An Asian-born, American-raised chef blends two very different culinary cultures in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
Everyday Vietnam food can be boring. Noodles and rice, rice and noodles. Day in, day out.
Noodles doesn’t mean pasta, not like spaghetti or macaroni. It means soup. Phở bò tai nam (thin rice noodles with beef in a marrow broth), bún bò Huế (another beef-based soup with broader noodles and pork knuckles), bún riêu cua (thin noodles in a tomato-based broth with minced freshwater crab) and hủ tiếu (flat rice noodles in a pork broth with shrimp) are some of the most popular varieties, always offered with “salad” (lettuce and the leaves of various herbs) to mix on top.
Rice (cơm) is an all-encompassing term for whatever you ate for lunch today. There’s “rice and fish” (cơm cá), “rice and chicken” (cơm gà), “rice and pork chop” (cơm suon), rice and whatever else you might have. Granted, there are at least a couple dozen different kinds of rice in Vietnam: fried rice (cơm chiên), sticky rice (cơm xôi), broken rice (cơm tấm), red rice and jasmine rice, to name but a few. But rice is still rice. The meat and rice are most often served with a barely palatable cooked vegetable such as water spinach (mostly stems) or sour melon, frequently stuffed with minced pork.
There’s no such thing as “slow cooking” here. As opposed to the French style of cooking favored in the West, which favors lower heat to encourage the blending of herbs and spices used in seasoning, Vietnamese meals are cooked quickly (in 15 minutes or less) and consumed even faster.
Were it not for the high carbohydrate content, Vietnamese meals could be considered healthy. Very little salt or butter are used in preparation. Fish oil (nước chấm) is the primary condiment. Every table is stocked with various sauces such as soy, typically served in a dish with sliced red peppers; processed chili sauce, a less savory relative of Western ketchup; and mắm tôm, a foul-smelling purple mash of fermented shrimp paste.
Peter Cuong Franklin observed a lack of culinary sophistication in his native country. The founder and executive chef at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ănăn restaurant took the lead in combining the subtleties of Vietnamese preparations with techniques from other global cultures. His efforts in fusing Viet and Western cuisines led to Ănăn becoming the first establishment in Ho Chi Minh City, a metropolis of 13 million people, to be named to the esteemed list of “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” in 2021 and again in 2022.
Franklin was uniquely suited for this achievement. Now 59, he was born near the hill town of Da Lat. On April 29, 1975, when he was 12, he and other children were airlifted from Saigon the day before North Vietnamese army tanks rumbled through the wrought-iron gates of the South Vietnamese capitol, now known as Independence Palace. Young Peter Cuong didn’t see his home again for decades.
He landed on his feet. Adopted by an American naval family, he had a New England education that climaxed at Yale University. He became an investment banker, first in New York, then in London and Hong Kong. But while he was making money, his dream job was in a kitchen: “I never forgot my mother’s food from those early years,” he told an interviewer in 2021. They were reunited after Vietnam reopened to the West in the mid-1990s. “She remains my true culinary inspiration,” Franklin said.
He launched his second career when he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in 2008, then trained at renowned restaurants in Asia and the United States, including Alinea in Chicago. In 2011, he established his own restaurant, Chôm Chôm, in Hong Kong. Ănăn followed in 2017.
Ănăn — the name translates to “Eat, Eat” — fills the floors of a tall, narrow “tube house” that rises behind the vendors’ stalls on Tôn Thất Đạm, the last remaining wet market in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Three intimate floors of dining find their zenith in the upper-story Nhâu Nhâu (“Drink, Drink”) cocktail lounge, itself capped by a rooftop garden.
I’ve been fortunate to dine here twice in the past couple of months, once with my photographer friends Doug Peebles and Len Kaufman, visiting from the United States; again with my frequent local dining companion, Lâm Nhi. Each time, service was gracious and of an extremely high standard from start to finish. I would have expected no less from a staff trained by an industry veteran like Chef Peter, as he is now widely known.
Franklin describes his style as New Vietnamese Cuisine. His childhood hometown of Da Lat is the incentive for many of his creations. The cooler climate of this former French hill station, at the crown of the Central Highlands 1,500m (5,000 feet) above the Mekong Delta, enables farmers to nurture a wide range of vegetables and fruits not suited for the steamy heat of lower elevations. Huge avocadoes and sweet, rich strawberries stand out in the street markets, but there is so much more.
Da Lat style
There’s no doubt Chef Peter loves veggies as much as I do. One dish frequently appearing on his Specials Menu is a preparation of artichoke and asparagus, steamed with herbs and served with a dipping sauce of fermented tofu. Another is Da Lat broccolini, served with crispy chorizo sausage and an egg. The herb-rich burrata cheese salad is presented with fresh fennel, watercress, tomato, onion and basil pesto.
