Friday, June 17, 2016

saigon stories.

"What do you mean, you don't wear a chef coat? You should provide the example and wear one".

I was having a conversation with an American acquaintance of mine, also a chef, attempting to explain why I don't wear a chef jacket at my current job.  And the reason is because when I arrived on my first day, I noticed my Vietnamese counterpart, the other chef, wasn't wearing one.  The last thing I want to do is intimidate him or make him uncomfortable in his own kitchen; so on that first day my coat stayed in my bag and I promptly brought it home and put it away.

If there's one thing I know how to do well in life it's how to get along with others.  I have vast training in that field, what with growing up with an overbearing French mother and then falling into a few decades worth of some seriously bad personal relationships, both on the romantic and platonic sides.  But through it all, I learned how to play well in the sandbox with the other kiddos.  Moving here I knew I would have a lot to learn. In my workplaces, people would view me as the loud, passionate American and I would need to tone it down a bit (though i 'm not sure how well i'm succeeding on the loud, passionate side).  I am learning about a new (to me) culture, and there are a tremendous amount of differences. I'd like to think that the days of cultural imperialism are over with, but that's not exactly true.  Lots of expats come over here and like to lord it over the locals.  That's not me.  And that's what this other chef wasn't understanding.

From the first moment we met and he found out what I did for a living, he started name dropping.  "Well, I used to work for Donald - you know Donald, don't you?", he said, referring to Donald Link.  That's when my eyes glazed over and I just stared through him.  I may even have sighed out loud.  God I hate that shit.  "Well Donald and I did this. And Donald and I did that. And Donald Donald Donald.  Oh the first time I went to Prune was with Susan Spicer".  Yadda yadda yawn bore.  I'm not pretentious at all, and I dislike pompous chefs who are like that.

He finally toned it down a bit and became more normal when he realized I wasn't impressed with his coterie of Famous Chef Friends, and that I (sometimes) know what i'm talking about when it comes to (some) food.  I may have warmed up a tiny bit to him when we discovered our mutual dislike for Padma Lakshmi (sorry, I know i'm in the minority here but I just can't get over her condescending talk with food in her mouth on Top Chef.  Nothing grosses me out more than seeing people talking with food in their mouths).


The 50 Best Restaurants lists of 2016 were recently released.  I gave a cursory glance to the worldwide one, but my main focus was the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list.  I am pleased to see that a restaurant we frequented back in November was featured.  Number 43, Cuisine Wat Damnak, which I mention in this post.  I'm thrilled to be dining there again tomorrow night when I head back to Cambodia on a visa run.  They have two set menus which change every two weeks, and the food is pretty wonderful, a different and thoughtful approach to Cambodian cuisine.  One of my kitchen staff, a young kid (I say "young kid", he's probably early 20s but i'm betting i'm the same age as his parents) leaned over my shoulder to look at the list.

"What is this?", he said, curious.
"Fifty best restaurants in all of Asia.  See.... Singapore, Hong Kong. Japan. Campuchia", I said, pointing to number 43.  "But no Vietnam. Yet".

He nodded solemnly. "One day, that will be me".

I was instantly overwhelmed with a feeling of pride.  And damned if I didn't start tearing up and getting a lump in my throat.  I had to get up and leave the room for a moment so no one would notice my gushiness.  I don't have kids of my own, so wherever I end up my staff tend to be surrogates.  I don't doubt that this kid will go far.

As I type this, i'm letting him look through my knife kit. m Most of my knives are old, but if you take care of them you'll have them a long time.  I've got an offset handled Shun santoku i've had for years that the kid's been ogling, so I let him use it.  "I like this. Wow! So nice", he says, smiling while chopping a ton of shallots.  So I pulled out a tiny little Global knife, blade retooled several years ago when I quite stupidly dropped it and the tip broke off (it was fixed by a guy named Edges - not making that up - who sharpens knives for all the restaurants in Atlanta).  I think he's in love.

Friday, June 10, 2016

beginning to think all French chefs are the same.

The first day the New French Chef came onto the job, he quickly scanned my outfit from my high top Chuck Taylors (I don't do chef clogs, they hurt my feet) to my black chef's coat with a few patches of flour on the arms from making bread, and said, "I think we should go change before service, don't you think?".

I blinked at him. I was appropriately dressed for that particular kitchen.  He left for a moment and re-emerged wearing a white chef jacket that more resembled a long-sleeved button down collared shirt.  The dishwasher giggled and said something in Vietnamese about the chef's whites.  "In Michelin starred restaurants", he said snottily, "White chef coats are de rigeur.  In fact, you may want to get some. We need to be completely uniform in this kitchen. Black coats are just vulgar". Right.  This is going to go down really well.

"Isn't he great?", beamed the French owner.  "I've been telling all my friends to come because he is going to revolutionize the menu! He comes from Michelin star breeding! He has great ideas!"

"Oh yeah, I"m really looking forward to it", I said flatly.  I was already unenamored with Michelin Star Boy after he asked me to cut shallots for him then immediately barked "NOOOOON!" in my ear because he thought I was trimming them the wrong way.

