I fall in love with dishes of my hometown

Thứ sáu, 04/03/2016 16:51

I haven’t told the story about Bong fully, but we remember a genuine expert chef with unique dishes, who was creative, friendly and with an unmistakable smile.

“In 21 years as a chef, every single dish that I prepared I did with all my heart like I was doing it for my parents, brother and sisters. I think the best dishes are made by with the heart of the chef as well as his or her talent. I fall in love with dishes of my hometown in Phu Yen province because all the dishes are very common and rustic but still retain their unique qualities, delicious flavor, are easy to find and are cheap. I crave the delicacies of the fishing villages in the south central coast. They are not only a priceless gift for the Phu Yen people but are gifts for the whole country. The foods in Phu Yen are highlights that attract international friends to come and to return” said Chef Nguyen Van Bong working for Kaya hotel- the winner of the Golden Spoon Cup in the preliminary round in the South Central region.

Criss-crossed scars on the hands of 15 years old boy

"At that time Chef Bong was 15 only, he was so skinny that his parents brought him to see me and asked me to teach him cookery. “Look at his body,” I told his parents, they should take him home because being a chef is a very hard job. However he looked at me with his eyes bright and full of confidence. He pleaded with me to teach him, saying, “I can do this.” Honestly, at that time I didn’t know what his future would be but I believe that he will be successful, because of his confidence,” said Mr Chien, Chef Bong’s first cooking tutor.

In his first session, Mr. Chien let Bong assist for a wedding and Chef Bong understood immediately that Mr Chien wasn’t joking when he said that being a chef is a hard job. He had to stay up all night prepare hundreds of items for the party. The attention to detail required him had to stay alert and work very carefully. Then he was busy the whole next day setting up the table, food and supplying additional dishes during the party etc. Lessons were held in the kitchens of various families, and real wedding or birthday parties and feasts were the subject matter. Practical sessions sometimes lasted right through the night. Although Chef Bong was very tired he resisted the urge of letting his drowsiness close his eyes. When the workload was slow Chef Bong would sleep in the middle of the kitchen with hundreds of bowls, pans, knives, chopping boards, it was not the cleanest of bedrooms. His hands often suffered cuts from knives and had criss-crossed scratches. His mother would hold his hands with the tears in her eyes and she often told him to return home if it was getting too hard. But he smiled at her and said that his trials were nothing and that would become a famous chef in the future.

Head chef Bong Van Nguyen of the Kaya hotel in Phu Yen province was happy when he found great ingredients. Mr Chien didn’t ask for any tuition fee and also gave Bong some money for working as his assistant. He did this because Bong is very intelligent and studied constantly to learn more so he could create new dishes for everyone to enjoy. Every time Bong saved a few thousand VND from the parties he would take the money to the bookstore. He told the shop owner that he wanted to buy a book and not simply copy from them, on that day. The shop owner told him he can read any book he liked if ever he didn’t have the money to buy. The shop owner was very kind, he knew that this young boy had dropped out of school at grade 7 and that his family were poor, so he wanted to help. He admired his passion for learning from the books. Chef Bong found and read books written by Author Nguyen Hien Le that teaches everyone about how to become a good person first, then he read other books about cuisine and cookery later. Bong was interested in reading books so much that he sometimes stayed until the shop closed. Sometimes he was so tired that he fell asleep reading in the corner of the bookstore. The store owner was surprised because most children at his age normally just loved to read manga books but Bong read books about teaching philosophy or cooking. He thought this boy would be successful and become someone in the future.

