David Thai fled Vietnam at age 6 to live in France after being orphaned during the Vietnam War. Thai returned to Vietnam two decades later and now helms arguably three of the city’s best French culinary hangouts — Le Bouchon de Saigon, Le Steak de Saigon and La Brasserie de Saigon. He was resident chef on Iron Chef Vietnam last year, before becoming permanent judge on The Next Iron Chef Vietnam. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Fred Wissink.

How did you end up becoming a chef?
Me and my big brother grew up with our uncle in a restaurant for business, Vietnamese cuisine, in Paris, Chinatown. I moved around the restaurant business and the countryside of Paris. I grew up in this environment with the family working, helping in the market. Even the weekends, Saturday, Sunday, we were helping the kitchen. So I grew up like that until my grandmom said, “Why you don’t go to school, learn French cooking?” because [for] Vietnamese chefs there is no job in France.

What made you return to Vietnam?
If I don’t move to Vietnam, I will not be like I am today. I love the country when I first come in ‘96. This time I was thinking I will be back, I will try to enjoy my life as a chef. So Vietnam is a step for [me], an Asian face. People come to me and of course say he, you know, is not French, but if you talk to me, you will see my hand [movements] and know.

Were you worried your French restaurants wouldn’t stand out after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City?
When we decide to open Le Bouchon and Le Brasserie, of course we was knowing that French cuisine was everywhere in Vietnam. [Le Bouchon] is a bistro, so you can eat very quick, very packed. You can just sit at the bar and you observe enough just to pass your time and relax your brain. This is what happens to me sometimes. As an expat here I’ve been eating many places alone, so sometimes I don’t know what to eat. I come to a place, I always bring newspaper with me or iPad. But because I’m lonely. But when I find a place like Le Bouchon you can come here, eat one thing and, like in Paris, read your newspaper. I think this kind of place works in Vietnam much more than fine dining.

Do you think chefs are important celebrities here?
There’s too many young people in Vietnam. I want to attract the young generation. We’re lucky that today chefs become celebrated. For Vietnamese people today, chef is what? It’s bad. “Mama, my boyfriend is a chef.” This is not the same status as a marketing minor. Cooking — everybody can cook. Why do you need to pay him for cooking? Vietnamese people like food, like cooking, but they don’t consider a chef himself as a job. There’s not a high social status for the chef.

What did you want to prove on Iron Chef Vietnam?
People, when they say, “You cannot prepare anything, you cannot prepare one hour.” True, true. But Iron Chef is not something that you bring the plate ready in your restaurant to go out. It’s something you need to see the chef’s direction. And this is what I showed to the Vietnamese people on the show. Today I can show on the TV all my 10 years passion, all my 10 years hard time.

You’re also competing in Iron Chef Thailand soon. Ready?
When I was doing the dishes when they give me the two mystery elements, I was saying that we come from Vietnam, we are not coming from France. I have to bring the ingredients in Vietnamese [style], something that when we did the dish, they say, “Oh, it’s from Vietnam!” So it’s a lot of preparation. It’s one more door for me, and even I say to the people here, life is always fight. The word comes from one Filipino friend that used to work with me in Jordan. He told me, “David, life is fight, my friend.” Fight, fight… I start to discover what is fighting? Fighting is not fighting physically, the fighting is to always going. You need to be a winner, courageous, positive example. This is the way.


Read more about Iron Chef David Thai on AsiaLIFE