Chef Duc in the kitchen at Mango Mango. Photo by Christian Berg
I remember growing up with my mother, and her directing me and my sisters to go out to the garden and pick out mangoes, star apples, and guavas and put them in a basket. She would look at it and see how good it was before she sent me off to the market. I would sit there and sell it. I was 10 and I loved it.
We had a big farm. We had big ducks laying eggs. Farmers from the Mekong Delta, from Cần Thơ, Rạch Giá, they would come to my mother’s house to collect ducks by the hundreds.
My mother taught me about food, about serving people good food, and nurturing people with good food.
My parents would work from 3 o’clock in the morning until 6 or 7 o’clock, have breakfast, send their kids to school, have a little rest then work again from 9 to 11:30. Then they’d make sure everyone is fed, have a little siesta. At 1:30 they woke up and worked all the way until 6 o’clock when it was family time and dinner time. There was one hour of black and white TV, and they’d go to sleep at 9 o’clock.
15 years ago I came back to Vietnam, and four or five times a year I go down there to hang out with her and the family. She says, "Make sure you stay with the quality that people deserve. If it’s good enough for you to eat, you bring it out to the table. Anything less, don’t do it. That’s how you bring customers back.” She taught me about food, about serving people good food, and nurturing people with good food.
My idea for staying here was because I wanted to chill on the beach. The town was beautiful and the longer I stayed I saw there was a huge potential here for tourism. The first time I went to the market I said, “Look at all this food!” I bought a whole bunch. I was staying at this hotel, and I brought all the food back. I said, “I wanna cook, I need your space. I’m going to cook for you and I’m going to call a few other friends to come for dinner.”
So I made 8 dishes, and 20 people showed up, I had shrimp in lá lốt, stuffed tofu, fish in banana leaf, green beans, and more. They said, “This is not Vietnamese food. What kind of food is this?" I said, “I made it up today.” And everyone enjoyed it. I still love the food resources here. It’s still amazing here.
Eat abundantly. Spend five days just to eat. There is a knack to recognizing good food. Vietnamese street food breakfast is only from 5 to 8:30. Lunch is from 10:30 until about 12 noon. When you see the pot is tilted, that means it’s done. You’ll find where people are grilling something on the street, that’s good food.
Cook abundantly with what you have around you.
Hoi An is the best place for seafood. I like to sit in a quiet place on the beach and eat some amazing seafood. I go to Hanh (9 Au Co) on Cua Dai Beach for steamed ocean prawns, steamed clams with chili, lemongrass and basil, and grilled squid. A-Roi on the beach, that's some really really good food.
It’s more of a cooking demonstration. I walk them through the market. I love to show them how to pick vegetables and fruits. The whole time I explain the way Vietnamese use herbs, and how we eat with liquid, fiber, starch, and five tastes. I get to cook and explain what’s going on. They sit back and understand. The goal is to give people an idea of the Vietnamese style of cooking traditionally. I give them something I’m proud of which my mother gave me, but I make it with a twist.
I tell them there’s no food police. Do whatever you want. Make sure you have beautiful ingredients in front of you, buy fresh, be inspired and incorporate the five tastes in it. Balance it. Make sure you prep, and cook like crazy. Cook abundantly with what you have around you.