Good Morning Vietnam (part 8) by Shane Brierly

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th November 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 8 Doing it the right way - overseas. To read Part 7 click here   G'day from sunny Vietnam (once more). Since I last assaulted your sensibilities we have had typhoon season, a flood that killed 86 people, relentless rain, 3 colds, 2 flus, 1 bronchitis, a pleurisy, leaks in the ceiling and several power cuts. And that's just me, and my home life. I apologise for my lengthy absence, but they do say it should make the heart grow fonder. Times have been busy. I've written a recipe book for our Vietnamese cooking classes, a 32 page guide to Da Nang (as the city doesn't have one), changed 5 menus, and re-written our banquet kit with new plated dinners and buffet menus. I also went to Thailand and Saigon - because I could. If that's not an excuse, nothing is. Cut off my hand, Saudi style. Today's question is, should you do things right the first time? We just replaced an 18 month old oven. It was bought to save money - a cheap nasty Chinese clunker. With an 18 month usable life, it has proven to be more expensive than the new Electrolux that got installed 2 days ago to replace it. My house leaks like the emblem of Wales. Shoddy construction, saving cost on materials. Equipment is bought to save purchase cost, but over a year costs more than triple in increased maintenance and running costs. Traffic runs without rules or guidelines. Many crashes and deaths ensue, but nobody sees that there is a problem. Everybody wears a helmet, and Police enforce it vigorously. The helmets are really cheap, and offer no protection whatsoever. They are worn to avoid a fine from police, and police are happy that everyone wears a pointless helmet. My colleague bought an Australian helmet, crash-tested - and got laughed at. "Too heavy" "too expensive" "Light one better". No thought about what it's actual use is. Tourism is on the rise, and at only 10% of it's potential - guests WANT to come, but visas are so hard to get and airlines lack sufficient capacity.Nothing will change. In all businesses across all sectors here, things are left until last minute, then hashed out in a red-faced fit, improperly and at much higher cost and waste. Often losing money or making it impossible to execute the deal to the required standard. There is no OHS, no thought about safety, and hazards are laughed about (in bare feet, and often shirtless) Guests want less cost, less quality, so just slap it out, "no worries". That apparently makes me difficult to deal with when I say no, because of course we don't want to compromise the standard or trust we have developed by capitulating to an "organiser" who has no experience and is probably pocketing money from the group she is 'organising' for. Travelling as an expat takes a certain amount of give and take when it comes to 'doing what you do'. On one hand, you are in that role because you have high standards and can teach the local staff skills they cannot pick up from other locals. It's a global thing, not a Vietnamese thing. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of "that's how we do it here" that has to be approached "softly softly", sans the big stick. Gordon Ramsay travels, and he is renowned for mashing "RAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW" fish into a shocked employee's double breasted jacket and describing in detail their chromosome deficiencies and emotional shortfalls. That's why he has Michelin stars coming out of his arse and a reserved chair amongst the 1%. As a rule, you can't go around offending everybody you meet because they don't run their local eatery like El Bulli or Noma. But nor can you drop your standards and start doing a shoddy job local style, or else there is no reason why you should be in the role getting the big bucks. Passing on skills is easy. Gain the trust and respect of the team, work with them and pass down skills and understanding. The hard part is changing an entrenched culture, and expectation, or knowing the 'games' that get played that may not happen back at home. In Dubai the 8.30pm booking would show up for dinner at 11.30pm and have aperitifs until well after midnight. Nobody paid anybody until it became critical, yet deals were cut that made the average businessman look like Richard Branson. "Of COURSE you can get 'x' amount of stock at 8.30am for your midday function." At 11.49 on day of said function, the 9th frenzied checkup call to the "confidant entrepreneur" would be met with the word "inshallah" - translated as "God Willing." That meant that although the supplier was personally flawless, God had intervened and was responsible for me not having 16kg of prawns and 20kg of hammour fillet for the VIP's sitting in Private Dining. I had to explain (often) that if they could get the stock into the chiller truck at 7:45, I would have a word to God and see if he could help the truck through the traffic for them. BUT not packing the bloody thing until 10:30 can't be blamed opn the man upstairs - it was their lack of systems and focus. In Kazakhstan guests ordered the most expensive delicate plated food - but wanted it ALL on the table 30 minutes before they arrived. And they ALWAYS showed up late. Soggy cold fatty fried foods, collapsed items, sauces with skins and congealed fats. Basically no culture of being refined or knowledge of fine cuisine. If guests came in and saw a table groaning with the weight of too much food, they'd be happy no matter how unpalatable it had become. Bring it fresh and delicious to the table, on time, smoothly - you get nothing but frowns and complaints. In Vietnam, saving money without regard to the consequences and also lack of forward planning tends to be endemic. Attempts to move towards being organised and thinking ahead about what COULD happen are met with laughter and derision - then on the night, panic and emotion rules as the 'organisers' realise that we were right all along and they clutch at straws of blame to avoid losing face. As we always question the agenda, look at contingency plans, organise ahead, and force them into thinking about "the unknown" (which, from experience, we do "know") we now have a high degree of trust and respect in the market. But still within our own organisation we have those with little experience thinking that foreigners just 'don't understand them' How about you? Do you feel that having more experience and being working in your own culture takes away that 'outsider' status and gives you more authority? More ability to take steps forward? Or do "young people today" "lack your values" and "don't want to do things properly"? This is far from a complaint. All in all, life, people, attitudes and co-existence here is head and shoulders above anywhere else I have been on the globe. There is a love, respect, humour and mood here that makes me feel like I am back in a society again, where people actually care about each other and think about the greater good. We have kicked some major goals, gained respect for awesome food and service, trained and passed on critical skills, and have built a great clientele, community and a solid team at the same time. People do appreciate us being here, and show that through their actions and their kindness. But changing a culture of "we've always done it like that" is always far more difficult than teaching someone how to make a new dish or master a new technique. I had it in Australia and NZ too, but overseas it is far more 'in your face'. I'm interested in your comments and feedback on the above. Bend like bamboo, or be rigid and adhere to your exacting standards no matter what? Does it matter where you are? Or does it matter who you are? Should you piss people off and risk rebellion by insisting on absolute change today and having constant confrontation because you are "right"? Or do you work towards changing that culture and accepting a steady day to day improvement? Leave your comments please. An Merry Xmas season to you. Happy turkey stuffing and ham studding. May your puddings ferment and steam the way they should. I hope the fat man comes down your chimney this year and brings all the things you need. (But hopefully after the silly season functions are done and dusted)

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th November 2011

Good Morning Vietnam (part 8) by Shane Brierly