In AsiaLIFE’s Cook-off 2012, we gave five of Ho Chi Minh City’s finest chefs the chance to show off their chops by bringing together the best of Vietnamese and western cooking.

Fusion food is not uncommon in many restaurants around Vietnam and it’s easy to see why; Vietnamese food, and Vietnam itself, is full of culinary inspiration and these five chefs have taken fusion to a new level.

All coming from different backgrounds, the chefs were randomly assigned two dishes, one Vietnamese and one western. The challenge was to put a western twist on the Vietnamese dish and vice versa. The chefs had the time to prepare their dishes in advance, using their own kitchens and their own ingredients.

Rather than choose a winner, we enlisted expert foodies to judge how successfully each dish blended different cooking styles from around the world. Photos by Fred Wissink.

Adrian Scott

The Deck

Usually, it’s group executive chef Adrian Scott going to his Vietnamese staff at The Deck to give culinary commands. But to rise to the challenge of combining western and Vietnamese cuisine, he found himself sometimes on the other end of orders.

“It was actually quite fun because it gave the staff a chance to help and show me,” said the chef, known in the local industry as Scotty.

The kitchen tables have turned, not just among the chefs and cooks, but among their unique creations. Scotty was tasked with adding a Vietnamese flair to coq au vin, and with reimagining banh beo for western food-lovers. Trained in his native England and France, Scotty had minimal exposure to Vietnamese recipes – which is where his staff came in.

To make the rice mini-pancakes from Hue, Scotty used an ingredient that probably never has been tried in the history of the food: beetroot. As one out of three iterations, the beet-red banh beo propped up pork confit, crisped in an oven and garnished with applesauce and dried apple. On the two other white banh beo, he laid a surf and turf of seared scallop and braised oxtail with dried carrot, and then foie gras with dried mango and chilli mango chutney.

Michael Kloster, front of house manager for Saigon’s Gourmet Group, noted the harmony of textures on both white banh beo. In forgoing the usual chopped dried shrimp, the chef produced a concoction that actually constituted a meal, unlike customary banh beo. As for the beet version, Kloster could detect the earthiness of the vegetable among the cake’s chewy layers.

“It’s cool, it’s basically pork chops and applesauce,” he said, “on a banh beo.”

For the chicken dish, Scotty drew inspiration from pho, a soup he’d made only once before. After trial and error with coconut milk and fish sauce, Scotty settled on a pho stock of star anise, cinnamon, lemongrass, and pork bones, later mixing in the French necessities: red wine and enoki and shiitake mushrooms in place of button mushrooms. He served the broth in a clay pot, leaving noodles, bean sprouts, and sweet basil on the side.

Kloster said the outcome wasn’t as rich or heavy as traditional coq au vin. And if he closed his eyes to taste the experiment?

“I’d know it’s a chicken stew, but what stands out the most are the pho herbs and spices,” Kloster said. “I certainly wouldn’t peg it as Vietnamese, but not French either.”

Geoffrey Deetz

Black Cat

Black Cat has become on institution in Ho Chi Minh City, offering some of the best western-style food around. Already known for mixing western and Vietnamese food, Geoffrey Deetz, who owns the restaurant and two others in the, jumped at the opportunity to once again be part of AsiaLIFE’s cook-off.

Deetz says throughout his 33 years as a chef and restaurateur in his native California and Vietnam, he has always found that Vietnamese and western food are easy to combine. “Vietnamese cuisine is unique among Asian food because you can take foreign influences and tweak them a little to make them fully Vietnamese.”

This is what he did with his first dish, banh xeo, sometimes inaccurately called the Vietnamese pancake.

Deetz took his love for Mexican food, much of which he says is very similar to Vietnamese, and gave the banh xeo some small changes that transformed it into something new entirely. This dish is usually made from egg and rice flour and filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. To eat, people wrap pieces of the crepe in mustard leaves, lettuce or rice paper before dipping them in sweetened fish sauce.

Deetz’s version was fried in bacon fat instead of the usual lard, which gave it an extra crispness. Inside he added bacon, corn, onion and shrimp. For an added kick, he put jalapenos in the fish sauce. Although this dish was still 90 percent Vietnamese, it had a very Mexican flavour, said our critic Richard Sterling, adding that the bacon fat gave the corn a very unique taste.

“All of this has made it a more complex dish than I’d expect from a banh xeo,” he said.

In the same Mexican spirit, Deetz combined his second dish, a burrito with com tam, the simple broken rice and grilled meat dish widely eaten throughout Vietnam. He said this was an easy decision because com tam is very similar to what Mexicans eat for lunch.

