Monday, December 12, 2016


It’s raining in Saigon. Again. We’re supposed to be out of the rainy season, but I don’t mind it. December seems to be a few degrees cooler than the other months, and the rain brings the temperature down a bit more.

Tonight, while walking back from dinner through the streets of Đa Kao, it was pleasant enough for me to wear a sweater (not a heavy one, but at least something long sleeved), and the rain misted down gently as I circumnavigated some of the near-empty side streets and hẻms on my way home. In high school, one of my great friends was a kid named Andrew who lived with his mom on Quai de Bourbon on the Ile Saint Louis, in two rooms with uneven flooring, high ceilings and hand-painted support beams.  The stone stairs on the way up to the apartment were polished to a shine and worn down by the thousands of feet that scampered up and down them over the centuries. I never met Andrew’s mom; she seemed to be away on business trips a lot, so a few of us would gather at his place in the evenings to get stoned, lean back on the couch cushions, and watch the lights from the passing Bateaux Mouches flicker off the colorful ceiling.  I remember one particular evening emerging from the humid and sultry Pont Marie métro station into the cold misty rain, pulling the lapels of my oversized and massively shoulder-padded green Loden coat more snugly around me (this was the late 80s; oversized and shoulder-padded came with the territory).  The streets were deserted and I wore sunglasses even though night had fallen hours earlier, sunglasses in the rain because I thought it might be a fun thing to do. It was.

I like walking around at night. You see everyday objects and landmarks in a whole new light. Things seem more mysterious. Trees and leaves on the bushes appear more vibrant, more alive, as though they would come to life in the shadows when you turned away, as if they bore secrets. Walking through Đa Kao, I notice more French Colonial structures normally hidden and unseen by loud and colorful daytime commerce. Sidewalks are once again accessible for walking since the motorbikes normally parked every which way have gone home with their respective owners.  The smell of fried shallots wafts across the street from a tiny restaurant, and the open-fronted cafés are sparsely populated with young people.  I walk slowly through the mist with my massive black golf umbrella, seeing flickering lights in windows, wondering what people are watching on their televisions. I could walk these streets all night, except I’m tired from a bout of insomnia brought on by a celebration with too much wine with a good friend last night. I need to go home and lie down.

Friday, December 9, 2016

“Other expats are all wankers” *

I’ve often talked about the expat community. You meet some great people, but occasionally get thrown in with others you wouldn’t be friends with back in your home country.  And you notice all the strange and ugly habits expats have. It’s a bit like living in a bubble: annoying expat habits seem to be magnified by 100.

I met a girl at an event where there was a large array of food on the buffet, including pizza.  She gave a quick glance down the food table. “Oh, pizza!”, she exclaimed. “Too bad, I can’t eat it. Gluten-free over here”, she added, pointing to herself with her thumbs.

“Oh, that’s a shame. But there’s other good stuff you can eat on the buffet.”

“Nah, I don’t care if it touches other food, so I just scoop off the cheese and pepperoni and eat that, then get rid of the crust”.

“Um. You should be careful with that”, I said, raising my eyebrows. I know enough people with celiac disease to know that the slightest bit of cross-contamination would result in some serious consequences.

“Oh, ha haha! It’s okay!”, she said, pleased with herself. “I don’t eat food with gluten cos gluten makes you fat”.

Doing happy hour at a favorite watering hole.  The expat next to me strikes up a conversation, as all expats are wont to do.  We start talking food, which is a pretty neutral and safe subject for me, much like conversation about weather.  Upon finding out I’m a chef, guy starts grilling me.

“So if I had to move to a desert island tomorrow, what would you make me today?”

“What, like last meal or death row meal? That’s entirely up to you. What foods do you crave?”

“Aw c’mon, you’re not playing along. What would you make me?”

“I’d make you whatever you want”.

“COME ON. You can do better than that. YOU’RE A CHEF”.

“I’m not entirely sure I understand this question then. Isn’t this about you, what you would be eating as your last meal before heading out to solitude? This isn’t about me or what I want to eat”.

He sighs, exasperated. “Are you a cook or aren’t you a cook? Come on, what would you make me?”

I'm a little confused by this point and starting to get irritated, so I just blurt out the one thing that comes to mind. “Uh… jambalaya”.

“PERFECT!”, he shouts. “That’s exactly what I was thinking of! So you can make jambalaya?”

“Well, yeah. I can make all kinds of different food”. I’m still a little confused though. Maybe he’s drunk?

“But you can make jambalaya?”

I try not to be too obvious with the eye rolling, but grit my teeth instead. “Yesss”.

“And what else would you make me?”.


Hop on a bus, run into an expat acquaintance I’ve met once before. Start talking a bit, fully aware that the English speakers on the bus are listening in on the conversation.