Though he wasn't volatile like the last French guy, though he didn't throw pots and pans at us from across the room and shout endless insults, he certainly had a way of irking the shit out of me. He immediately changed all the previous chef's recipes because he thought they were crap (and indeed some of them were), but then tried to introduce some serious old school French techniques that I don't think go down well with the type of restaurant this was.  When I asked about that, he would simply say, "Well in Michelin starred restaurants, we do it this way".  "In Michelin starred restaurants, it's perfectly normal to fist fight with other chefs in the kitchen and then go out for drinks together afterwards", he said after I told him about Volatile French Chef.  "In Michelin starred restaurants, chefs do not come out into the dining room, so you need to stay in the kitchen". That last one was after I went out to greet a friend.

"Yeah but in the US, chefs go out into the dining room all of the time", I retorted.  "People want to see the chef.  Some people pay good money for that.  You should get your ass out there and stop by tables and say hi".  I added, "It'll certainly bring up the Trip Advisor results", knowing that this last one is a soft spot for all restaurants in this town.

His eyes got wide. "No! I couldn't do that".

"Oh? But don't you want this place to be Michelin star quality?", I said sarcastically.

"Oh, okay".

Nowadays you can't get him out of the dining room.

For the remaining few weeks I worked there, I got seriously sick and tired of hearing about the way Michelin starred restaurants do things.  One day, determined to get to the bottom of the Michelin mystery, I started asking him questions.  After a lot of hemming and hawing, he finally admitted he'd only worked at one Michelin starred restaurant (he never told me which one it was), and even further probing unveiled that the restaurant had only one-star.  Which isn't too shabby, but the way he carried on you'd think it was a three-star.  Further digging proved that he wasn't the sous chef or chef de cuisine.

"So what'd you do there? Because restaurants, especially French ones, have definite stations".

"Oh... well.. I did a little bit of everything, you know", he said, looking around trying to evade any further questioning.

"But you must have some specialty, no?", I said evilly.  "So were you a line cook?"

"Oh well i did a bit of that, yeah sure we all have to, you know".

"Saucier? Garde-manger? Pastry? Come on, tell me".


I was not giving up.  "But what was your specialty? Where did you park your ass most of the night?"

"Well.... I guess I did the salads".

Mystery solved.  The great chef who came from a Michelin starred restaurant whom my boss was going on and on about to all and sundry last held a salad station.  That's not to say he's not talented - he is. He's a very fine cook.  But he has a problem with playing well with the other kids in the sandbox.  After Volatile French Chef was dismissed, I was able to convince the owner that I could make the ice creams.  And I did, and they were good.  I make a mean green tea ice cream.  The owner asked me to make a chocolate one, and before I could answer, New French Chef cut him off with a, "No, I'll make it. Mine will be better".

"Oh really?", I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Oh yes", he said haughtily.  "It's a Thierry Marx recipe.  It'll be much better than your crap American technique".

I decided to let this slide.

He emailed a buddy of his for the recipe, someone who worked for the tempermental chef. When the recipe came back, I glanced over the ingredients list.  "Are you sure the owner is going to okay this?", I said.  "There's some pretty expensive ingredients in here, including marscapone.  We're in Vietnam, this shit doesn't come cheap here".

"Oh but it'll be so good he won't care", he said, waving me impatiently away. "Ça va etre une tuerie".

The ingredients arrived and he proceeded to measure them out, dump them all into a bowl at once, and mix together.  This alarmed me. I've made gallons and gallons of ice cream and this is no way to respect the ingredients.

"You aren't going to temper the eggs first to make the custard?"

"No", he looked at me baffled. "Why should I? it'll be perfect.  Now just dump it all in the ice cream maker".

"Hey, this is your baby. You do it".  I did not want responsibility of this pending disaster.

So he dumped the contents of the bowl into the maker, and after 45 minutes realized it hadn't taken.

"Hmm", he said. "Maybe I should have chilled the ingredients first. Okay i'll chill them now and start over tomorrow".

The next day, same results.

"The texture is off", he said, looking at me accusingly.  "What did you do to it?

"What did I do to it? Hey, this one is your project".

"Well you're the so-called ice cream expert here. You tell me".

"I resent that. And you should have tempered the eggs first and slowly introduced the other ingredients, because that's how i've done countless times and mine have never failed. Ever".

"Well you figure out how to fix it then", he said, throwing his hands up in the air and walking away.

One day during break, we were shooting the shit about regular things, American politics, reality TV, etc, when we started talking about religion and Buddhism.  I said something about Judaism, and he blurted out, "God, I fucking hate the Jews".

My jaw dropped.  "What? What did you just say?"

"I fucking hate the Jews.  They're such pieces of shit.  The Jews in France are insufferable".

I took a deep breath.  "Do you realize what you are saying to me?"

"Yeah. That I fucking hate the Jews. Oh, i've some Jewish friends, and they're okay with it".

"You know people who are Jewish who know that you hate Jews and yet they still call you a friend? I call bullshit".

"You don't understand.  Jews in France are different than Jews elsewhere".

"This conversation is making me ill", I said, getting up and walking away.

