29. My Life as a Chef

When COVID-19 reared its ugly head in early 2020, the educator-author began to scramble for other means of supporting his lifestyle. He liked to eat: Why not become a chef?

Fasolakia lathera and chicken cacciatore at Oia Castle (JGA photo)

It only took the arrival of a little thing like coronavirus to send me scurrying for the economic security of my other profession.

I’m not talking about teaching. When COVID-19 made its first landfall in Vietnam early last year, schools closed. Like everyone else, the kids stayed home. My primary employer, APAX Leaders, made a spirited effort to keep its English tutors in the fold, but a limited schedule of online Zoom classes barely paid the rent.

I didn’t look for acting work. I had learned my lesson a couple of months earlier (insert LOL emoji). My boldness on a video-production set was rewarded with an offer to falsify my passport and travel under an assumed identity from Beijing to Moscow. I wonder how that would have worked out in the time of COVID.

Music wouldn’t be my ticket to financial freedom. While I do enjoy tickling the ivories from time to time, my facility on a keyboard was rusty — to say the least — when I played for drinks and tips at the Casablanca (“Play it, Sam”) restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. I was not the same piano man as in my younger years, when I took requests in seedy establishments across the Pacific from Hawaii to New Zealand, and even the Cook Islands.

D.J. Banerjee mocks “The Entertainer” at the Casablanca restaurant. No one asked to hear it again. (Rick Reid photo)

I wasn’t looking to be a carpenter (Sweden) or waiter (France) or salesman (Australia) or bartender (Amsterdam) or any number of other peripatetic hats I have worn over the years. (A ski instructor in the tropics?) Writing? Had I wanted to be a rich man, I would have become a stockbroker instead of a journalist.

No, I’m talking about the refuge of a restaurant. I could be a chef. Everybody’s got to eat, right?

Introducing Adam Angst

I threw that premise in the direction of my close friend Adam, a British-born Australian of part-Burmese heritage who lives a life of sustained anxiety. I call him Adam Angst.

Adam may be the one person I know in Vietnam who doesn’t eat. But he can cook. He may be skinnier than the rice noodles in phở bò tái nam, but the man knows his way around a kitchen, whether the culinary goal is linguine alla vongole or foie gras torchon or prime beef with a sauce of witchety grubs.

I told him that I had made friends with the manager of a struggling Ho Chi Minh City restaurant, the Oia Castle on Tôn Thât Dam, who was “between chefs,” and that we as resident foreigners might be compensated for our assistance in a time when our own English-teaching jobs were imperiled.

John and Adam backstage at the Oia Castle. (JGA selfie)

“Well, I don’t know, mate,” he predictably responded. “I haven’t cooked, except at home, for a long time now. And what’s the menu like? I mean, is it something I’ve made before? And how is the kitchen set up? I don’t want to slip and get hurt. I don’t have insurance. Can they insure me?”

From my perspective, I saw a chance to try something new (again). A risk to be measured and explored. As the late Anthony Bourdain wrote: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters, or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food for me has always been an adventure.”

Mouthing off

My résume? Well, I’ve had a lot to say about food over the years. Many would say I’ve said too much. As a former senior editor for France’s famous Michelin guides and a restaurant critic in America’s Pacific Northwest for 17 years, I know what I like and what I don’t. I like my tuna seared, my steak medium rare, my enchiladas washed down with Don Julio. I’m not much for offal (it’s awful), and I don’t like mắm tôm, that wretched purple fermented shrimp sauce so popular in Vietnamese cooking.

I do have basic culinary skills. I began chopping carrots and onions in restaurants when I was 21. (I was a late starter.) Four continents have tolerated my knife-wielding presence in their kitchens. I even worked in a catering kitchen in my home state of Oregon, U.S.A., for several months prior to my travel to Vietnam in 2019.

What was the new adventure to be? I was setting sail for the eastern Mediterranean, for the Aegean isle of Santorini. And it was all Greek to me.

Oia Castle restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, early 2020. (JGA photo)

Greek 101

Souvlaki. Dolmathes. Tabouleh. Avgolemono soup. I was not prepared for Hellenic cuisine. Neither, for that matter, was Adam Angst.

The Oia Castle restaurant was an unlikely retreat on any account. Tucked behind a double row of traditional Vietnamese market stalls on an urban lane barely wide enough for pedestrians to share with motorbikes, it had a Levantine charm rarely seen in Southeast Asia. Three narrow stories high, painted white as chalk and trimmed in cerulean blue to resemble the famous domes of Santorini island, it was as attractive a restaurant as one might ever accidentally stumble upon.

I’ll let Adam take it for a second here: “So, yeah, mate, I reckon if you were a Western bloke walking down that street, and then you come to this oasis among all the chaos on the street, and you walk in and, yeah, it was very appealing to the eye. And the menu was really quite nice.