Chef Bong Van Nguyen standing beside his dishes in the competition

Mr Chien went with Bong when he returned to his family after three years. He told Bong’s parents that their son was very smart. He had learnt all his skills and was gaining experience over the last three years. He said, “Because my background is only cooking for wedding parties, I am afraid that if he continues to follow me he won’t to learn other new things and that would be a waste of his talent. You should see if there is another place or better teacher and send him there to study more.” He said that he looked like a small person but was very good in the kitchen. Adding, “He also leant skills from my teacher who is my father in law.” Then Mr Chien held the shoulder of his young student and said that “Having a student like you in my life is already an award. Let’s continue what you have started”

When Chef Bong was 18 years old he became a head chef at the “9 Tho” restaurant. This was located next to the beach and owned by an elderly couple who specialized in selling authentic seafood; Phu Yen specialties. Although merely a converted cottage, it served more than hundred customers per day. It is busy every day and all customers say if they want to eat great seafood in Phu Yen, then this is the place to be. The owners cite Chef Bong as the key attraction. He has a great talent for cooking; every dish always has its own signature. Everything he touches becomes truly delicious dish. The menu you are holding was created by him and has been used for 16 years without being changed in any way. We would love to have kept him with us but he was like a bird that needed to fly higher and further across the ocean. He left our restaurant to study more and now that he has become a famous chef we are very happy for him. Since the day he left our restaurant we got fewer customers even though we have enlarged the restaurant. Everyone who comes here asks about him. Bong’s is continuing to be told, and he smiles when he hears that everyone is talking about him. In quiet moments I saw emotion in his eyes and that he was trying to hold it inside as the sound of the waves hitting the embankment could be heard and the sea breeze was touching everyone in the restaurant. Chef Bong didn’t say anything but went into the kitchen and prepared dishes for everyone who had gathered in the restaurant where he started his career.

The Kaya hotel team won first prize in the South Central region of the 2013 Golden Spoon Contest

Kaya head chef- The Golden Spoon preliminary round in the South Central region

Working for “9 Tho” restaurant for 4 years Bong was thought he would continue with his studies. He always enjoyed studying and understood that if you want to be good at anything you must be enthusiastic. If you see it as simply a chore you will never be truly good. It has to be a balance between passion for your chosen subject and knowledge acquired about that subject. It is not merely about creating good dishes but also being able to develop a basic knowledge about how these ingredients can have medicinal values. Bong realized that he lack of this side of things so he decided to study more in order to fill in the gaps.

Bong spent the days working in the “9 Tho” restaurant and the evenings studying culture. When he had free time after school and work he would help Mr Chien cook for wedding parties. His father asked Mr Chien to ask him to leave and go home for some sleep because he felt his son was working too hard. He was afraid for the health and wellbeing of his son. Although his father was worried and his teacher did advise him against working too hard but, still decided to earn more money to finance his higher studies

After finishing high-school, Bong stopped working for the restaurant and took a trip to Vung Tau City, to take an entrance exam for college. Mrs and Mr Tho saw him, off with tears in their eyes. Bong held the shop owner’s hand and said “After finishing my studies I will come back to our restaurant”. He was admitted into the School of Vung Tau Tourism.

Chef Bong wishes that there was more than 24 hours per day so he could still study and work at many places. He was living a tiny, narrow rented room with just enough space for a bed, a table and a small space for the old bicycle he rode back to his room late at night. On some nights he even didn’t come home at all but his fellow students would still see him in class the next morning. Chef Bong didn’t skip any sessions, nor did he want to know about resting. He just worried that he didn’t have enough time to study each day. He worked part time in shops and made just enough money to pay his tuition fees, his rent and small necessities. What little time he had left was spent applying for work in big restaurants and hotels such as Danh Rau, Rex Hotel and Vuon Cau. Here he would act as assistant chef, cooking for no fee just so he could learn from famous and professional chefs. He learnt by observing and learned all he needed to know about how to have good and nutritious dishes. He found recipes then practiced them in kitchens where he worked. In some months he would run out of his money, because of his desire to make new dishes.

Sometimes he was too tired to describe. This tiredness was different from his time with Mr Chien. At that time, when he was tired he would simply find a place to lie down and sleep. But at this time, at age 20 years the tiredness seemed to come from each cell of his body and his heart. However the voice inside him told him not to give up. He had to use every minute wisely to gain knowledge for his future. Desire for success had taken over the heart and the mind of this young man. He continued his efforts every night working towards a new dawn! Sometimes friends would ask why he didn’t simply take a more normal job as men do, rather than hide in the corner of the kitchen. He laughed and said “Our ancestors said learn to eat first then how to talk later.