I ran into one of the servers recently, who said things weren't good.  "People have complained about the food", she said. "And the bread is not the same" (off topic, i've had an issue with bread making lately, and it's due to the incredibly high humidity in our kitchen, though nobody here believes me). "And chef has become very lazy".

I really can't express how happy I am not to work there anymore.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.

Circle K's are everywhere in District 1. Sometimes there are two or three per block. They sell pretty much the same kind of crap that the ones in the US sell except swapping American garbage foods with a variety of Asian garbage foods, including but not limited to my favorite Korean kimchi-flavored seaweed snack and, most importantly, 750 ml bottles of Gordon's gin.

Walking home from work the other night, I swung in to the closest Circle K for a couple of cans of tonic water.  Two young American hippie-looking kids with pasty skin, eyeballs as big as saucers, and arms full of junk food were staring at one particular cookie display. The boy catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye and his face perks up. That's when I went into defense mode, making a beeline for the back of the store where the cold beverages are kept, my goal to not make eye contact again with them. Plan backfires.

"Hey!", says the boy to me (I say 'boy' but he's probably about 25). "Hey! can you tell me where I can buy a muffin?".

I glance over at him wearily. "A muffin?"

"Yeah we just landed here and i'm REALLY JONESIN' for a muffin. I'd even take a blueberry one. Where can I buy a muffin here?"

Right, cos blueberries, not to mention muffins, are aplenty here. Does this kid know he's in Southeast Asia, I wonder. "Well, there's a Starbucks nearby".

"Great!". He and his girlfriend, who is just as spaced out as him, practically jump for joy and nearly drop their armloads of crap. "We'll head there!".

"Yeah, so hang a left out of here and it's about a block and a half down....".

"Wait, what? a block and a half away? Man, that's waaaaay too far". Boy looks crestfallen.

"Uh, too far? It's a block and a half dude".

"Nah, i'll just have to make do with these weird cookies I guess".

I start walking towards the cashier, ready to get the hell out of neon lit pasty face land.

"Hey, one more question! Hey so... is it legal to smoke pot here?".

I stop and turn to him. "WHAT?!?".

"Yeah, well you know, I've seen people smoking weed in public so I wasn't sure if that's a thing. I mean, can I buy it? And where can I buy it? Can I just light up anywhere like the locals do?".

In retrospect, there's so much I could have said and probably should have, but it had been a crap week and all I wanted was a fucking gin and tonic and a half dozen limes at that point. And I probably sounded like the oldest bat in the world when I responded with a, "Sorry dude, that's not my lifestyle".

"Oh.. okay, just thought i'd try. Thanks!"

He and the girl turned back towards the cookie display, the tip of his tongue sticking out from his mouth as if to really concentrate on the task at hand.

Bless his heart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The French chef.

"Here's the thing: you're not a chef. You’re not a good cook. You're not even a cook. You lack all the basic French culinary skills. You don't know how to use a knife. I'm afraid when I see you holding a knife because I just know your fingers will come flying off and then I'll be forced to call an ambulance and get saddled with babysitting you at the hospital all night. You absolutely suck as a person. You're a terrible manager. Whomever trained you ought to be ashamed of themselves because they failed miserably. The Viets are not used to being treated with respect. If you respect them, they walk all over you. They need to be treated with fear. They are not your friends. They are there for you to abuse and they expect that. So quit being nice to the staff. It's unbecoming. And quit saying thank you whenever someone does something for you. Chefs don't act that way. TRANG, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? Who told you that you can sit down? FUCK THIS SHIT. Fucking animals. See what I mean, Caroline? In order to succeed in Vietnam you have to treat people like complete shit".

I sat there throughout this monologue, speechless. I thought it best to keep my mouth shut anyway. He had spent the entire lunch service hollering at me, loudly enough for customers in the restaurant to hear. He yelled; he threw pots and pans across the room into the sink, contents flying everywhere; he kicked the garbage can; he hollered that I had shit for talent. “ARRETE DE M’ENGUELER”, I finally shouted back at him. He looked at me with surprise and clamped his mouth shut. That's when the owner came into the kitchen, smiling, looked directly at me, and said, “Caroline, can you keep it down? The clients can hear you”. He was so used to the French chef's antics that he tuned them out completely (though various reviews on Trip Advisor mention how volatile and condescending the chef is to staff and customers). And all the owner heard was my voice.

You know it's bad when you dread going into work because you don't know what kind of mood the French chef will be in. I found out through a friend (who had the misfortune of dating him for two dire weeks) that he was bi-polar and refused treatment. He would destroy things in the kitchen then scream at us to clean it all up. He abused everyone, not just me. When he wasn’t pointedly avoiding the owner’s Vietnamese wife, he would yell obscenities at her. He made my favorite hardworking girl in the kitchen cry every day.  She pays 6 million VND for English classes every afternoon (about $270 USD – an absolute fortune here where minimum wage is about $100 to $150 per month), and he would purposely detain her or prevent her from going by saddling extra work on to her shoulders.  Every time the server would come up to the pass to take food to a table, he'd say to her, "Try not to drop it, you fucking ugly bitch". Every. Single. Time. The last few weeks he stopped coming into the kitchen during service, except to yell some obscenity or another at us. He would sit at the first table in the dining room where he could observe us in the kitchen and occasionally bellow out an insult for all and sundry to hear. He told many regular customers, "Your food is going to suck today because I didn't make it". On my third day, he told me I was on my own from now on. "You need to fail. You need to fall on your ass and screw up orders so badly. I WANT you to fail".  The only person who seemed at ease with him was the French owner, who had become very Vietnamese, adopting a non-confrontational attitude by turning a blind eye and ear to everything.  When I finally sat the owner down to complain, he said, “Well what do you want me to do about it?”

