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.


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