“I’m having trouble with learning the language”, I lament to the acquaintance. “I’m trying to do this online course, but I can’t easily remember vocabulary words.  I think I might get a tutor”.

Expat eyes widen. “You are actually going to try to learn Vietnamese?”

“Well yeah, of course”, I say, looking up at him with a surprised expression. “Aren’t you?”

He shrugs his shoulders and says rather smugly. “I’ve been here 15 years and never bothered to learn”.

Standing at a bar trying to get in an order. Expat girl next to me drops her phone on the ground. “Ooops!”, she giggles.

“Oh shit, is it okay? Hope the screen isn’t cracked”.

“No biggie, I’ll just get my parents to buy me another one”.


Then there's the expats who act all strangely when they find out what I do for a living.

On two different occasions i've had men become angry for, and I quote, "stealing" a job that they think should rightfully have been theirs since they're men.  I got the "How did you get that job?", by an incredulous American, who failed as a chef back home, came here to 'find himself', then moved back home when that didn't work out. "It's not fair, I even went to culinary school and you didn't".

The other one, a European chef, was upset that I was able to find chef work several times when he couldn't. We were at Oktoberfest, and I thought he was going to smash his beer stein over my head. "I've been looking for chef jobs, but nobody will hire me", he said, looking at me accusingly. "I had to get a job in a different field instead. But I want your job. How do I get your job?".

And not to let everyone feel left out, i've had a woman act the same way. She's not a chef, but the French-Canadian wife of a German guy who was transferred here for work. She seemed pretty upset about having to live here in general.  We exchanged business cards, and she was startled. "So your boss is Australian? And they hired you? Why?"

"Uh, what do you mean, 'why'?", I said, narrowing my eyes.

"Forgive me if this sounds rude, but why did they hire you? Why didn't they hire an Australian chef instead?"

"Why don't you ask them? they're standing right over there", I said, pointing to my boss and her husband. trying to find a way to extricate myself from this conversation.

"Oh you think i'm being rude, don't you. I just think it's odd, that's all".

"I don't think it's odd at all. I can cook very well, and they like my food. That's why I got hired".

She smiled politely, so I took my cue and walked away.

The next day she sent me a LinkedIn connect request.  Go figure.

* Title borrowed from another expat during a Twitter conversation about how annoying expats are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Never burn bridges.

Never burn bridges in this town.

The Saigon expat community, though large, is actually quite close-knit. Many new people I meet are a friend of a friend of someone I already know. This is especially true of the food and hospitality community.

Since my current job, which I love, allows me a considerable amount of free time, myself and a few other expat chefs have been asked to do some consulting at a concept store and bistro in District 2. It won’t be much, maybe once a month, but enough to keep their menu fresh, to do some training for the kitchen staff, cross-training with other chefs, and work on the occasional theme dinner and/or pop-up.  And I’m all about theme dinners.

I went for an initial meeting with the owner, a really lovely French-speaking woman who’s been in Vietnam for over a decade.  She’s the good friend of another good friend, so obviously I’ve heard nice things about her and her concept.  We were having an animated conversation when I happened to mention the French restaurant where I worked with the hellacious Volatile French Chef.  She gasped. “Oh! I interviewed him for our Executive Chef position”.

I quickly glanced behind me towards the kitchen. Shit, was he there, lurking? Ugh. I never want to see his smug face again. “Oh, uh…”

She smiled. “No, don’t worry, he’s not here. I didn’t hire him after all”.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and my face must have had the most priceless expression, because she continued. “To be honest, I had a great interview with him. It lasted for hours. He told me all about his life, and I felt I wanted to hire him. He made me feel comfortable, that he understood my vision. I felt he was being so honest and truthful with me. He had a good resumé. And after he left, I asked around. It wasn’t good feedback at all.  But don’t worry, he’s no longer in Saigon. He went to Mui Ne in April, met a girl, came back to marry her in June but that fell through almost immediately, so that's when he interviewed here.  But left again and is in Nha Trang”.  Mui Ne and Nha Trang are beach resort towns several hours away.

“You have done yourself a big fat favor not hiring him”, I said. “I’d tell you some of the things he did, but you may not want to know. It’s pretty bad”.

“Oh?”, she asked, raising her eyebrows. “You can tell me”.

So I did. I didn’t get into all the gritty details, but I did mention the physical and verbal abuse of myself, the staff, and the owner’s wife.  She was so pleased to have dodged the bullet on that one.

So it pays to not burn bridges, especially in this town. I’ve maintained great relationships with most of the people I’ve worked with here, including my first boss, which is good since he and I will probably be working together in some capacity during a food festival next year.

And people like Volatile French Chef, he’ll keep screwing up and have to keep moving further and further away, as he’s done nothing to fix his attitude or reputation.  But that gave me quite a scare, thinking he was standing behind me or hiding in the kitchen during my meeting.