When the server took two days off, the French chef was upset. "Can you believe he gave her two days off?”, he said, pointing to the owner. “That fucking server doesn't even fucking work! She doesn't deserve it. She needs to be kicked in the ass. I should kick her ass". Two days later, he called in sick, claiming indigestion. The next day, he said he was taking himself to the hospital. Day three: no call, no show. The owner, out shopping, ran into an acquaintance who happened to mention she'd seen his chef out drinking that morning and acting belligerent while playing pétanque.  And this, finally, made the owner snap. He unceremoniously fired the chef via text, but I knew this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from him. He came storming in one day last week to collect his final pay. “I WILL DESTROY YOU”, he shouted to the owner and his wife. “I WILL FUCKING DESTROY YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR BUSINESS. ON THE HEAD OF MY MOTHER, I PROMISE YOU THAT I WILL FUCKING MAKE SURE YOU FAIL”. On and on and on, he finally clambered down the steps to the ground floor, attempted to break the front door and part of the front window. Reeling from the shock of it all, we were all shaking.

I endured 5 weeks of this and it seemed like a lifetime. 6 days a week, at least 10 hours a day. I’m mentally worn out.

I'm not naive; I know the old school French chefs have a habit of hollering at their staff. Perhaps this breaking down of someone's soul works when you're a young trainee of 17, but once you hit your mid-forties the routine is a bit stale.  I wasn't hired to be a line cook; I was reeled in to help change things (menu, atmosphere, etc). I was to work not only back of the house but also front of the house, with server training and assistance with wine. They knew of my qualifications before hiring me. They knew I was self-taught and was a catering and event chef and chef instructor before moving to Vietnam. I was honest about everything.

A new chef has been hired, and after a strange "getting to know you" kind of week, I have to admit that I like him. He's a talented youth, also French, but much less volatile. And though the atmosphere has changed for the better, I’m looking for different work.  The damage has been done. I’m over it.

But the best part about all of this is that the French chef left Saigon. Mutual friends ran into him and he said he was moving away because he was sick of it all (it's probably because he has such a bad reputation that no one will hire him). But as of yesterday, he is gone from this town, and the air has cleared. Good riddance, volatile asshole.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The story of Ri

My Facebook timeline shows a constant stream of locals posting about having found stray or ailing dogs, kittens, cats, etc, and wondering what to do about them. Unfortunately, this is pretty common here, as people (including the High and Mighty Expats) discard pets frequently without much thought. It's a different culture, and coming from a country where we are passionate about spaying, neutering, and saving every animal, I've had to develop a blind eye to a lot of things. I saw dog meat at a butcher shop in Go Vap (a northern, poorer district in Saigon) and had to develop a stone heart instantaneously.

And then you meet someone like my friend Trang. She lives in the Vietnamese part of District 7 but hails from Hoi An in the central part of the country. She finds the stray, the broken, the bleeding animals and nurses them back to health before sending them to live on her parents farm just outside of Hoi An. Recently she saw a man tossing a small bird into the road. When she asked him why he did that, he said the bird was too scrawny to eat so he might as well throw it out. Trang scooped up the sad animal and saw that it was a baby owl, probably minutes from death. She brought it home, named it Ri (pronounced Ree), nursed it, and now it flies around her room when she comes home from work, hooting happily. 

She can't save every discarded animal in Saigon (though she sure as hell is trying, what with her little menagerie in Hoi An); but it's little stories like this which restore my faith in humanity. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Sitting in a café overlooking a park filled with tall trees planted by the French during colonial times. Traffic bustles by. At first glance, it could be any cosmopolitan city: one feels as though this little corner could be New York or Paris, or even Buenos Aires. It's not until a motorbike slowly passes, the loudspeaker taped to its handlebars a warped voice belting out offers of ice cream or some other treat, when you come back to earth and realize you're in Saigon.

While walking through the park on my way to work these past few days I've noticed fallen tree limbs everywhere. The workers are trimming off the bottom limbs in order for the tree to remain slender and grow even taller. If you tilt your head back and look up, you  can see one of the workers, a hundred or so feet off the ground, climbing around with great dexterity from branch to branch with a chainsaw in hand. I wonder how they choose which worker gets to go up the tree or if they take turns. The idea of this makes my own recurring vertigo swim around and I'm forced to turn my head back towards the ground.

