lifestyle • 31 Aug, 2017
A Chef’s Guide To Saigon: Peter Cuong Franklin
Anan’s Founder Curates Our Culinary City Guide
Peter Cuong Franklin was born and raised in Da Lat. It’s a place, not coincidentally, that features prominently on the menu at his restaurant, Anan. He left in ‘75, and has spent most of his working life outside Vietnam. “I feel like a prodigal son who has travelled far and wide and who has finally returned to his mother country,” Peter laughs. “Da Lat remains a great source of inspiration for me not only for the beautiful ingredients and products but also because I can bring a bit of my ‘que huong’ (or ‘hometown’) to a city such as Saigon,” the chef smiles.
He stepped out on a career in finance sometime before 2010, went to study French cuisine at Cordon Bleu, Bangkok, then kitchen hopped with a couple of stops in Chicago, at Alinea and Next, then to Caprice at the Four Seasons, Hong Kong. He opened up ChomChom and Viet Kitchen in the same city before returning to Vietnam to start Anan among the market stalls of Ton That Dam. “I feel very comfortable in this location since ChomChom was also near Hong Kong’s oldest market, on Graham Street,” Peter continues. “For me, the amazing street food and old wet markets are important parts of any city’s culinary and cultural heritage and they should be preserved in some way. Otherwise we risk becoming a soulless metropolis, full of international chain restaurants, corporate office towers and nondescript five-star hotels that are the same in every modern city these days,” he adds.
Describe Saigon to a foodie friend who’s never been here.
There’s vibrant, delicious food everywhere — especially on the streets. Part of the beauty of Saigon is its daily life, in all of its realness and rawness, is lived out in the open and not hidden behind car windows or inside private apartments in tall buildings as in more developed cities. Just pick any street corner, grab a strong cup of café sua da — like the one served at Cafe Vy behind the New World Hotel (227A Ly Tu Trong) — order something to eat from nearby and watch this city’s colorful kaleidoscope unfold right in front of your eyes. Repeat this process about five times a day when you are here or more, or less, depending on your stamina.
And how’s life in Anan’s new neighbourhood?
We started off as a curiosity but now I think we’ve gained a level of acceptance and respect and we feel part of this place. When I walk around to buy local produce or talk with the vendors, they ask me about my day, or how business is going, or they congratulate us on the success of a busy night. And we all commiserate with each other when it rains, as it often does in Saigon, since business for the whole market slows down.
What’s with naming things twice as you did with Anan and at ChomChom in Hong Kong?
Once is good, twice is better. For the next restaurant I might have to consider naming it three or four times. Seriously, Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language and so I like the idea of putting words and ideas together such as Anan (which means ‘eat eat’) to create something new.
What’s your favorite time of day for food in this city?
Anytime is good for food in Saigon but my favorite times are the early morning hours and late at night since that’s when the good stuff comes out. I like to start my day off with a cup of hot black Hanoi-style coffee at Cafe Muoi (29 Huynh Thuc Khang). Then, if I’m hungry, I’ll order the only food item on their menu — Hai Phong-style banh mi with pâté and fried egg. It’s a great breakfast combination, and the flavor reminds me of having eggs and corned beef breakfasts in the States.
Which are your top three Vietnamese ingredients?
With traditional French cuisine it’s butter, butter and butter. So mine would be fish sauce, fish sauce and more fish sauce — particularly the good stuff from Phu Quoc Island. At the restaurant, we buy our fish sauce directly from the producer but good quality fish sauce from Phu Quoc, and also from Phan Thiet, is available at Ben Thanh and Cho Lon markets.
Can you reveal the source of your inspiration for your dishes?
I am inspired by, and try to learn as much as I can from, street food vendors and market stalls. Many of the signature dishes on the current Anan menu such as the Da Lat style pizza and the banh xeo tacos come directly from eating and talking with the local cooks around here. Traditional banh xeo is available during lunch time from the stall at 67 Ton That Dam. And local banh trang nuong is available along Nguyen Hue and around the corner on Ngo Duc Khe towards Ho Tung Mau.
And which is your favorite restaurant right now besides your own?
I’m a fan of Cuc Gach Quan (9-10 Dang Tat Street) for traditional Vietnamese food and I like Pizza 4Ps (8/15 Le Thanh Ton) not only for the pizza, as their pastas and salads are also very good, but also for the story of how a couple of Japanese expats started out with the crazy idea of making artisanal cheese in Da Lat — and they made it happen. These amazing things can be done and that is part of the reason why I love living and working in Vietnam.
Can you name one local food people should get to know?
I often enjoy hot vit lon with a 333 beer bought from the lady outside Anan (around 89 Ton That Dam, 3pm-3am) but unfertilized duck embryo might be more for a Bourdain or Zimmerman fan. For something more comforting, I think people should try the Hanoi-style chicken pho served nearby (31 Hai Trieu, 4pm-4am) which is wonderfully simple and soothing when it’s done as well as it is there.
Talk us through your average 24 hours in this city.
I try not to schedule morning meetings since I like to wake up naturally, which is usually around 7am or later if I am out the night before with other chefs or friends. Most of my time during the day is spent working with the team, meeting suppliers and other industry colleagues and testing new recipes. When I am experimenting I often go to the vegetable lady opposite Anan (90 Ton That Dam). The best part is her beautiful vegetables are already clean and ready to cook. She sets up her stall daily between 3pm and 10pm when the sun’s not shining on her allocated spot. Right next to her is the friendly always smiling ‘beef lady’ (88 Ton That Dam). All you have to do is tell her which dish you’re making — like a simple steak or beef noodles — and she will select the perfect cut or slice it into ready-to-cook pieces for you.
What’s the one place you take out-of-town guests to?
I love the ‘nhau’ drinking joints, especially when charcoal grilling is involved. I often take people to 5ku Station (29 Thai Van Lung) for Saigon-style BBQ in an open-air environment. Start with a glass of cold local beer and order as much food as your stomach can handle. For a feast, go with a big group of friends and order a mixture of beef, fish, squid, shrimp and pork and start grilling. My favorite dish is the pigeon – cooked medium rare so it’s still pink and tender.
What do you think the food scene in Saigon is missing?
I really feel Vietnamese food is among the best in the world and Saigon, as the country’s financial and commercial capital, has it all. People from all regions of Vietnam come to Saigon to work and they bring their food with them. I think this city has great potential to be put firmly on the global culinary map, not only for cheap street food but also for creative cuisine and other world-class food experiences. That’s something I hope we will see much more of in the coming years.
Finally, what’s your guilty Saigon food secret?
Bo kho beef stew with instant noodles — despite it being served with instant noodles somehow the combination works amazingly well. It’s available from our very own Cho Cu lunch lady (on the corner of Ton That Dam and Huynh Thuc Khang) but only on Fridays from 11am for a couple hours until the pot is sold out. Other than that, aside from Popeye’s extra crispy spicy fried chicken, occasionally I’ll also have a craving for the 10,000VND McDonald’s soft-serve ice cream. You might find me sneaking into the one on Nguyen Hue after work for a late-night fix and maybe a hamburger and fries to go with it...
Words by David Kaye
Graphics: Ivan Kamensky
Photo: Tuan Tran