Good Morning Vietnam (part 3) by Shane Brierly

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th March 2011

 Shane Brierly is a New Zealand born Executive Chef who spent most of his culinary career in Australia from the tender age of 18 which is many moons ago. Now old and grizzled, he loves the expat life and so far has worked in Dubai UAE, Kazakhstan, Thailand and Vietnam.

His website is chef-a-gogo.com which has photos, food & recipes from both his day to day cheffing  and also the more exotic side of his travels. Or follow him on twitter @chefshane.

Part 3 - Culinary Focus, to read Part 2 click here

So far I've covered tribulations and trials from an expat viewpoint. I've also painted myself into a corner by promising to give the next post a culinary focus. Rather than doling out recipes and witty repartee, I'm choosing to hone in on the differences that I've come across since leaving Australia. I know we have a reputation as six-foot-tall, uncouth, uncultured, loud-mouthed, beer-swilling, swearing colonials. This isn't entirely true as I'm only 5'7 and my parents quite like art. Another difference is that Australia is REALLY big and quite connected, with reasonably mild seasons, so we have most things available all year round.  This shocks UK and European chefs who actually have seasons for stuff like strawberries, asparagus, beans and radishes . Many Australian diners expect everything all year around.  It should also look really good with no blemishes too, and a long shelf life. The corresponding lack of flavour was overlooked. If guests came in and asked for strawberries and ice cream in the middle of winter, they'd be well pissed off if you offered them apple tarts instead due to the daily blizzards. Over the last 20 years a large section of the market woke up to the taste of fresh seasonal stuff and the worm began to turn. We began to develop menus based on the BEST of what was available instead of the SCOPE of what was available. At the same time, migrants began importing, growing and making the building blocks of their own cuisines. While we began to focus on what was available locally in season, we also began eating, experimenting and appreciating the best that the world has to offer, right on our own doorstep. The opposite of local and sustainable, but driven by immigrants yearning for the (real) tastes of home. Being migrants ourselves and not having our own established cuisine, we did a bit of cherry-picking and became quite diverse in our tastes and gastronomic experiences. Australia is truly the "˜lucky country' when it comes to ingredients and culinary inspiration. We have so many ethnic markets, specialist suppliers and niche gourmet food providores with creativity, passion, and ability to understand their chefs and public. They can respond rapidly to developments and trends. We also have great meat, seafood, dairy, wine and fresh produce on tap. Cost issues? Buck the populist trend and get a point of difference by using cheaper, lesser known cuts, catches or by-products. Moving overseas we have different sets of challenges. Dubai UAE was one of the most connected places that I've been in terms of availability of food. We were in the middle of Africa, Europe, US, Asia. Almost 100% of the food was imported, but what we gained in variety, we lacked in context. We had very few local things - cucumber, eggplant, tomato, some warm water seafood and poor quality lamb, chicken and beef. The variety of imports were mind-boggling, but it still paid to be selective because of seasonality and taste in the country we imported it from. We had to account for the effects of transportation as well, from extreme climate to the skill or experience of the supplier. It was very hard to get good lettuce, mesclun and herb mix in mid summer because of the poor handling chain from the source to the restaurant door for example. The other shock was trying to add the more flavoursome, cheap braising cuts of meat, and classically cheap, robust seasonal vegetables and fruits  to a menu. Back home it was a standard practice to provide taste and value. Being heavier with more offcuts and packaging they were almost as much per kilo in Dubai as the prime cuts or products due to airfreight, packaging and handling charges. Not just beef chuck or Osso Bucco either. Kim chee was expensive, even making your own because of the cost of airfreight on heavy Chinese / Napa cabbage. A 12kg Jackfruit cost almost nothing in Thailand, but when packed and imported by air it became a luxury ingredient. Kazakhstan had an amazing market, and the produce was exceptional. The whole feel of the city in Almaty was "˜back to childhood values'. Purity, seasonality, freshness. No tampering, irradiating, packaging or artificial additives or preservatives. Cream came out of old style milk cans with the farm girls in their traditional dairy caps and aprons. They stood ladling it into plastic bags, surrounded by freshly made ricotta, yoghurt and three types of  "˜cmetana' or sour cream in varying stages of development. Cultured right there, live and uncut. Honey was on the comb and in big glass jars. Whole beef and lamb were butchered at the market, hanging alongside fresh horse, goat, pork, chicken, duck, geese and turkey. The fruit and vegetable section was a kaleidoscope of colour and shape with some of the best tasting produce I've had the experience of using. For three months a year. In Winter I truly came to understand the meaning of seasonality. Carrots, potatoes and onions were sole survivors with the onset of cold. Sometimes they froze too. Spring lamb was no more. It became winter sheep. Bananas and pineapples hung forlornly in the fruit section inside and any imported or chilled produce had to be checked in case it had semi frozen due to a particularly cold day in the market. The prices went through the roof. Everybody worked with what was available. And it could taste good. That was an important lesson. Taking food out of context can be fun. It's great that we can have Tom Yum in Moscow during winter, or Goulash in Sydney in the middle of summer. It's fun making Tandoori chicken