The tourist wearing a flaming orange bikini under a white see-through cover up taking a duck-faced selfie. The xe om (motorbike for hire) driver calling out "Madame, xe om Madame?". The shops blaring music way too loudly in an attempt to attract customers. The old woman in conical hat and pajamas waving lottery tickets for sale at passing cars. The motorbike driver who crashes into the back of a bus because he was too busy texting to notice where he was going. The young woman holding a giant umbrella over her head to shield her from the sun's rays lest God forbid she get any color on her skin. The thousands of people wearing surgical masks all day every day because they fear pollution. This is life in Saigon. Sometimes I long for some quiet, maybe a getaway to the beach, but in the meantime this will do.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


I was seething in anger yesterday when I read about Cheryl Tiegs' dig at Ashley Graham's Sports Illustrated cover.  Though I think Tiegs ought to keep her mouth shut, I understand her point of view. And it has to do with my mother and her generation.

Note that I say "understand" and not "agree with".

My mom has been on a diet my entire life, and probably all of her adult life.  I can't remember a time when she wasn't watching her weight.  Her generation is the generation that poured money into SlimFast shakes and Dexatrim. I even remember my parents doing a short stint of HerbaLife because my aunt sold the supplements.  My mom constantly talks about weight (hers and other people's).  In every email and letter, every phone call I've ever received from her, she always brings up weight.  It affected my mental health and it affected my sister even more. My sister's weight skyrocketed and she became morbidly obese, though there wasn't any family history of obesity.  She underwent gastric bypass in 2004, but she's not a success story.  Though the operation helped her lose a considerable amount of weight (100 lbs during that first year), she didn't and still doesn't practice good nutrition and makes poor choices involving food and alcohol.  None of us in the family have ever said as much, but my mom's constant nagging and negativity towards food was the catalyst to my sister's health issues.

In my own case, I was never overweight but my mom made me feel as large as a house.  She has a way of getting in my head and pushing all the right buttons, all the self-worth and confidence ones. It's a power play on her part.  I remember one Christmas going to visit my folks in San Francisco; I took the Marin Airporter and my mom picked me up at the bus stop.  A look of horror spread across her face as I stepped off the bus. "What happened to you?", she gasped.  "You are SO FAT". The bus driver almost dropped my suitcase that he'd been hauling out for me and looked at her wide-eyed.  "I cannot BELIEVE you let yourself go like that. What is the matter with you? We have FAMILY coming tomorrow! I am SO EMBARRASSED". She went on and on, in the car on the way to the house, for the rest of that week, in front of family and friends.  She wouldn't shut up about how "grossly overweight" I was. I kept my mouth shut tightly and tried not to let it bother me, but she was relentless.  She would come into my room as I was falling asleep to sit on the edge of my bed and lecture me, giving me "guidance" as she calls it, about how I absolutely must lose weight immediately.    I was a nervous wreck by the end of that week and burst out crying on the airplane as it was taking off out of SFO.  I am 5'4", and when I got off the bus that night? I was a size 8.

Another time when I flew back home for a cousin's baby shower, mom told me she was too embarrassed to stand anywhere near me because of how fat I was.  "Fat people shouldn't wear beige", she informed me matter-of-factly, as I emerged from my room wearing khakis and a fucking twinset (I used to keep a whole separate wardrobe of ridiculously conservative clothing solely to wear around my mom.  Not that I have questionable taste in fashion, but as she doesn't approve of anything I wear to begin with, no need to give her a heart attack by donning my black leather Chucks).  At the baby shower, an extended family member whom I hadn't seen in a few decades was gushing about me to my mom, who promptly shut her up with a "Caroline makes bad life choices. She's so immature. I told her not to wear beige, look at how much fatter she looks in beige!".

When I turned 40, I took some holistic nutrition classes.  That's around the time when I decided I couldn't let the shitty comments get to me anymore.  Though I go through serious bouts of exercise (I do love all of Tony Horton's P90X series), I'm not always in top shape, but I'm okay with that.  I don't eat fast food. I do indulge in occasional bits of chocolate - anyone familiar with the Marou brand made in Vietnam will know what I'm talking about.  I drink alcohol; perhaps not every night but hey, I drink.  But I also eat an enormous variety of fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and shellfish. Interestingly, since moving to SE Asia, I've actually put on a little weight even though I walk everywhere.  But I don't feel unhealthy.  Tony Horton himself explains that we shouldn't be slaves to the number on the scale; after all, muscle weights much more than fat.  I've tried explaining this to my mom, but she's so set in her ways that it falls on deaf ears.  "But how much do you weigh?". she asked after I told her muscle weighs more than fat.  I told her it was none of her business. Surprisingly, she took it well.

Cheryl Tiegs has the same mentality as my mom.  She was at the height of her popularity in the late 70s/early 80s, when women thought it was okay to skip a meal or two in order to get into a dress the next day. Thin was in.  She still has that mindset.  If I showed my mom the SI cover, I bet you she would say the same thing that Tiegs did.  I"m not trying to excuse her, just trying to crack open her brain and peer in to understand.  People like Tiegs and my mom won't change; they just won't get it. There's a woman I absolutely admire named Jessamyn Stanley.  She is a yoga instructor who has a cult following on Instagram (@mynameisjessamyn -  you can also find out more about her here:  She's strong, she's beautiful, and she's by no means thin as a rail. And she's okay with it.  She moves easily into the most difficult of yoga poses.  She has a self-confidence that many more women need, including myself.  And i'm positive that my mom would think up some horrible remarks about her.

