Vietnamese-American chef Peter Cường Franklin, who decided to leave a successful career in banking to follow his love and passion for food, talks with Thúy Hằng about his decision to come back to Việt Nam as well as his aspirations to create a new style of Vietnamese cuisine, which, in his words is ‘Cuisine Mới’ or ‘New Cuisine’.
The Ănăn Saigon, a restaurant that turns street food flavours into contemporary creations, was awarded a prestigious Michelin star, becoming the first and only Michelin Star restaurant in Hồ Chí Minh City.
The restaurant — with the combining name of two Vietnamese words “ăn ăn”, meaning “eat eat” — is run by its founder, Vietnamese-American chef Peter Cường Franklin, who decided to leave a successful career in banking to follow his love and passion for food. Chef Cường talks with Thúy Hằng about his decision to come back to Việt Nam as well as his aspirations to create a new style of Vietnamese cuisine, which, in his words is ‘Cuisine Mới’ or ‘New Cuisine’.
He was born and raised in Đà Lạt, but the majority of his adult working life has been spent outside of Việt Nam. Now, there is a strong pull from Sài Gòn (formerly known as HCM City) calling him back to his motherland. With a successful career in banking in New York and London, as well as managing a couple of restaurants in Hong Kong, he believes that the timing is perfect to return and embark on something intriguing in Sài Gòn.
At Ănăn Saigon, he poses a simple yet profound question: what truly defines Vietnamese cuisine? In the process, he aims to ignite excitement and generate discussions surrounding the local food scene, particularly the concept of a more contemporary Vietnamese culinary experience.
Coming from Đà Lạt, the essence of food permeated every aspect of their upbringing as his mother operated a humble noodle shop right in the living room of their home. The mother serves as the source of inspiration for his culinary journey, renowned as one of the finest cooks in the village. Specializing in a select few dishes such as mì Quảng, chả lụa, and nem nướng, her culinary prowess resonates deeply.
Having enjoyed a prosperous career in banking, he ultimately decided to pursue his unwavering love and passion for food. One could argue that food runs through their veins, as his mother’s culinary expertise and the constant presence of food have shaped his life from an early age.
He received formal training in French cooking at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu and had the fortunate opportunity to train at some of the finest restaurants worldwide. Initially, many deemed his decision to open a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Việt Nam as eccentric, considering the country’s already exceptional local cuisine. They skeptically compared it to selling ice to Eskimos.
Having established his career as a chef, he successfully operated two restaurants in Hong Kong before returning to Việt Nam. Hong Kong, known for its intense competitiveness and being one of the world’s culinary meccas, served as an ideal starting point for his culinary journey.
In 2017, at a pivotal moment in his life, he felt a calling from his homeland, Việt Nam, and embraced the opportunity for change. He joyfully acknowledges that the embrace of “mother Việt Nam” brought him immense happiness.
Six years ago, he encountered one of the greatest challenges of his life when he returned to HCM City to open a modern Vietnamese restaurant within a bustling wet market. The journey was filled with numerous obstacles and difficulties. He recognized that when striving for remarkable achievements, one must be prepared to confront significant challenges and the possibility of spectacular failure.
Aside from introducing special new dishes, the menu at the restaurant is reviewed every three months. When considering updates to the menu, he carefully assesses the quality of the ingredients and determines the best techniques to employ in order to create the most delectable dishes possible. While striving to craft modern Vietnamese cuisine, his intention is for the food to maintain its authentic essence, reflecting traditional flavors and the Vietnamese way of dining. These guiding principles drive his pursuit of crafting delicious dishes for the restaurant’s guests.
Among the notable additions to the menu, the bánh xèo taco holds a special place in his heart. It was one of the initial dishes created when the restaurant first opened six years ago. This dish represents a unique, creative, and contemporary interpretation of Vietnamese street food.
The inspiration for the bánh xèo taco originated from the popular rice pancake street food dish of Huế. Transforming the traditional bánh xèo rice pancake, he reimagined it in the form of a crispy Mexican-style taco. The resulting dish resembles a Mexican taco, yet encapsulates the authentic flavors of a Vietnamese bánh xèo. Through the use of quality ingredients and modern culinary techniques, he succeeded in crafting a new and enjoyable dish that elevates the humble street food to a gourmet level while preserving its essence and distinctive taste.
Having been born in Việt Nam, he finds immense joy in once again calling it his home. He deeply appreciates the vibrant energy of HCM City and holds a strong belief in the country’s promising future. Being Vietnamese himself, he possesses a fervent desire to create dishes that authentically embody the taste, essence, and spirit of Vietnamese cuisine. His aspiration is for their food to transition from traditional to modern, while also establishing Việt Nam as a destination renowned not only for its outstanding street food but also for its fine dining experiences.
Drawing inspiration from other cities in Asia such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong, he believes that Vietnamese street food can coexist harmoniously with sophisticated fine dining encounters. He perceives these two culinary realms as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. As Việt Nam continues to develop and modernize as a nation, he envisions a comprehensive range of culinary experiences being offered, appealing to both local and global audiences.
As a chef, he has been driven to expand his knowledge and skills by learning from a diverse range of culinary experiences, from the finest Michelin-starred restaurants to humble street food stalls. Particularly, he finds great inspiration and valuable insights from the talented women who passionately cook in the vibrant wet markets and street stalls throughout Việt Nam.
Motivated by his fascination with Vietnamese noodle soups, he is preparing to launch Pot Au Phở noodle bar in August, aiming to showcase Việt Nam’s renowned national dish in all its glory. Pot Au Phở by Ănăn represents a modern phở restaurant with influences from French and Japanese cuisines, offering an innovative menu that showcases sophisticated variations of phở, as well as a fresh and unique interpretation of bánh mì and spring rolls. The intimate space is designed with 18 ring-side seats, allowing guests to witness the culinary spectacle firsthand as they watch the skilled cooks in action within the open kitchen setting.