Talk to anyone who’s lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a good amount of time and they’ll tell you that balance is key to not letting Vietnam’s biggest city gobble you up and spit you out.
Crab noodle soup too sweet? Add a squeeze of lime.
Iced coffee too bitter? Drop in a dollop of condensed milk.
Over-indulging with the nightlife? Hit the day spa for a massage.
And it’s this notion of balance that permeates conversations with award-winning chef Peter Cuong Franklin when it comes to food and hospitality.
We’re breaking a lot of those rules and redefining what it means to be a fine dining restaurant
“What is hospitality?” he asks as if he’s read my mind and anticipated my next question.
Franklin is astute and knows how to work the media.
As a result, his story has been well documented since he’s found great success as a chef after a career in finance.
As a young boy, he was airlifted out of Saigon the day before it fell in 1975 and then he returned 40 years later as a chef and restaurateur via Hong Kong on a mission to change our perception of Vietnamese cuisine as merely cheap street food.
But that’s not what he wants to talk about today during a break in preparations for this evening’s dinner service.
“At its basic level,” he continues with a gaze that underscores his determined personality, “food is for survival, but when we talk about hospitality, we’re going to a whole different level, to the heart and to the spirit. It’s about happiness and love. That’s the ultimate form of hospitality – when someone shows they care about you.”
Indeed, there’s been a lot of love for Franklin’s food in a year which most of us are eager to forget.
Shortly before Vietnam’s lengthy lockdown started in May last year, Franklin held a watch party on the first floor of his restaurant, Anan Saigon, with a small group of friends, supporters and media who witnessed his restaurant become the first in Vietnam in almost a decade to be included in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2021.
His restaurant not only made the top 50 list, but it came in at a stunning 39th place and was lauded by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy as being an “ambitious restaurant turning street food flavours into contemporary creations.”
Both gongs are a remarkable achievement, particularly for Anan Saigon, a restaurant that doesn’t fit the typecast of your regular Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant fine dining inductee.
Just to find it, you need to negotiate your way through one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest wet markets dating pre-French colonisation in one of the city’s first Cantonese neighbourhoods.
It’s quite the theatre, much in the same way Franklin serves his guests.
The ramshackle market can be grimy and smelly, the uneven ground at odds with high heels, designer boots and the ankles inside them waiting to be twisted. Then there are the vendors hanging on to their way of life for who knows how much longer as the city decides the fate of their neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, Franklin’s restaurant sits in the middle of it all. A study of contrast with its order, stability and optimism, a balancing act of brash new flavours and techniques colliding with tried and true traditional ones.
“I get asked by a lot of people what fine dining is,” says Franklin, “because people think of it traditionally like French-style with white table cloths, staff dress codes and a stuffy formality that everyone needs to abide by. Whereas, we’re breaking a lot of those rules and redefining what it means to be a fine dining restaurant.”
So this is what the chef who’s become infamous for stirring the pot with daring innovations like the $100 banh mi, banh xeo tacos, Da Lat pizza and foie gras spring rolls wants to talk about?
It’s time for us to rethink the definition of fine dining and the art of hospitality, he tells me over a stiff gin and tonic, and goes on to talk about stripped back experiences, settings without tablecloths and staff wearing simple black tees with Anan Saigon embroidered on them.
“It’s relaxed, but we do food at a very high level, which is something very different and not what people normally think of as fine dining,” he stresses, again demanding my attention with those eyes.
To understand where Franklin’s coming from, you needn’t look far.
The wet market and the street just a few short steps from Anan Saigon’s front door is the source of most of the ingredients on his menu – one of the most eclectic in town.
In his own words, Franklin is “coming from the ethos of the street.”
“For me, my favourite soup lady down there on the street offers fine dining,” he says, pointing towards one end of the narrow street just a block from Bitexco Tower, which, for a short time, was Vietnam’s tallest building and where Franklin appears on its helipad in the latest Mastercard commercial circulating on the internet. “In terms of the love, the attention to detail, the quality of ingredients, how it’s prepared and customer service, that’s fine dining.”
Since relocating to Ho Chi Minh City in 2016, Franklin has developed a close friendship with English artist Richie Fawcett who’s become renowned for his sketches of the city’s ever-changing skyline and currently has an exhibition of his works on the outside walls of the British Consulate General not too far from here.