He knows that there are many people in Vietnam who still have the wrong perception about a chef’s job; they see it as woman’s work and men should do something “more important”. Cooking has not been really well appreciated, and many think that eating is simply a basic need. Everyone though, should enjoy eating delicious, safe and nutritious dishes. He just wants to cook dishes that diners will come back for a second or third time to enjoy. It is of great but simple happiness to all the chefs. He believes that a cooking career carries with it, its own value, as do other jobs, if more people try it, they will be attracted to it.

After graduation, Sao Bien, Hoang Suong and other restaurants in Mui Ne-, the famous tourist area, offered him a position. However, Chef Bong always thought of Phu Yen and no place had such special and unique dishes as his home town. Not only sun-dried beef and tuna, but also many other new dishes such as: soft pancakes of Ms Mai in Nhan Mountain; grilled corn with salt and “lá é” (scientific name Ocimum basilicum leaves); “mít đác” sweet soup made of jack fruit and “đác” which grows in the jungle; rice paper from Dong Binh and paste made from “con vắt” (scientific name Hirudo heamadipsa).

“Gành đá đĩa”- A place in Phu Yen where has rock with its shape as disc- Photo: P.Y

He decided to leave Vung Tau and go back to the Central region

Chef Bong went back to “9 Tho” restaurant as he had promised and the restaurant was soon getting busy again. Chef Bong took on the daughter of the owners as his student. Mrs Chin wanted her daughter to learn from him so if he left again in the future, she would have someone to continue the business. The “9 Tho” restaurant kept Chef Bong for a year telling him that that would be long enough and then he must be free to go where he wishes. He should not feel that he had to keep his promise anymore. She said, “I want to expand the restaurant to make it become really big so it will be deserving of your talent but I am old already so this is all I can do. You should go anywhere that you want and develop your career.” Two men, one old and one young drank together by the beach and Chef Bong was too emotional to speak. Mr Chin is so kind and as generous as the ocean in front of them.

In 2007, Chef Bong went on to work for Thuan Thao ecotourism area. He has been through many different positions there such as: main chef; in charge of decorating dishes; responsible for party tables; assistant to the head chef and deputy chefs of the 5-star resort. In 2011 he moved to Kaya hotel and the position of head chef. Mr Huynh Hieu Hanh, the Director of Kaya hotel, said happily, “It seems Chef Bong loves cooking more than women and is therefore, still available.” He tackles any difficulties, and is always there there when the hotel needs him. He does everything confidentially and puts all his heart into it.

Talking with him everyone easily forgets he is a chef. He loves telling everyone stories that are not related to cooking, but about people, life and his hometown. However, at the end the story will always come back to his kitchen. He talks about cooking naturally as he breathes, as these stories are in his heart and soul. When he was asked why he is so in love with cooking, he smiled and said “The kitchen and myself? We chose each other!

Chef Bong discovered the Golden Spoon Contest almost by accident. One morning, HR staff asked him if he would like to attend the Golden Spoon program? The official date was very fast approaching. He had to submit the menu in two days. He agreed immediately without even looking at the regulations. In the evening he started to read them and was so surprised to discover the sheer size and scope of the contest. Chef Bong had to stay up through the night to think of a 4 course menu. There are so many good dishes from the Central region that this presented him with quite a dilemma. Late into the night everyone saw him still in his kitchen long after the day’s work finished. It turned out that he was creating a brand new recipe of traditional food of Kaya restaurant. He finally chose 4 dishes to enter into the contest: A main course of rice noodle soup with jellyfish (named unlimited fishing village); Son Hoa sun dried beef served with yellow ant salt; an appetizer of salad with fish skin and salamander grilled with custard apple leaves; and “bánh ít lá gai”, a sticky dumpling cake wrapped by in Boehmeria nivealeaves and Kaya agar-agar with jackfruit for dessert.

