Chef Peter Cuong Franklin has made an international name for himself bringing traditional Vietnamese cuisine to a new, contemporary market via his hip restaurants in Saigon and Hong Kong. Here, he tells us why.
Growing up in Da Lat, Southern Vietnam, Peter Cuong Franklin learned to love Vietnamese cuisine thanks to the restaurant his mother ran from their kitchen. Helping her source food from the local market and prepare it for her guests, he developed a lifelong passion for truly traditional cooking that still informs everything he does today. After a first career in finance, the chef turned to cooking, earning his stripes at restaurants including Alinea and Next in Chicago and Le Caprice at The Four Seasons in Hong Kong.
His first solo venture was Chôm Chôm, a hip and happening spot in Hong Kong’s Soho serving traditional Vietnamese food in a buzzing atmosphere that gained fans all over the world. Recently, he opened Ănăn in Saigon, serving street food-inspired cuisine with a fine dining twist – think a bánh mì sandwich served with truffles – moving the benchmark of expectations of traditional Asian cuisine once again. A firm believer in the importance of keeping traditions alive, Peter’s contemporary take on the heritage of Asian cooking makes him one of the most watched chefs in the region. Here, he talks us through his journey.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Food has always been part of my life. Growing up, I was surrounded by cooking and I’ve always wanted to do something meaningful with food and contribute to society. I just wasn’t sure where and how.
Have you ever regretted your decision to work in finance first?
Changing careers paths doesn’t necessarily mean things didn’t work out. We live in a world where we have different skills, so we don’t need to stick to one thing anymore. Also, timing is important. I don’t regret the work I did in banking because it was the right thing at that time.
Where do you get inspiration for your dishes?
When you’re creating a new dish, you can be inspired by anything from what you eat to what you see on the street. My ideas stem from famous dishes from each country. One of the inspirations behind Ănăn is the hawkers in Saigon that serve street food. Many of them have been doing it for over 40 years, and they know the secrets to making these dishes delicious.
Can you describe your cooking style?
It is based on the foundation of our culture and heritage. I tend not to create dishes from scratch. Instead, we use modern culinary techniques to create something new whilst still maintaining the heart and soul of each dish.
Have you had to adapt your cooking style for your international customers?
Hong Kong and Vietnam are geographically close but they’re very different in terms of the food scene. Hong Kong is a multicultural society and they cook Vietnamese cuisine with heavy Chinese influence. People in Hong Kong are more sensitive to heavy flavours, but the Vietnamese enjoy their spices use fresh herbs a lot more.
Do you think that people’s awareness of what goes into the food they eat has increased?
We live in a connected social sphere where news travels quickly. People are reading and learning about food, therefore, they are more aware of the issues surrounding it than they were 20 years ago. The paradox is that people are also cooking less. Today, food has become a form of entertainment, like socialising. But, really, it should be about more than just consuming.
Why do you think traditional cooking techniques are dying out?
Traditional culinary techniques take a lot of effort to learn. That’s why, for example, most places today use the dried form of pho noodles [rice noodles] instead of handmade fresh noodles. In order to preserve our traditions, we need people willing to appreciate them, and then chefs will start to take up the craft. We should start to understand the history of what people eat. If we don’t, we won’t be able to keep traditions alive.
Can you share some tips on managing restaurants in different countries?
You have to try to really understand the local market. For example, Hong Kong and Saigon are very broad countries, so you need to narrow it down even more and understand the smaller communities such as the Sheung Wan district in Hong Kong. You need to find out what motivates your customers to come to this area, their reason for living there, their jobs.
What are the most memorable challenges you have faced during your culinary career?
When I was starting out, I didn’t have a lot of experience and I didn’t understand how everything worked, but I didn’t give up. There was one time I entered a fried chicken contest and there were chefs who created Korean and Southern-style chicken. Surprisingly, we won the competition even though Vietnam is not known for fried chicken. We took a simple product and something new by utilising the resources we had.
How would you like people to see food?
I want people to enjoy food and appreciate it for what it is. In Hong Kong, there’s a fascination with Japanese and Korean cuisine, but we need to appreciate Cantonese food. Traditional food culture defines national identity and there are certain dishes that you only really get in their relevant cities. It’s going to be very hard for you to find an authentic bowl of wonton noodles in New York or London.
Do you have any advice for aspiring restaurant owners?
Understand your roots and food culture. If you don’t have a sense of yourself or where you come from, you won’t be able to understand why you like certain things.
Don’t worry about making money. Work for free if necessary in order to learn. Once you have built your foundations, then you can branch out. As a chef or an artist, you need to define your voice and find out what makes you different.
Where are your top recommendations for food experiences in Saigon?
1. Maison Marou – they create world class artisanal chocolates.
2. Pizza 4P’s – they create Japanese-style pizzas and source everything locally.
3. Cuc Gach Quan – they cook traditional Vietnamese cuisine. It has become touristy over the years, but I still think it’s very good.