He took Vietnamese-style grilled pork – essentially chile verde pork – and combined it with green onions, egg, pickled jalapenos and carrots, broken rice, and whole red beans, and wrapped it in a standard flour tortilla. Since broken rice tends to be dry and eaten with fish sauce, it was served with two fish sauce blends, one with salsa, the other with guacamole.

Sterling said overall he enjoyed the burrito, adding that it “was a very interesting, and sometimes confusing, experience.”

David Thai                                                              

Le Bouchon De Saigon

As a Viet Kieu, David Thai, the head chef at Le Bouchon De Saigon, might just have a leg up with this challenge. As a child Thai moved from Vietnam to France, where he grew up and first honed his cooking skills. In 2004 he moved back to Vietnam and has worked as head chef of Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, Sofitel Saigon Plaza and Epikurean Hospitality Indochine before moving to Vietnam.

When we told Thai his western dish would be a Cornish pasty, a traditional British dish originating in Cornwall, he hadn’t the faintest idea of what it was. But after some quick research, he was able to create an interesting and delicious take on the dish.

A classic Cornish pasty has beef, onions, potato and swede inside of a golden pastry. Thai’s version replaced the traditional ingredients with minced pork and prawns, mushroom, ginger, bamboo shoots and garlic. Ann Ha, an avid food blogger, said it reminded her of the Vietnamese banh pa te so, a meat-filled pastry, but much lighter and fluffier.

Thai’s second dish was cha gio, or egg rolls, which usually have ground pork, mushrooms, carrots, vermicelli, and sometimes shrimp.

He said with this dish he tried to modernise the rolls by making them in a “French way”. He did this by wrapping prawn and basil leaves in shredded filo pastry, paper-thin sheets of dough often used in Greek, eastern European and Middle Eastern cuisine. The rolls were basted in butter rather than deep-fried to make them more “elegant” and “flavourful”. On the side was a shot glass filled  half with chilli sauce and half with basil sauce.

Ha said she loved the dipping sauce, which added a “new and refreshing” flavour to the rolls. She said she looked forward to seeing both dishes on Le Bouchon’s menu.

Bui Van Dam

InterContinental Hotel

Locally trained chef Van Dam worked at Khai-Silk-owned Nam Phan for seven years before moving to the InterContinental Hotel, where he has been for three years. Dam is currently the sous chef at the hotel’s Market 39 restaurant.

Dam’s first task was to westernise cha ca la Vong, a specialty of northern Vietnam, and not one you see very often in the city. The standard ingredients are turmeric, dill, shrimp paste and fish sauce, served with chunks of fish cooked at the table.

Dam’s take on the dish featured the addition of a peanut sauce that resembled peanut butter, a standard on sandwiches and toast in the west. Our critic, Ann Ha, said she found that it was a subtle fusion, as it still looked a lot like a normal cha ca dish. She also noted that the fish was moist and perfectly cooked, while the fresh chillies added some bite. Ha concluded her judgment by saying, “It has a good texture, with the crispy fish combining with the crunch of the peanuts and the soft vegetables, to create a good mix.”

The second dish from the chef was a Vietnamese version of the hamburger. Minced beef was mixed with onion, egg, lemongrass and fat before being deep-fried to give it a crispy crust. Dam served the burger on a homemade bun with lettuce and tomatoes.

Ha thought this was a much deeper fusion, as the burger looked western but tasted Vietnamese. She appreciated the succulence of the patty and thought it would work well with local palettes. She added that, “Vietnamese people like well-done meat and fried dishes with bread, so I think you could almost spin this as a high-end version of a banh mi.” She also noted that the burger wasn’t greasy at all, and proved to be healthier than its usual competitors.

Overall Dam did well in the challenge, and even though Ha wasn’t totally convinced by the first dish’s fusion she found that both efforts tasty and well put-together.

The Critics

Richard Sterling
AsiaLIFE’s resident food expert Richard Sterling is the author of more than a dozen books and scores of magazine articles. He has worked as a travel editor for a food magazine and a food editor for a travel magazine. The New York Times once called him the “Indiana Jones of gastronomy”.

Michael Kloster
Michael Kloster is the front of house manager for Saigon Group and has been involved in the hospitality industry for the better part of 20 years, the last seven in Vietnam. He hails from California, where he worked his way through UC Berkeley waiting tables at the legendary Caffe Giovanni. 

Ann Ha
A social media strategist by day and a local food and fashion blogger by night, Ann Ha is well known for her food writing around Ho Chi Minh City. As a food lover, she’s always thinking of the next creative recipe she will try out on her friends. Visit her blog at annha.com.