“But the condition and safety of the kitchen — bloody oath, mate! I’ve worked in plenty of kitchens before, and safety is always paramount to me. Oia Castle had no medical box; no fire extinguishers, either. There were oil spills on the floor, which had no proper slip mat; no mat at all, for that matter.

“And the stove, mate. You cooked on it, you know. It hadn’t been cleaned in, well, who knows? Months? Years? It was about an inch thick in grease and cooking spills. A real fire hazard.”

Dining room at Oia Castle. (JGA photo)

Lucy in the sky

The general manager was a lovely young woman who went by the name of Lucy. She tried hard to succeed, but she was in denial about her lack of relative experience in the food-and-beverage industry. With patronage curtailed by the pandemic, she was severely overmatched. Tourist traffic had disappeared. Morning, noon and night, Lucy sat at her laptop in the restaurant, crunching numbers, posting employment ads, tap-tapping emails to potential cooks, servers and other would-be staff. She even interviewed marketing agencies to help promote the restaurant. Without a product, however, that was a dead end.

This was where I made my entrance. I nearly tripped over the Oia Castle signboard one day as I traipsed down Tôn Thât Dam buying vegetables, rice and freshly butchered pork to cook at home. Bars were closed due to corona fears, and everyone was wearing a protective mask. But a handful of restaurants remained open during the lockdown, often with little or no staff.

Lucy did have a young man in the kitchen when I dropped in to say hello and place an order for falafel and a baklava dessert. To his credit, the youth, a student at a local culinary school, did a creditable job on both dishes. As I ate, the manager sat opposite me and, learning that I had some knowledge of the business, expressed her frustrations. I offered a sympathetic ear.

Lucy sits down to a horiatiki salad, her laptop on the table behind. (JGA photo)

I gave Adam a shout soon thereafter. A week later he joined me for lunch at Oia Castle. Lucy wanted to tickle our brains for ideas on how to improve her business. Our first recommendation: Find a chef who will stay. In the long run, temporary fixes aren’t going to cut it.

Lucy herself prepared our pita plate, with hummus and baba ghanouj, along with a tangy horiatiki salad. She had no chef today. And just as she was lamenting that fact, the emergency bell rang. Someone had called Grab, the local taxi and food-delivery service, and placed a substantial order — one that had to be filled in 30 minutes or the food charge would be forfeited.

“Oh my god!” Lucy shuddered. “Can you guys cook?”

“And all of a sudden,” a retrospective Adam shrieked, “we were employed!”

The street scene on Tôn Thât Dam, as seen from Oia Castle’s third floor, persists well after dark. (JGA photo).

Starting from scratch

Adam and I dutifully marched into Oia Castle’s kitchen, having only previously taken a quick glance inside. Starting from absolute scratch — with no knowledge of inventory, organization, or even if there were clean skillets in the cupboard (whew!) — we set to work on a takeout order of caprese salad, spanakopita, moussaka and pizza.

The stress-free end of the order was the Italian-style caprese: Simple if the ingredients were in stock. Beefsteak tomatoes, check. Modena balsamic vinegar, check. Basil leaves, fresh from the market this morning. Buffalo mozzarella … now we had a problem. I substituted much softer, creamier burrata. It was less practical to slice for layering with the tomatoes and basil, but it served the purpose.

Spanakopita, or spinach-feta pie, calls for the preparation of leafy filo dough. Moussaka requires béchamel sauce and an hour of baking. Without prep cooks to clock an early shift, neither could be turned around in a half hour. I began to work on both on both dishes, cognizant that I was doing so for a future order. Lucy, meanwhile, convinced the hungry caller to settle instead for a double order of kofta, or lamb meatballs. That was Adam’s call to action: He made a spicy tomato sauce with garlic and chili powder that could also be adapted for the margarita pizza with Kalamata olives.

I made these! Clockwise from left: spanakopita, caprese salad and avgolemono soup. (JGA photo)

We met the deadline. Lucy wanted us to run the operation. I could be executive chef. Adam offered his services as back-of-house manager, so long as he was provided an insurance policy and a budget for basic safety concerns. Clearly, in this economic climate, that wasn’t about to happen.

I did return to Oia Castle a few more times, accepting payment in only meals and wine. I wrote some menus and recipes, shopped in the local street markets, sharpened my Mediterranean cooking skills, and learned a little bit more why success in the food-and-beverage business is so hard to achieve, whether you’re in Vietnam or the United States.

My career as a chef was an amusing hobby for a slow time in my pandemic-enforced life schedule. When Vietnam’s national government reopened schools after a few weeks, I departed. Now, a year later, I notice that Oia Castle has been replaced on Tôn Thât Dam by an establishment serving upscale Vietnamese cuisine. I wish Lucy well. I hope the new restaurant is better financed to get through these difficult times.

Stuffed pepper wasn’t on the menu, but it was a personal favorite. (JGA photo)
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Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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