Tiegs made a follow up comment on Twitter yesterday, but later deleted it and issued the following:

Is it half-assed? No, because it's not an apology or retraction for what she actually said.  She, like my mom, won't change her mind about what she thinks is right, that women should look thin, and that is that.  And I feel sorry for her.

There's no great big secret here: the key to health and well-being is diet and exercise.  And by "diet", I don't mean the negative connotation that we often associate the word with; I mean good nutrition.  I've never had better skin than I do now in my 40s.  Could I use more muscle tone in my upper arms? Sure. Would I like to get back into some of my size 6 clothes that I brought with me when I moved here, now that i'm a size 8 (and sometimes 10)? Absolutely.  But i'm not going to kill myself over it, and nobody else should either.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Where would we be without salt?"

Ah, kosher salt. We like the feel of it between our fingers; it measures easily, it has a pleasant crunchiness under the tooth. But it's not to be found in local groceries here - I'm talking about the Co Ops and Vinmarts.  I'm sure if I look really, really hard I can find someone who carries it, like perhaps An Nam (the Vietnamese version of Whole Foods) or one of the supermarkets in District 2 (the vast, bizarre area that Western expats call home in Saigon).  But I'm not going to spend a whole day looking for kosher salt. I sucked it up and started using refined iodized salt, which is readily available, something I haven't used since I first started watching Good Eats back in 2000.

an Italian-looking chef riding the Vietnamese salt wave

If you haven't used regular salt in a dog's age, you're in for some fun. I've had to adjust my recipes, since a teaspoon of iodized salt isn't the same as a teaspoon of kosher salt. I've found refined iodized salt to be less salty than kosher, so I've had to add boatloads of extra salt to my dishes, which screams against every bone in my body. As a chef, you can eyeball and "feel" how much a teaspoon of kosher salt is supposed to look and feel like. But iodized salt is just weird. Sometimes I end up under salting my food (totally fixable), but that's not as bad as over salting (unfixable). Unless you're on Top Chef, then under salting without tasting a dish before sending it out will get you a Greyhound bus trip home.

I've also started liberally using fish sauce in most of my Western dishes. It brings a savoriness you can't get with salt alone.  Rule number one when it comes to fish sauce: There's fish sauce, and then there's fish sauce.  You want the latter. So what's the latter, you ask?

I think I can confidently say that the best fish sauce in the world comes from Vietnam, and the best fish sauce in Vietnam comes from the island of Phu Quoc, on the southern coast near Cambodia.  In the States, you want to seek out Red Boat brand, which I've seen at Whole Foods, but I think other shops are now starting to carry it due to the upswing of American celebrity chefs promoting it.  A good fish sauce has two ingredients, anchovies and sea salt. That's it. And a good fish sauce has something on the bottle which says it's higher than 30N (the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of sauce). 30N is okay; 40N is better. Though fish sauce smells, well, fishy, a good fish sauce shouldn't smell too fishy. You shouldn't have an aversion to it if you pop off the lid. If yours makes you gag and recoil in horror, get rid of that shit. If you can't find Red Boat, spend some time looking for two things, the ingredients list and the amount of nitrogen listed: Anchovies. Sea Salt. 30N or greater.

apparently someone in the apartment had a good time last night.

While Red Boat is made in Vietnam, it's not actually sold here under that name. The stuff I use is called Quoc Huong, and comes in a glass bottle. Buy yours in a glass bottle, and keep it in the fridge. I read an article a while back about keeping stuff like that, including soy sauce, in the fridge; so just do it.

soy, sesame oil, sambal oelek, tonic water, something of questionable
provenance, and Marou chocolate. What do you keep in your fridge?

I go to the markets and groceries and unconsciously, automatically, look for familiar things. They are there, but there's more an abundance of unfamiliar vegetables and fruits.  This can be both exciting and daunting. What to do with some of these weird things? My two local markets carry a huge variety of greens, most of which I've no idea what they're called in English.  I tend to look in other shoppers' baskets to see what they're buying.  They also look in mine to see what the American is buying, which is kind of funny because I think I disappoint them.  My usual shopping list (procured every day or so) consists of a boatload of limes, coriander (aka cilantro), rice noodles, a variety of fruit, pressed tofu, and some kind of fresh fish or pork product.  On one such a trip, I encountered a type of flowering green, which I'd no earthly idea what it was. I'd seen it at the corner restaurant but couldn't figure out the name.

They're called Tonkin jasmine flowers, or bong thien ly in Vietnamese (there are other Western names for it, but Tonkin is the name I remember).  They're delicious and slightly crunchy. And I treat them the same way I would with broccolini or snap peas or kale or collards: quickly sauté with garlic, red pepper flakes (or fresh Thai bird's eye chili), olive oil, salt and pepper. For last night's dinner, using my trusty mortar and pestle (you can use a food processor, but I don't have that luxury here, plus bashing shit up lets out my aggressions), I bashed up some lemongrass, garlic, coriander (cilantro), sugar, black pepper, and fish sauce. Then marinated the lot with some thinly sliced pork and prawns (aka shrimp - hey look at me getting all Australian on you), before stir frying for a minute or two and tossing in the Tonkin jasmine another minute or two before the end. Really vibrant and delicious. I'd never seen it in the US, though to be fair I've never looked for it; but if you do find some, say, at Buford Highway Farmers market in Atlanta or another Asian market near you, get some. Remove the tougher stems from the flowers first (discard stems) , give the flowers a quick rinse, and sauté away.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Things I just can't get down with.

