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Chef Vo Quoc: Just Be Kind and Luck Will Come

Tuesday, 05/16/2017 08:26
Chef Vo Quoc is quite well known although he is not any restaurants’ chef cook.

Excellently graduated from Vietnam cooking class at Tourism and Hospitality of Saigon tourist in 2001, Vo Quoc earned a scholarship of advanced training from Belgium at Saigon tourist. After that, he received another scholarship from the famous Raffle restaurant in Singapore since he was the first in class. He took Food stylist course in Singapore and after receiving Food expert certificate from Asian Chefs Association, he chose to be a food designer and general editor of 3 magazines: Vietnamese Delicious in both Vietnamese and English version, and Family in the Kitchen.

His story started 10 years ago but he felt it as fresh as yesterday. He said, “I still remember the very first period of my cooking training, there were rare students who chose Vietnamese cuisine. Most of my classmates chose Western cuisine for their future choices. Vietnamese cuisine class seemed to fit for small family restaurant only. No matter what, I determined to follow my choice and my ability. For those who eat Vietnamese food everyday should be the best cooking Vietnamese food.

But after classes about Vietnamese food, you became a food stylist, not a chef?

I still cook for cultural exchanging festivals but I can’t be a chef because of my temper. When the restaurant gets crowded and the chef can’t keep a cool head, definitely he will screw all the food. Therefore, I decided to be a food stylist, which was a really new and cash cow job at that time.

Being a leisure food stylist then you’ve changed your career as general editor (Ed) for culinary magazines. Seems like you prefer difficult paths?

Food stylist is a leisure choice but you have to invest all your time on it. You have to understand culinary cultures and the nature of ingredients in order to design eye-catching and useful food. I have to drag myself to all bookstores to look for culinary books in order to update my knowledge.

When wandering many bookstores, I realized that Vietnam had not had any good culinary magazines. What’s a pity for our abundant cuisine! So my friends and I decided to launch Vietnamese Delicious magazine. Working in communication field is much harder because you must devote most of your time and mind for it but it’s worth all the hard work. I feel lucky that I own a somewhat-well-known culinary magazine so that I’ve learned a lot from experts all over Vietnam. I was known in the world because of those magazines and they also brought me chances to participate many food festivals in the world.

“Food has erased language barrier and pulled people close to each other”.

Which faith did make you Vietnamese culinary ambassador?

Well! That’s such a scandal tittle. 4 years ago, to prepare for Young Chef International contest in Vietnamese, World Chef Association looked for a young chef who had communication skills to be Cultural and Culinary ambassador. The Saigon Young Chefs Club nominated me to that position. However, that idea got critical reaction from Saigon Professional Chefs Association because at that time, I did not belong to any association nor firm restaurants. I was a member of World Street Food Association and a judge of International Young Chefs as well as working in my business so I really did not have time for other groups. Some of my foreign friends thought it was ridiculous if saying Vietnamese culinary ambassador must be a member of Chef Association, which was like saying Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador must work in the firm.

And how did you react against the disagreement?

I did not react. I just recommend the news should have checked their sources before publishing.

Why does a scientism and artistic You choose cooking as your career?

All is because of faith. My family has a good reputation with Chemistry that most of my siblings are doctors or pharmacists. I am good at chemistry, too but I also love drawing. I took exams to go to architect school but I failed relentless 3 years. I am the youngest son, of course I’m spoiled and I love to rock. I broke my hands in a motor race and couldn’t draw anymore.

During days of being at a loose end, I usually hid in my godmother’s house, happened to be the most famous chef of Viet Nam, Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. She saw my ability and asked me to learn cooking in day while studying academic Marketing at night. My mother and oldest sister love me too much to stop me while my father and other siblings intensely protested. Being at Asian Young Chefs 2001 in Beijing, China was an honor but I couldn’t tell my family, except my mother and oldest sister. Until I won the first prize, the rest of my family has still refused to look at cooking career in a different way.

For how long have you finally earned agreement of your whole family?

Just recent. Before that, even though I opened my own company and launched my own restaurants but they had not come to visit.

Have you ever regretted for not following your family tradition?

I never regret what belongs to the past. Because of the accident, I stepped onto cooking career and after that I could juggle pans by both hands. I think we should be good to ourselves first so I always think positive, be happy, and do not hate. When I decided to take cooking as my career, I told myself to be satisfied with whatever came, as the worst or the best.

I’m not a very pleasant looking guy but who knows me loves me. I’m willing to yield to keep relationships. Even a guy whom I treated as my younger bro took my seafood restaurant or an architect took my idea and tools in my restaurant, I don’t blame them. I try to put myself in others’ shoes.

What did bring you to success in both your career path and contests?

All is luck. I’m really passionate and honest in my career so I’ve got all the luck. I never gave bad comments about food. If it’s good, I devour it; if it’s not very good, I will take it slow and think of how to make it better. I have an easy mouth and an open heart, especially when I can cook for my love ones. I take control of my job and quickly improvise. For example, at the Asian Young Chefs contest in Beijing, I thought I couldn’t compete with experienced chefs there. At that time, I was a total newbie. I created my own way. I chose simple dish - fried rice - but I cooked it differently. With a bit of creativity, I surpassed over 50 competitors from 13 Asian countries to won the contest. That’s because of luck. And I’m not the best in town.