Anyone who has ever strolled the winding hillside streets of Da Lat knows the town’s trademark “pizza,” grilled on rice paper atop a hibachi-style grill. Da Lat pizza must have been a beloved childhood snack for Chef Peter, who now offers it with a choice of three toppings: truffle mushroom, pepperoni or roast duck. We enjoyed it with the latter, and would defintely do so again.
Although it is hours from the sea, Da Lat has a sturgeon caviar farm. One of Ănăn’s most unique offerings is the smoked caviar egg, served steaming — a “black chicken” (gà ta) egg afloat in a broth with caviar and Japanese uni, or sea urchin. Gà ta is widely revered for its high protein content and antioxidant properties.
Salmon roe, another sort of caviar, tops bánh nhúng, a dish of smoked salmon, crème fraiche and locally sourced dill.
The central coast and ancient imperial capital of Huế are another region from which Chef Peter draws. During the time of French colonization, Vietnamese developed a taste for crêpes, the delicate filled pancakes that can be made either sweet or savory. The Asians made crêpes with rice instead of wheat, filling them with shredded pork, small shelled shrimp and bean sprouts. Ănăn’s bánh xèo tacos follow the same principle, but now the crêpe is seasoned with turmeric, folded and crisped like a Mexican taco — then filled filling with juicy wagyu beef or pork belly, shrimp, fresh herbs and peanut sauce.
Another regional dish is wagyu bò lá lot. Domestic Vietnamese beef is not of high quality, so the finest marbled steaks are imported from Australia or the United States. But in earlier days, Huế’s royal chefs learned to improve the tenderness and flavor of Viet beef by grilling it inside a peppery betel leaf, prized as a medicinal herb. Ănăn has continued the tradition, seasoning it with nước chấm, mild curry, lemongrass and toasted peanuts to give the tender, smoky meat a distinctive aroma.
A nod to Hanoi
A northern Vietnamese dish that I enjoyed for the first time early this year in Hanoi, albeit with chicken instead of the Mekong Delta duck offered here, is banana-blossom salad. Bunched in rows at the end of banana clusters, the flowers, ranging in color from purple to gold, are rich in vitamins and nutrients: It’s amazing how many of these “superfoods” have found their ways into Southeast Asian diets! At Ănăn, the flowers and duck are tossed in a ginger nước chấm sauce with cabbage, various herbs, crispy shallots and peanuts.
Also deriving from the north is chả cá Hà Nội, featuring filet of black cod marinated in turmeric, served sizzling with a mound of sticky rice in a pool of dill sauce with fresh lacy dill and scallions. This is one of my favorite Ănăn dishes. As the Vietnamese say, it is ngon. Delicious.
Chef Peter has a unique ability to take everyday Vietnamese dishes and turn them into something special. In “one bite phở,” the iconic beef-noodle soup known the world over as phở, becomes a star of “molecular” gastronomy. In this food-science art, everyday dishes are transformed (with component properties intact) into largely unrecognizable new forms, disassembled and reassembled. Thus Ănăn diners are presented a ladle that nestles a gelatinous dome of soup, tantalizingly topped with meat, vegetables, herbs, even a flower as a finishing touch.
A similar if not molecular approach is taken with one bite bún chả,a dish traditionally identified with Hanoi. Grilled fatty pork (chả) is served with white rice noodles (bún), crispy spring rolls, herbs and dipping sauce. At Ănăn, they’re all skewered together atop a shiso leaf.
The Mekong Delta is the nation’s primary agricultural region, significantly outpacing the Red River Valley of the north. Its beast of burden, so often seen slogging through the rice fields, is the Mekong water buffalo. This powerful bovine also is raised as a protein-rich source of food, although its meat is tougher than that of its cousins, beef cattle. Indeed, farm workers will often carry a stash of buffalo jerky into the paddies, a perfect snack for long days.
Ănăn’s chefs keep the meat tasty but tender. They slice prime cuts into a buffalo carpaccio, seasoned with lemongrass, salt and green peppercorns. They also raid the barnyard for their beef tongue and pig ear salad. In true Third World style, no part of an animal is wasted when it comes to food sources.
The Mekong region is famous for its seafood. The restaurant’s lightly grilled calamari is seasoned with garlic and herbs, served with two chili sauces (one of black squid ink), and vegetables.
Not to be forgotten are the sweets that finish a meal. Vietnamese love ice cream almost as much as they love fish sauce — and so, Chef Peter reasoned, why not put the two together? In his fish sauce ice cream, vanilla ice cream is topped with a caramel blended with nước chấm, seasoned with pepper grown on Phu Quoc island, and perfumed with more fish-sauce extract.
Lâm Nhi and I preferred the bánh cam dessert — twin balls of Japanese-style rice mochi and dark chocolate ganache, toasted in sesame seeds and a sauce of ginger and calamansi (Philippine lemon). Served with bites of pineapple, strawberry and Phan Thiết dragonfruit, it was a fitting end to a memorable meal.