Whenever anyone asks me what I don't eat, I always reply, "I eat everything!". Most of the time, they don't believe me, since Americans in Asia have a bad reputation for having food phobias and food allergies galore. However, as I was laying in bed early this morning during my current wave of insomnia, I thought, There really are foods I don't eat. That's because I don't like them, not necessarily because they're not prepared well or that I break out in hives when eating them. Case in point:

1. French Toast.

I really don't like French toast. It seems like such a waste of perfectly good bread, which you can just toast up, slap on some good butter, and call it a day.  Okay, traditionally French toast is supposed to be made with day old bread, and it derives from pain perdu, which is in fact a French dish made with leftover, stale bread. But who makes French toast with stale bread anymore? I've seen it with croissants, Texas toast, biscuits; all fresh.  And while we're on the subject, I really don't like sweet breakfast items, other than fruit and the occasional jam on my toast (but even then, i'm picky - I like marmalades and sour cherry jam).  I don't mind a spoonful of brown sugar melting into a bowl of oatmeal, or a piece of toast slathered with peanut butter, but that's about as sweet as I go. The idea of eating something sweet first thing in the morning makes my teeth ache.

2. Vanilla + Seafood.

My sister-in-law loves to pair a vanilla beurre blanc with her shrimp/crab/lobster. And she makes a great beurre blanc; but Lord Almighty I can't stand it.  Vanilla and any seafood just don't work for me. Vanilla automatically reminds me of ice cream and custard, and I just can't wrap my head around seafood hanging out in that bathtub.  On the flip side, I do like a savory creme brulee (such as infused with fresh thyme), so who knows what my taste buds are all about.

3. Cheese + Seafood.

Just. Gross.

I'm so grossed out by the idea of cheese mixed with seafood that even typing this makes me nauseous.  Every once in a while on the food blogosphere, some article will come out and praise the merits of cheese and seafood together, and people will firmly fall into two categories of lovers and haters.  I think the general idea comes about when the old argument of putting Parmesan on seafood pastas gets hashed up, and then that spawns heated debates of whether or not the Italians do it that way.

Lobster mac and cheese - which was on everyone's menu stateside for way too many years - vile. And don't even get me started on the "drizzle of truffle oil" that everyone used to Jackson Pollack all over the dish, because that's just blasphemy (and usually it's not made with real truffles).

The only time I find the idea of cheese and seafood sort of acceptable is with shrimp and grits , however that doesn't mean I eat my shrimp and grits that way (I prefer my grits to be well-seasoned without unnecessary gobs of cheese).

4. Milk Chocolate.

I just don't get it.

5. Shiokara.

This is a type of Japanese fermented squid that, though i'm a big fan of all things fermented, I just can't get down with.  I've eaten a lot of really wonderful Japanese food while in Vietnam; there are a large number of great places here, one of which is about a 45 second walk from my front door.  We've become friendly with the chef (who is Vietnamese but has been studying Japanese cuisine for 12 years), and the Japanese owner is an interesting character.  One night, I ordered a dish of shiokara, and I just couldn't get down with it, or get it down.  I don't think a lot of western palates are ready for that level of gutty fermentation quite yet.  I'll try it again someday.

Side note: speaking of guts, since living in SE Asia, i've only gotten food poisoning once - and that wasn't from eating street food, it was from a well-respected, super fancy, expensive restaurant owned by a Viet Kieu acquaintance of mine.  It was some kind of fermented shrimp that I knew on first bite wouldn't agree with me, but I didn't want to be rude - enter two weeks of taking Ciproflxacin and Dukoral. So the moral of the story is to trust your gut (no pun intended) when you think something tastes off.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

unconditional love.

I am going to preface this by noting that this particular rambling (as all my others) are my own opinions, and I am aware that some people won't agree with them.  It may come across as offensive, but I can assure you that no offense was meant.  This is one great big generalization and overview.  Move to SE Asia, live here for 6 months, and then let's talk about your own observations.

I was out with my French friend Alex who was admiring a table of young Vietnamese women, one of them his flavor of the week (though monogamous, he has a steady stream of girlfriends, with never any break between relationships. Healthy, I know).  "Les femmes Vietnamiennes", he says, "dress in a way that elsewhere in the world you would call them putes.  But here, the men find that cute and irresistible".  And it's true; whenever I go out, I notice the women are always dressed to the nines, mostly clad in as little amount of fabric as can possibly cover their skin without being too slutty, heels as high as they can go without toppling over.