wraps, teriyaki beef salads and bacon egg spring rolls too. But food in context gives you understanding and depth. It centers you. Sitting in a cold winter holding a cup of sweet, tannic black tea, chewing heavy Russian bread and eating a Kazakh beshbarmak stew of mutton, potatoes and hand made pasta sheet just feels right. It would be bland and fatty  if eaten in a Singapore café. Undesirably heavy and "˜bleh'. Huddled near a heater, just in from the snow, with jacket hanging in a cloak room and flushed cheeks coming back to blood temperature - it's possibly the best thing you could ever eat. You don't want a Caesar salad or a carpaccio. It sustains you, and fills you with warmth, vigour and good cheer. Sweating on a street in Bangkok, there's nothing like the endorphin rush of a chilli laced broth, the flavours exploding in a gastronomic cacophony. It fights the heat, enlivens the senses and suits the climate and atmosphere. A spaghetti carbonara would put you off your game and give you a hatred of all things European. A club sandwich? Meh! You feel bloated and lazy. Dulled. But foreign food is popular in most cities. Almost everywhere I've worked or been, people enjoy trying different cuisines. There's always a battle about authenticity versus accessibility, price and local taste preferences. Authenticity is not just about the ingredients, but also about the right touch. The context. The technique. We can try and teach technique, method and understanding, but context is hard to learn. As expatriate chefs we are a combination of things. To subordinates we can be trainer, mentor, daddy, policeman, culinarian, colleague, role model, teacher, weird foreign devil, fussy bastard, and more. We are also host, guide, manager, mediator, innovator and protector of traditions to our guests. The roles do not always sit side by side and complement each other. You often have to juggle each, and also their associated values. Writing menus is sometimes about meeting the expectation of guests who understand, appreciate and demand authenticity, context and depth. It's also about being flexible enough to adapt to those who don't. Hotels need to create warmth, hospitality and understanding for the traveler. We have to understand our market mix and juggle the roles and the products we offer to fine tune them to hit the sweet spot. One always thrives for authenticity and quality amidst pressures to the contrary, be it skills, staffing, budget, equipment, supplier limitation or market expectations. Pricing and competition is also a factor in what is offered. The locals in Vietnam, Thailand and Kazakhstan love to have foreign food outlets to go to. They must be "authentic", but that's often judged by hype or by the established competition. Without context and depth, without a yardstick to compare against, it's hard to hit the right note. Harder still when existing or previous foreign venues already set a precedent with dumbed down or substandard "˜foreign' cuisine. Maybe due to an untrained workforce or lack of a specialist chef. Maybe due to suppliers without the experience to provide the correct products. Sometimes due to budget, being cheap, or being lazy. Think Chinese or Italian restaurants in Australia 20 years ago with their sloppy pasta, bread-like pizza, stewed chow meins served on packet noodles and stodgy battered pork in a fluorescent sweet and sour sauce. The "˜real' products are a breath of fresh air for those who understand the food in its proper context, and often a shock to those used to the lazy version or the cheap, fast food, frozen convenience items that everyone has become used to. Introducing proper sourdough bread here was not popular at first. The Vietnamese taste is for sweet, soft breads, or mellow unchallenging flavour with a soft interior and a thin crispy crust. The taste, texture and characteristics of classic European breads were considered a flaw or a drawback. The holes in ciabatta were hard to butter over. The crust was hard on the baguette and the bread was salty! Six months later, it's understood that we do the best bread in town. Properly. So we now have the face and the understanding required to present something different as authentic and desirable. We created a market by not doing the same as everybody else. It takes time to educate, explain, provide alternatives, and also create acceptance by building awareness and developing a core of clients who will become cuisine or brand ambassadors and guide the others to want to try it. That confidence and trust is needed to take the next leap forward. I love the challenge of striking that balance. It would be great to have a single focus, fine dining style. I do miss that, and it's required to climb to the top of your game as a chef when it comes to cooking or dominating a cuisine style. I strongly believe that a niche is the way to go, and that you can't please everybody. Resort and hotel life is a new set of challenges and skills and the learning curve never mellows or straightens out. I enjoy balancing the menu to our market mix. It's satisfying to develop and improve our overall product as we develop the skills of our team and the understanding of our market. It's rewarding to specialise and fine tune as we work with purchasing and suppliers to get where we want to be. The understanding and context that I'm getting by working as an expat is definitely improving my abilities and my food and helping me to be a little less one-sided in my approach to food, menus and life. Who? I'm a kiwi from Australia who's working in Southeast Asia as exec chef at a beach resort. I'm a serial expat, currently in Vietnam, withdrawing cold turkey from my passion for Thai food. My wife keeps me sane with regional dishes from Chiang Rai. The cat and my laptop take my mind off all things culinary when they get the chance. I post regularly on my website about food, recipes and photos from my travels. Drop by with your comments or suggestions. Or feel free to hook up on twitter and berate me in person.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th March 2011

Good Morning Vietnam (part 3) by Shane Brierly