Friday, April 21, 2017

The coveted Michelin star

I have a few pet peeves. Lately my biggest one is where people claim a local restaurant has Michelin stars when it does not.

For the record: there are no Michelin star restaurants in Vietnam. None. There are quite a few chefs who worked in a different country (like France), or helmed another restaurant elsewhere which was a Michelin star venue.  But when a chef leaves that restaurant, he can’t take or transfer the stars with him to a new place and call that a Michelin star restaurant.

Sure, you market yourself as a Michelin Star Chef - if you’re the exec, absolutely you should. Impressive on the resumé. But it comes across as misleading when you’re now working somewhere else and people talk about your new restaurant having Michelin stars just because you’re now working there.

There are two sides to this. 1. You’re banking on people being somewhat stupid and not knowing that the chef can’t take stars with him elsewhere,  and 2. You’re a marketing genius and using this to help bring people in.

This is coming across as snarky. It’s not meant to be. And neither am I jealous; I have no desire to work someplace to earn stars - but I’m also not that kind of chef. I have different culinary ambitions.

People are quick to point out that La Maison 1888 in Danang is Michelin starred - but it isn’t. It’s run by a chef who earned 3 stars for his restaurant in Paris.   Although I’m sure the restaurant is fantastic and superb and OTT, it does not have stars, no matter what people write (for example, see the misleadingly titled Top Five Michelin-Starred Restaurants in SE Asia).

The French restaurants here of late, including but not limited to the one where I used to work, are marketing themselves as having Michelin Star chefs at their helm.  In a lot of cases it’s not true - at my old workplace, the kid worked the salad station at a 1-Star restaurant - that doesn’t make him a Michelin Star Chef.  But the owner is banking on people flocking in droves to his restaurant because of his ambiguous marketing.

In Saigon, wine-paired dinners are all the rage; there’s at least one a week these days and I do attend quite a few for work, research, and pleasure. Not all are successful; I went to one last year where the food was just abysmal (thank God the wine, Yangarra from Australia’s McLaren Vale, was fantastic, but it still doesn’t make me feel better about having shelled out 2 M VND for the dinner). At times there also seems to be a huge disconnect between chef and sommelier, where the chef will do whatever the hell he wants and doesn’t really work on the pairing aspect. Or the somm spends 5 minutes thinking about it and phones it in. “Oh, fish? Yeah we’ll do white wine with that. Beef? Throw in any cabernet, that will do”.  That’s pretty lazy, and I know of one somm who does this constantly.  On my Facebook timeline I saw an upcoming event titled “Michelin Star Wine Dinner”, and of course they’re charging heaps of money for it. This grinds my gears. The event ought to be renamed to something else, even "Wine Dinner with a Michelin Star Chef" would do. But I can visualize what will take place: some deconstructed overthought dish strewn about artistically on a plate (perfect for Instagramming!) paired with some heavy French wine; men in suits and cigars guffaw and puff out their chests and take selfies tagged with “Me at the Michelin Star Wine Dinner with Chef So-and So!”. No. Too much money for food that’s lost its soul by being taken apart, analyzed, and curated by a chef who’s lost his way.  In cases like this the food is greater than the sum of its parts. Though I’m sure the wine will be excellent.

Although there are plenty of fantastic restaurants in Vietnam, I don’t know if I’d qualify any as being worthy of a Michelin star yet. After all, Vietnam is an emerging market; having woken up from a long slumber, it’s slowly and steadily catching up to the rest of the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.  Someone I once worked for told me that culinarily, Vietnam was 10 to 15 years behind places like New York or San Francisco, and I have to agree. But we’ll get there.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Winos of Saigon unite.

I attended a nighttime industry event last week. It was invite-only, and I was pleased to have been on the guest list (and thrilled that it was +1 so that I could drag Larry along). Many of my peers would be there, tons of F & B folks - that’s Food & Beverage for those of you not familiar with restaurant lingo -  loads of wine  distributors (who, inexplicably, are mostly French. The distributors, not the wine).  So we dressed up, me in heels I soon regretted about 15 minutes into the night, Larry in suit and tie, and set out to paint the town red.  Australian wine was being poured, and I know I wasn’t the only one the next day who had a rockin’ hangover.  All expats in the F & B business are winos. All of us.

