, Truong Gia Loc from The Tevere in Saigon’s District 2, took second prize. “I always repeat the same mantra,” Truong Gia Loc explains, “learn, practice and create.” Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022 was a good place to do all three. “Like Truong Ngoc Nam I was super nervous too,” Truong Gia Loc admits, “but what helped me was preparing really thoroughly – when we got the brief I sat down and thought through what ingredients I might use, and what cooking methods I might employ. Then, I tested the options out, getting as much feedback as I could from people around me.”
Afterwards, they got to cook for a gala dinner at P’ti before the winners were announced. “That was probably my favorite part,” Truong Gia Loc says. “I was extremely nervous and excited to cook for all those prestigious guests, and of course we had the announcement of the winners hanging over us throughout the evening.”
It was a long day for everyone. The candidates had to assemble at 8am. And then they were given their box of ingredients. Then, after a recap of the rules, each one had to prepare a main course under the watchful eyes of the judges who would step in and ask questions from time to time – a dish each for the judges and one for the photographer to shoot.
As always with these events, there was lots of waiting around for the contestants before they could take their turn. Once their dish was complete, the young chefs had to present it, listen to comments, then go back and clean up. In the afternoon came the dessert section, when the whole process started over again. And then it was over to P’ti for the evening event.
And The Winner Of Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022 Is…
After all that, Lu Truong Giang was crowned winner. “The event was so competitive,” Le Corto’s commis tells us, “even 100% wasn’t good enough – we had to put in even more effort than that.” Like Truong Ngoc Nam and Truong Gia Loc, he wasn’t immune to the pressure of the competition either. “It was exciting…but definitely tension-filled,” he says. “Every dish had to be made to the highest standard, and no-one wanted to make a mistake. Honestly, it’s the hardest competition I’ve ever entered.”
In the end it was worth it. “Thankfully, my dishes received a lot of compliments from the judges,” Lu Truong Giang smiles, “and when the results were announced, I just felt so proud to have come so far, and for all my efforts to have been rewarded.”
For Auguste Escoffier, genuine happiness came through good food, but for Lu Truong Giang and the other 15 contestants, the Young Talents Escoffier Vietnam 2022 competition came a close second.
Photos by Luan Nguyen