There's a restaurant here that I like to go to, as their outdoor terrace reminds me of a Parisian bistro. It's comfortable and not pretentious. And I've come to realize it's a favorite place for older Westerners to meet their young Vietnamese Tinder dates.  I'm not saying people over a certain age aren't allowed to find love (I myself am getting on in the age department). But what at first my friends and I all used to joke about has now crossed over into the Creepy Old Man Category.  When I see a young Vietnamese girl shacked up with a Westerner three times her age, it makes me wince.  I understand where they're both coming from, but it still makes me wince. It looks like the creepy old guy at the bus stop who just picked up his new prey. Except this time, the prey goes willingly and most often has the full support and emotional backing of her family.

Let's look at it from both sides:

The guy.  Typically an American or Australian over the age of 50 (but more often, 60+).  Retired, or running away from something back home (job, ex-wife, kids, alimony, police).  In some cases he's been unlucky in love his whole life.

Enter the girl. Age: 18 - 22. Usually not from Saigon, but life back home in the provinces is so dismal with no chances.  Most young people come to Saigon because there are no advantages and absolutely  no future in their rural areas.  I've spent some time outside of the cities to know that, while charming and unspoiled it is to visitors, the kids can't wait to leave.  The girl is cute and speaks passable broken English.  She's never wearing much: tiny little "dress", just short enough to not be considered indecent, and platform heels.  She will fawn all over her Western date who is immediately smitten. No one has ever paid this much attention to him in his life, and he's lapping it up.  One of my Australian friends is in such a relationship with a girl who came from utter poverty in the Mekong Delta. And though i'm happy for the guy, because in his eyes he's "finally found love", I still find it deeply saddening.

And then you get situations like the following. At dinner the other night, we just settled into our seats and ordered wine when a couple gets sat at the table next to us.  Middle aged American guy with young Vietnamese woman, and it appears to be a date.  There's a bit of that awkward first date "getting to know you" conversation going on.

"This is Italian. You know, from Italy".

"I know".

"Oh... you eat here before?"

"Yes, with my German boyfriend I tell you about".

Chef's been doing the rounds greeting various tables, and comes over to greet them.  "She's been here before", whines the American guy (boy, was he ever whiny). "Yes, with my German friend", she adds, looking at Chef. "You know him".

Chef: . "Lady, i'm in the restaurant business. I meet ten thousand new people every week. I can't remember everyone I meet. But i'm glad you come eat here tonight!"

Chef walks away.

American, squinting at the specials board, "You wanna split somethin? They have spaghetti. Spaghetti-ohs! and ravioli. .... ravioliiii. Whatever".

Server comes by.

"I wan mineral water. Do you wan mineral water?", he says to the girl. "What is it?", she asks. ""It's got gas. You know". To server, "I wan San Paligro. San Pallagren. You know. Mineral water. San Pellegrano. You gotta have it. It's Italian".

"Yes sir we have that. A big bottle?"

"Two glasses. And I wan CLEAN ICE. And I wannna Wet Nap".

It's right about this time that I realize the dude is hammered.

"Sir?". The server is puzzled.

"Wet napkin".  He mimics the movement of washing ones hands. "To wash my  hands. My hands dirty. I wan clean hands!".

"Oh. We don't have those, but there's a lavatory right behind you".

"Oh. K... just gonna go wash hands", he says to his date.  Staggers upon uneven footing, his boat legs aren't working properly.  He's wearing a brand new Chinese-style white cotton shirt with frog closures, and though it's an ample amount of fabric, it stretches too tightly across his generous abdomen. He's also wearing black sneakers with socks pulled high up on calves, and a white Indiana Jones-style hat. Very typical tourist look. I look away quickly to glance at Larry. My eyes open wide and I mouth, "He's hammered". Larry: "I know".

He staggers back from the bathroom.

"My hands are dry", he whines. "Hand lotion. Gimme some hand lotion. You got any hand lotion in  your bag? No? Oh. But all girls have hand lotion!".

This conversation is odd. Both Larry and I are totally eavesdropping; we have no shame. The guy's date speaks English particularly well, but he's talking to her like she's a small child, a prize if you will. Plus he's drunk and/or on something, because his speech tones go up and down throughout waves of whininess. He hits the head about four times during their meal. I notice she's conservatively dressed; this is very unusual. She's wearing a scarf, long sleeved shirt, polka dotted pants.  And she's not as young as I originally assumed. I wonder what her story is.

Her: "Have you been to Italy?". Him: "Rome. I've not been to Venice. I wanna take ya to Venice". HIs voice tapers off into a low whine.

Their wine comes. "To new beginnings", he says, and they toast each other.  That's when my interest piqued considerably. Kind of a strange thing to say to someone on your first date, no?

"So tomorrow", he continues, "It's 6 hours to Hong Kong. Then 18 hours to Newark. And our new life". She smiles.

So that's it. It isn't so much of a first date as it is a business transaction.  This is the Vietnamese equivalent of a Russian mail-order bride. No wonder this guy is hammered.  He's probably jet-lagged, jacked himself up on some pill or another to stay awake and pick up his goods, only to turn around and bring them back home immediately.  I look at the girl with new interest.

Eventually he pays the bill and they get up to leave; he's bobbing and weaving all over the place. I wish her a silent prayer of good luck, but I know that she's probably moving on to a better place.