Another example is at the International Street Food festival 2014 in Singapore, I wanted to cook Hai Phong rice noodles in crab soup but in the last minutes, the custom didn’t allow fresh water crabs to get in for safety reasons. I immediately came up with fake crabs from grounded shrimps. The final dish was delicious and pleasant, which won the prize of the most favorite food.

I’m always proud of my homeland’s cuisine. I realized that our country has plentiful and diverse food sources. It’s not only the taste - southern food is fat and sweet, central food is salty and spicy while northern food is mild and transparent – but also each region has its own spicy/herbal leaves. After a long time enjoy local food all over Vietnam, local specialties did open my eyes for subjective and general ideas of how different regional tastes and flavors are. That is food, which erases language barrier and pulls people close to each other.

“I’m always proud of my homeland’s cuisine. I realized that our country has plentiful and diverse food sources.”

You think what is the most remarkable line of Vietnamese cuisine?

It’s spicy and herbal leaves. They’re so diverse and they make regional food unique. For instant, sour soup of each area has different flavors, which the South’s is garnished with ngò gai, ngò om; the central is with spring onion, rau răm, lá é; and the North’s goes with dills. Moreover, the same type of herbal leaves can be different tastes and smells, depending on their regions. I prefer Northern and central herbs because the soil there are arid, leaves are small so the essences are much tenser. Soil in the South is fertile, good for sweet vegetables.

One interesting geography point of Vietnam is that the distances from rivers to the oceans are just about 2 hours. Brackish areas between are homes of unique seafood, such as eel fish, naked catfish (Bagridae), or anh vũ fish (Semilabeo notabilis). Shopping in fresh market is another interesting and typical activity of Vietnamese. When arriving a new land, domestic or foreign, my first stop would be markets. I can find typical recipes of local food there from buyers and sellers. I’m nurturing a book about Vietnamese markets that I’ve been collecting for years. I hope my books can contribute to open the narrow viewpoint of the world about Vietnamese cuisine.

“The narrow viewpoint of the world about Vietnamese cuisine”, would you please explain it?

The world has known of Vietnamese cuisine through phở, chả giò (fried rolls), and gỏi cuốn (spring rolls). In addition, some of the faces who introduced phở to the world have depreciated the true value of the dish. Recently, an American chef who has Vietnamese origin – one has cooked for Hollywood celebrities – instructed a way to cook phở by pressure cooker. I was so disappointed watching that clip going viral on the Internet. Foreigners do care in details, especially cooking. They will admire Vietnamese phở if they know beef bones must be cooked over 12 hours to get the best broth.

In my meetings around the world, I realized that the world adores our food. The issue is people who have been make Vietnamese food popular have limited knowledge of their homeland cuisine. King of chef Christine Ha, Vietnamese American in Los Angeles, California, or Luke Nguyen – Vietnamese Australian has not lived in Vietnam for a very long time. They do not really have Vietnamese food daily so the consequence is that their taste must change, little or much. They can cook from Vietnamese recipes but I think their food hardly delivers the true Vietnamese flavors.

Essence of a dish comes from every single step of processing. Once I went to France in a ceremony of 40 years Vietnamese & French cultural exchange, fortunately I meet an old lady from Hue royal family and learned how to make delicate royal bún bò Huế. She said that in her time, only rich families could enjoy good food while normal household just had enough to fill their stomachs. Therefore, only high-class knew the taste and how to cook good food. Real bún bò Huế must have aromatic pork shank, crunchy and lemongrass-flavorful joint, and perfectly mixed broth from Hue shrimp paste, lemongrass, oiled garlic chili, and boiled pork with onion broth. Too much of any single scent could screw the whole pot. Especially, bún bò Huế must be hot and spicy. Diners must feel their lips running, not their tongues. Former prime minister of Singapore, Ly Quang Dieu, used to praise my bún bò Huế with robust aroma of shrimp paste.

“In my meetings around the world, I realized that the world adores our food. The issue is people who have been make Vietnamese food popular have limited knowledge of their homeland cuisine.”

Such a special chance! When did he have your bún bò Huế?

I participated in a conference of Yahoo in Singapore, 2007, as a chef who introduced Vietnamese food. Other Asian chefs cooked their traditional dishes, too. I was asked to eliminate shrimp paste out of the dish and reduce chili potion so that all foreigners could have it. I told them that without shrimp paste and spicy chili, it’s no longer bún bò Huế. Finally, my true bún bò Huế was totally enjoyed by Ly Quang Dieu and visitors. After the party, Ly Quang Dieu asked me to come and cook many more times for his supreme parties.

Foreigners seem to love Vietnamese street food?

They do. Very much. But they’re afraid of hygeine. The same happens to mắm. Mắm (fermented fish/seafood) is not ordorous or dirty as they think. In fact, mắm is a spectacular spice of Vietnam and it needs a proper procession to be well preserved. In the ceremony of 40 years Vietnamese – French relationship, I had a chance to present types of mắm in dishes of all 3 Vietnamese regions. I showed them that mắm was totally not ordorous or dirty like they used to think. It’s the way we joke that makes people misunderstanding our food. I can joke everything but not food. Our basa fish (Pangasius bocourti) got boycotted because of jokes saying that basa fish was fed with weighting compound. You can see, a joke can harm the whole economic field. Sometimes I strongly react at graceless jokes about my food. People can think of me as high temper person but that’s just my way to respect the food.

Thank you for your interesting sharing.

Writer: Xuan Loc/DNSGCT

Artist: Hoang Tuong

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