A number of Fawcett’s works also hang at Anan Saigon.
The pair’s connection goes beyond simply enjoying each other’s company over a cocktail and a love for art.
Fawcett had a distinguished career of his own in hospitality both here in Vietnam and previously in England before becoming a full-time artist out of his The Studio Saigon just blocks away, which also doubles as a speakeasy.
And he, like Franklin, draws on the energy of the city’s streets and its emerging skyline to provide him with the inspiration needed for whatever’s coming next in his creative endeavours.
“Being in hospitality is emotional because you’re feeding people,” he says when he joins the conversation on the second floor of Anan Saigon overlooking the market below. “You’re keeping people alive, that’s the true art of hospitality when it comes to restaurants, you’re giving your guests sustenance to survive, but in the most beautiful way. The host gives the warmth of welcoming to a stranger the same way as they would to a family member, it’s effortless and straight from the heart. When they leave, they will have had a beautiful experience and one they will never forget.”
Fawcett attributes much of his success to Franklin’s influence.
When the 48-year old Brit first arrived in Vietnam more than 10 years ago, he would spend his free time sketching the city streets and its people. It wasn’t until a chance introduction to Franklin at the popular rooftop restaurant Fawcett once managed that his focus turned to the buildings and the city’s emerging skyline.
He has since sketched a number of works from the rooftop of Anan Saigon, including the largest piece he’s ever undertaken – a stunning five-metre double-wall view of the city overlooking nearby Ham Nghi Street complete with LED lighting.
“Since I’ve stepped away from hospitality full-time to focus on my art, Peter has been a great influence and support on my artistic journey,” Fawcett says. “We don’t compete, it’s more like we complement each other. It’s a beautiful friendship, he’s very close to my family and he’s been a steadying influence in my life since we first met.”
As I sit here listening to the two of them trade stories and opinions about hospitality and art, it dawns on me that they both have had past lives in their professional careers and the routes they’ve taken to arrive where they are have been circuitous.
Franklin’s journey started at Yale University in the 80s, after which he wound up in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, only to throw it all in to go to culinary school to become a chef in the late 2000s.
While Fawcett, in the early 90s, studied Egyptian archaeology at University College London where he earned himself a degree in underwater archeological photography and ancient shipwrecks, then found himself above water as a wedding photographer on cruise ships plying the west coasts of North and Central America before landing a job managing a bar in London owned by Roger Moore.
They’ve both been around the block so to speak and it’s been the streets of Saigon – Franklin foraging on them and Fawcett sketching them – that have solidified their friendship.
In fact, it moved Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam editor Chris Thompson, also a close friend of theirs and someone who has interviewed both men on multiple occasions, to say this when I approached him for comment: “Their travails can best be described as a love letter to the culture, cuisine and way of life in Saigon and it’s no surprise that these two creative visionaries have so much in common.”
Indeed, although they are two characters from wildly different backgrounds, they have an ability to draw the best out of each other, especially during difficult times as we’ve experienced these past two years with the pandemic.
Franklin spent much of last year’s lengthy lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City hunkered down in what he calls his “little lab” tinkering away with new flavour combos that eventually gave birth to zany creations like his nuoc mam ice-cream, with the fish sauce given to guests in a faux Chanel N°5 perfume bottle that allows them to spray their desired amount of fish sauce mist onto their icy delight.
“I always try to turn difficult conditions into opportunities,” says Franklin. “I saw the lockdown as an opportunity to look at the restaurant and the experience we deliver, including changing the look of the place, so I commissioned artists like Richie to help enhance it.”
Fawcett also reflects on their lockdown collaboration.
“It allowed me to create a collection of very detailed cityscapes at a time when most other restaurants were downscaling their operations. Meanwhile, Peter was investing in the future and at the same time supporting local artists like me,” he says.
And when asked about the impact Franklin’s investment has on the walls of his great mate’s restaurant, he has this to say: “Art and restaurants have always been connected. It’s the occasion of eating, a celebration of food and company. All the senses are stimulated when you visit a restaurant – there’s the smell of the kitchen, the ambiance of the lighting, the music and, of course, the art, with the food taking centre stage.”
That sounds like a good balance to me.
Words by Matthew Cowan