For the first time in almost a decade, a restaurant in Vietnam has been included in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan Saigon, located in one of downtown Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest wet markets, has not only cracked the top 50 restaurants, but has come in at number 39.
It’s a statement as big as the chef’s personality and suggests that Anan Saigon hasn’t made the list to merely make up the numbers.
But there will be knockers, of course, as any other awards like this attract
Franklin has made it no secret in public (and private) that his mission since opening his restaurant four years ago after relocating from Hong Kong to the country where he was born, was to make the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
And now he’s done it.
It comes off the back of a steadfast determination to succeed with his vision of showing the world the ‘new’ Vietnam, one which is deeply respectful of its culinary history and traditions, yet is progressive and highly experimental and, in some cases, met with controversy.
Along the way he’s picked up local awards handed out by Vietcetera and Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam and he’s featured in local and international print and online magazines and television food and travel programs, so the win hasn’t come out of the blue.
You can bet Franklin won’t be taking his hand off the throttle once the high of receiving this latest accolade levels out however, especially given his recent establishment of Anan Lab, a kind of culinary R&D think tank/laboratory confined to the inner sanctum of his Ton That Dam Street location where he and his colleagues tinker with unusual ingredients and flavour combinations that will be unleashed on the world once the chef is satisfied they meet his exacting standards.
But there will be knockers, of course, as any other awards like this attract.
And there are.
My experience as an observer of the hospitality scene in Ho Chi Minh City over the past 10 years or so has revealed that it can be a catty business, with much of that cattiness coming from quarters not necessarily involved in the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in restaurants, but rather from the fingertips of so-called influencers who madly tap the screen inside an Instagram application so an adoring (perceived) collection of followers (real or fake) can hang-on to every flowery description of their dish or drink, or scathing review of a dish on a menu, or decor that didn’t suit their tastes.
And it’s resulted in my questioning to what end this negativity is about when the people on the end of it aren’t only trying to do the best they can, but are also attempting to further the exemplary reputation Vietnamese cuisine already has.
Oh, and let’s not forget the small matter of their wanting just to cook a bloody good meal for a paying guest.
Just hours after the official announcement of Anan Saigon’s inclusion in the list, one pundit took to social media in a rambling post to discredit both TUNG dining (98) and Anan Saigon (39) as not the best of what Vietnam has to offer the world.
They also went on to accuse TUNG dining of having stolen creations from the greatest chefs in the world and claimed them as their own, while admonishing Anan Saigon for pandering to tourists with its window dressing of Vietnamese street food, all just for a cheap buck.
That’s fine, we all have our opinions.
But what this kind of diatribe neglects to address is that the ‘essence’ behind awards like the unranked inaugural Essence of Asia list, for example, is a celebration of “authenticity, culinary culture and community focus” that’s open to “street vendors to champions of sustainability to time-honoured institutions to pioneering newcomers.”
It’s not necessarily the “best” restaurants that this category aims to identify (whatever the “best” means anyway), but rather those restaurants that “embody the culinary spirit of the country.”
We all know that a Japanese couple started Pizza 4Ps and we could debate forever and a day as to why it might or might not be the best restaurant in Vietnam, but I think we would all agree that when you take into consideration what the Essence of Asia list is attempting to achieve, Pizza 4Ps is a worthy recipient.
Further, while the organisers clearly state that the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list as compiled from the votes of over 300 restaurant industry experts in Asia “can never be definitive”, it is at least an attempt to be as honourable and credible as possible, especially given the current circumstances.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet in order to be in the running for inclusion on the list, which I agree, is probably too ‘grey’ for an award that carries as much gravitas as this, but the reality is that the organisers clearly state that “what constitutes ‘best’ is left to the judgement of trusted and well-travelled gourmets.”
And that’s their right. It’s their award.
In any case, the latest Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes at a time which has been shitty for all of us.
It not only attempts to breathe life back into an industry that has been brought to its knees, but importantly, it offers, as the organisers state, an invaluable guide to some amazing dining establishments in the region that foodies like me can metaphorically tuck under my arm once I get to explore the region’s best culinary destinations again.
I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
In the meantime, let’s just embrace the fact that Vietnam is back on track and being rightfully recognised for the exciting culinary experiences that we all know and love and that we can share with others once the borders reopen.
Congratulations to all who have been included in the lists.
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Nguyen The Anh. Follow Anh on Facebook