From Australian Apprentice of the Year, to executive chef for Australia’s Reserve Bank, to founder and owner of one of Saigon’s most unique antique shops, David Campbell finds creative inspiration in Vietnam’s history and people.
We are sitting at a glass table, set on a restored wooden chest that David acquired through one of the many “pickers” who unearth antiquities for him across Asia. To our left sits a golden Thai wedding headdress, and to our right stands a canteen of French crystal goblets and a hand-carved Burmese village figure atop a restored Italian mantelpiece. We are in David’s “world” – and boy is it a fascinating one.
Born in Queensland, Australia, to a Polish mother and an Aussie father, David grew up with big ambitions to make a creative impact on the world. He entered into a chef’s apprenticeship as soon as he could, inspired by the unique Australian flavours he grew up with, and by the time he was in his fourth year David owned his own restaurant, a rare feat for an apprentice chef. Possum’s Eatery, of New Farm, Brisbane, showcased Australian ingredients and helped win him one of Australia’s most prestigious awards, Australian Apprentice of the Year, when he was just 20.
“I also took part in whatever cooking competitions I could and succeeded in many of them,” David explained. “I always tried to do things 100% to the best of my ability so I tried to compete wherever possible, and I think the judges took note of that.”
From Possum’s Eatery, his cooking career took him to Ireland and London, where he completed his apprenticeship at the prestigious heritage hotel, The Grosvenor. Next stop was the culinary capital of Melbourne, where his craftsmanship landed him a job that was the envy of chefs across the nation: executive chef for The Reserve Bank of Australia.
“It was any chef’s dream – there was no budget for the menu. We could use whatever ingredients we wanted so long as they were in season, everything was served on gold and sterling silver, our guests moved in high circles so we were serving lots of important people and there was all this incredible art throughout the building… marble floors… It was amazing,” David said.
A sabbatical in Port Douglas followed this incredible career high, after which David made the natural move into the hotel world as front desk staff at the Radisson Hotel Port Douglas. From there, his hotels career blossomed until he found himself the Global Director of Sales for the Raffles and Swissotel Group.
A Global Career
David spent much of his 20s and early 30s travelling, from Thailand to Estonia, Moscow to London. But as David travelled, he didn’t collect t-shirts and mugs along, he bought antique chandeliers and French pianos.
“They were expensive souvenirs!” he laughed. “I became obsessed with collecting antiques. I bought a storage container and that, I suppose, was the real start of it all. I think I also became fascinated with antique collecting because Australia’s history and culture is so young. I mean, there are chairs older than Australia in Europe. Being so close to real history and real antiques made me really excited.”
David’s Polish grandmother also collected antiques. She had an incredible collection of mainly European and Australian artefacts, but not so many Asian pieces. David attributes this gap in his grandmother’s collection to his fascination with Vietnamese antiques, together with his love for the country itself.
“When I started Villa Royale I really wanted to concentrate on authentic antique collectables, with an emphasis on Vietnamese collectables because they have such a unique history,” David explained. “I feel as though Vietnam is progressing and modernising so rapidly that the people are forgetting their heritage, just as Russia and China have done. There’s such a growing Western influence here, in terms of fashion, design, religion, that the traditional Vietnamese culture is starting to be neglected, which is really sad. I want to help Vietnam restore its most precious antiques and collectables to their former glory.”
How It All Began
When a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity presented itself to David’s long-term partner Linh in 2011, the couple decided to make the move from Sydney to Saigon. Linh, born in Vietnam, had fled the country during the Vietnam War with his parents.
Upon arriving in Saigon, David took another sabbatical in order to figure a new plan of action. He enrolled himself in a six-month full-time course in Vietnamese language and culture at a Ho Chi Minh City university. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life.
“It was very challenging, learning Vietnamese especially. One of my teachers had a Northern dialect, the other a Southern one. But it wasn’t until I had studied the language that I felt I had a strong understanding of the business culture and community here,” David explained. “It helped me realise what it was that I wanted to do in Saigon.”
And so the Villa Royale journey began.
Villa Royale Antiques And Tea Room
In 2013 David decided he’d start an authentic antique collectibles business, one that combined his love of classy comfort food and antiquities.
Villa Royale was designed to attract local and international crowds. The eclectic business has two venues: one in District 1; and the original in District 2, in the villa where David and Linh live.
The Villa Royale tearooms have such unique aesthetics they have been used on multiple occasions by local and international glamour magazines for photo shoots — Gucci, Elle, DEP, Cong Tri and Thoi Gia Magazine. Vietnamese Pop singer Chi Pu even has recorded a music video in David’s District 1 venue.
“We get a lot of hotel and travel groups coming through here for high tea and to learn a little about Vietnam’s unique historical pieces,” he said. “It’s wonderful. I get to meet so many travellers, expats and locals, chat with them and offer them advice about their stay in Vietnam. I love it.”
“I think when you have a job and a business you look forward to going to every day, you shouldn’t mess with the recipe too much. I love Vietnam and can’t see myself living anywhere else,” David said.