Chef Bong took care of the dish as though it was his lover, with love and attention. The rice noodle with jelly fish was so delicious that diners want to have a second serving immediately. The reason why we call the dish “Làng chài bất tận” which means unlimited fishing village is because it gathers all the best elements of a truly good and nutritious dish from Phu Yen province. The broth was created using Notopterus notopterus fish, fresh blood cockles from O Loan swamp, Phu Yen crabs with shrimps and pork, this results in a beautiful sweet soup. The bowl of Kaya rice noodles with jellyfish has the 5 elements desired to create a perfect product, containing an acrid taste, with sweetness and crispiness. It is a little bit chewy, spicy and has a wonderful aroma. This dish help alleviate poor health conditions especially in the elderly and children. This caused great interest among the judges. Chef Bong and his team members won the first prize of the preliminary round easily and went through to the semi-final for the South region.

Chef Bong was very excited as he prepared for the semi-final. The first appetizer was a salad of tuna stomach, and eyes stewed with Chinese herbs and tuna eyes with mustard. The second dish was “Bóng lạc thả tóc tiên”. The third was duck steamed with lotus leaves and served with steamed rice and salt mixed with Ocimum basilicum leaves and the last course Kaya sweet soup. He was awarded the second prize in the South region and thus his team became one of 15 to enter the finals of the Golden Spoon Contest organized at Minh Sang Plaza.

Before the final round, Chef Bong and all other competitors visited the ceramic factory of Minh Long I Co.Ltd. He was surprised to see the fire in the ceramic kilns. The heat in the kitchen sometimes made him feel faint as he was cooking for wedding parties. But this was different. He felt that it was the most amazing fire that he had ever seen. The ceramics almost took on the qualities of a living body, almost a micro- universe with 5 the factors of iron, wood, water, fire and land. He looked at the fire and imagined all the ceramic products that would be born here and felt very happy.

He was beaten in the final but his passion and desire are still there and he vowed to continue.

He told us about his future and his excitement that the Golden Spoon has brought inspiration to all the hard working chefs. They are, like him, inspired with pots, pans and fire. This fine young man was born in 1979 and his eyes lit up as he told us that despite attending many contests, none of them had been as alive, full of emotion, and dramatic as the Golden Spoon. The chef doesn’t only prepare food but needs to have many other skills, some that he feels he still has yet to learn. He said, “Cooking jobs need constant learning and I am no different. I will continue to develop and practice to be able to come back to the Golden Spoon Contest in 2014 and will also contribute towards promoting Vietnam cuisine further in the future.

Chef Bong returned to Phu Yen and stood in front of the beach thinking of the path he had chosen. Each dish he made was connected to what he considered to be valuable experiences. Every road needs a rest stop after all efforts that you have been through. He has struggled to win the Golden Spoon and will not give up, but is merely having a rest before commencing the next journey. He will work harder and try for an even bigger dream, that of promoting rustic dishes to a higher level.

I left Phu Yen as darkness was falling. The Nhan Tower light had been turned on and roads in the Central Region appeared to get longer and longer in front of me. Chef Bong saw me off with his friendly smile and bright eyes. The story of Bong maybe hasn’t been told completely by me, but I hope I have related a story of a real true chef with unique dishes, creativity, a man who is friendly and has an unmistakable smile ….

Golden Spoon

This article is written in the Golden Spoon and Vietnam Cuisine Essence during the first season.

Golden Spoon and Vietnam Cuisine Essence is a book about cuisine and is published to coincide with the Golden Spoon program. The book includes many rustic and traditional dishes coming from various regions in Vietnam. It describes real chefs and demonstrates their passion in promoting Vietnamese cuisine beyond the border of the country to reach out to international audiences.

This book is on sale at Phuong Nam bookstores around the country and the showroom of Minh Long I Co. Ltd

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