Culture Culture

11/01/2018 - 14:23

Japanese Emperor's luncheon and the underlying story about the executive chef

Graduating from Hue Vocational College of Tourism, Nguyen Dong Hai, born in 1982, was the first Vietnamese to become the executive chef of the worldwide renowned La Residence Hotel.

Nguyen Dong Hai - Executive chef of La Residence 

A blend of European and Asian gastronomy

In March 2017, La Residence Hotel had the honor to be selected by Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko during their visit to Hue. On the invitation of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Emperor and Empress had a luncheon at the hotel restaurant. Preparing for the important meal, chef Nguyen Dong Hai was quite nervous and worried although he had been in charge of numerous meals served to politicians paying a visit to Hue before.

"I had to make sure everything was done meticulously, from planning the menu to buying the ingredients. The cooking needed to be impressive, as well as to cater for the taste of the Imperial couple. It also had to be mistake-free. Another important thing is to introduce Vietnamese cuisine and Hue cuisine to these important guests," Hai remembered.

On the menu were dishes showcasing his strength - a blend of Vietnamese and Western gastronomy, a combination that earlier formed his own distinctive style. The appetizers were smoked scallop salad served with bean puree, lettuce and grated goose liver. The main courses of the meal included beef marinated with ginger served with stir-fried vegetables, freshly-made noodles and five-spice sauce; grilled codfish served with fennel root, smashed sweet potato, lettuce, tomato sauce and lemongrass.

Also present on the menu were Hue appetizers, such as green mango salad, nem lụi tôm (paste of crushed shrimp, wrapped around lemongrass and grilled over an open fire), spring rolls, fried rolls, bánh bèo, bánh nậm, and Hue royal soup made of abalone, mushroom and lotus seed. Even in Western dishes, Hai had his own clever way of integrating local ingredients, some of which are lemongrass, sweet potatoes, and ginger. The menu was a success, delighting the high-profile guests from Japan, for which the Japanese press was full of praise.

A special touch of the meal was the way Hai localized Western dishes, using local herbs and spices and presenting the food in a "Hue style". Examples of this are French goose liver cream served with smoked ham and Vietnamese banana flower salad; or the smoked scallop salad having jasmine aroma (jasmine was added in the smoking process); or French shrimp flambé using shrimps from Tam Giang lagoon and Minh Mang wine instead of cognac.

Those are also the culinary specialities of La Residence Hotel, gaining popularity among international guests. Executive chef Nguyen Dong Hai explains, "I cook local produce in the modern Western way so that every dish would suit the taste of Western customers, still leaving them with a touch of Vietnamese gastronomy. The integration of local cuisine into Western cuisine establishes my own distinctive style."

It is challenging to combine the gastronomy of the East and the West in such a way that caters for the taste of international customers, in doing which he succeeded only after years being a chef. To make matters more complicated, culinary preferences vary greatly according to nationalities. To satisfy his customers, the executive chef converse with them, elaborating on the ingredients and their origins, their combinations, pondering on their comments and suggestions to make necessary alterations to the food he cooks.

"Cooking means continuous creativity, learning new things and taking into consideration comments in order to adapt the style. Apart from preserving the traditional culinary methods, the most important task of a chef is to form his own distinctive style, differentiating his cooking from that of others. It entails "inventing" rather than imitating," the chef confides.

Promoting Hue cuisine

Born into a family with two sons, from an early age, Hai got in the kitchen quite regularly to give a hand to his mother and grandmother. His passion for cooking developed ever since. Upon his graduation from high school, Hai enrolled in Hue Vocational College of Tourism, majoring in Cooking despite the fact that at that time cooking was still commonly believed not to be a "male profession". Being among the first graduates of the college, Hai embarked on his career as a chef in La Residence Hotel - at that time still a guesthouse of the Provincial People's Committee.

Although his cooking career started with merely basic tasks, such as washing-up and cleanup, his passion would refuse to wane. He worked so assiduously and diligently that he won the hearts of the chefs and they started to teach him. His exclusive style was formed thanks to the experience he accumulated from school and by learning from renowned Hue culinarians and French chefs working at La Residence Hotel. Before Nguyen Dong Hai, all the executive chefs at La Residence Hotel were French, with the only exception of Thua An - a French with a Vietnamese origin, who was professionally educated in France.

Being a Hue person, Hai has always had a burning desire to promote Hue cuisine to the world. Working in an international environment has paved his way for doing so. The hotel menu always includes Hue specialities, well-known for their entailing a lot of time and effort in the preparation process. All the local dishes are freshly made by Dong Hai and his colleagues so as to ensure high food hygiene standard. In the food presentation, Hai uses tableware made of bamboo to give his local food a distinctive setting.  

"All the tourists who come to Hue are eager to taste the local cuisine. Hue food is loved for its special seasonings and fresh ingredients. A large number of tourists take to the hot spice peculiar to this land, the taste of shrimp paste in Hue beef noodles, the scent of fermented tofu in beef hotpot. I have always done my best to give customers a chance to enjoy recipes passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. However, I do need to adapt my cooking by making alterations in the seasoning process to suit the taste of Westerners," Hai shares.

Recently, Hai, together with his colleagues from La Residence, has been to Hong Kong to participate in the Vietnam Culinary Week, and to Thailand as a chef in a yacht. Whenever he goes, he brings Hue culinary art with him, to promote it to the world.

By Minh Hien