Someone I used to work with showed up about halfway through the night, and I could tell by the way he was furtively glancing around, his awkward bursts of animated conversation, and his inability to stand still that he was on something. I went to fetch him an empty wine glass, god knows why though I guess since I once worked with him I felt obligated to try to smooth the rough edges he was creating; indeed he was emanating spiky and intense vibes.  When a server came around to pour some wine, he looked at the label and barked out, “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything better to drink?”. Pretty rich, I thought, trying to conceal my shock, considering the event was free for us and the wine was decent. I glanced over to one of my friends who helped organize the event. She giggled awkwardly and said there was some Penfolds being served in the lobby. “Penfolds?”, he inquired. “Nah, I hate Penfolds. I guess this will have to do”.  I tried to avoid him the rest of the night, but we all ended up doing an after party at a nearby favorite watering hole. Since he and I have many mutual acquaintances in common, obviously he showed up, having refueled on whatever substance he had previously inhaled and was now bouncing off the walls.

While still at the event, with wine continuously pouring and people getting happier by the minute, I started chatting with a guy who looked kind of familiar to me but could not place. Though I’m not good with names, I never forget a face, so he and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where we knew each other from. When he told me he’d been here a number of years and is part owner of  such-and-such restaurant group, I remembered him.

“We met at my boss’s house”, I said, an evil grin slowly forming on my face. “We exchanged business cards. You said we should meet up for drinks and discuss business ideas. So I emailed you… and never heard back”.  Full on evil grin at this point.

“Uh… Oh yes hahaha yes well… I never emailed you back?”, he said nervously. His own smile disappeared, and I kept grinning.

“Nope. Never. Isn’t it sad that everyone in this town exchanges business cards with promises of getting together, but turns out it’s all pomp and circumstance and it’s just a game to see who’s got the best looking business card? Oh, and by the way, mine are fantastic”.

“But I promise you I’ll email you back!”, he stammered. “I really do! I am indeed interested in discussing ideas with you! I’ll get right on it next week!”

“Okay. I’ll patiently wait for your email then",  I said, smiling sweetly, then turning away to talk to a friend.

I haven’t heard from him of course.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Saigon living: Japonaiserie.

ramen with all the toppings.


Never watch cooking shows while you're making dinner, or else you start craving what's being made on the screen and lose taste for what you're actually cooking. This happened to me last night while watching Samurai Gourmet while making a Thai hot and sour fish soup.

Of course the soup was really good, and I did eat it. But I was really craving ramen like nobody's business after watching “The Demoness's Ramen” (episode 2), so this morning I was first in line for my favorite little ramen joint way back in the 15B Le Thanh Ton hem in Saigon’s Little Tokyo. They open at 11:30 am, and I was shopping beforehand but arrived too early. No matter. I stood out front and mooched wifi off the izakaya across the way, and was soon joined in line by a Japanese fellow who had a cross body bag made out of car seatbelts. Pretty soon afterwards he and I were perched on two of the 8 stools with steaming bowls of ramen in front of us. Bliss. By 11:42 all 8 seats were taken, and a line had formed outside.

A buddy of mine says there's another excellent ramen joint somewhere in that set of hems that I need to try out, but every time I walk around in there I get lost and can't find it. I even get lost trying to find my dry cleaners, which has a teeny tiny shopfront somewhere back there.

you too can have a grilled salmon head for a little over $4 USD.


The izakaya hole-in-the-wall across the way from the ramen place is only open at night, and it's delightful. I've never sat downstairs; the first time we went we were ushered upstairs where I guess the overflow counter seating is, and the place does fill up. A couple of tables for larger groups (4 to 6 people) are also up there since the downstairs can't accommodate them. When I say it's delightful, I truly mean it. There’s a TV blaring Japanese commercials from the 1980's, so on occasion you'll see Gregory Hines, or Gene Hackman with a cranium full of hair hawking beer. One time when I was up there, an older Japanese gentleman kept sending shots of Jack Daniels down my way. Unwilling to be rude, especially since he kept grinning at me (my top heaviness probably had something to do with it), of course I drank them - never mind that brown liquor and I broke up ages ago and any attempt at reconciliation has ended with unhappy results despite my praying to all the porcelain gods. He eventually fell off his stool and was gently picked up and walked home. But that's the kind of place this is: grilled innards and salmon heads, Sapporo on tap, walls lined with customer-owned bottles ranging from sake to bourbon, and a friendly arm to guide you home should you need it.

Seems kind of funny that I move to Saigon only to fall in love with Japanese culture, but I'm okay with that.


Today: 91° Mostly Cloudy
Đường Chu Mạnh Trinh 14/11C, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam