“Esta” is a word in Spanish that translates to “here” or “this place.” There’s nothing more reassuring than hearing the words, “Let’s eat here!” when struggling to decide where to have dinner.
At Esta Saigon, you’ll find the perfect spot to satisfy your cravings with a distinctive seasonal menu showcasing various locally sourced ingredients. Chef Thuan Tran, who was recently named the Chef of the Year at the Restaurant and Bar Awards 2023, has thoughtfully curated this dining experience.
Every Esta’s diner must be impressed with Chef Thuan Tran’s masterful skills in cooking with the fire. Food is directly exposed to hot flames through mesh frying pans, thus keeping its signature and rustic flavors.
Esta has always been a much sought-after restaurant since its opening in 2019. Despite having a short and constantly changing menu due to seasonal ingredient availability, Esta has consistently captivated its guests with its unique culinary offerings. And here is what you should take note of Chef Thuan Tran’s culinary journey and perspective on fine-dining culture as the mastermind behind the concept.
What led you to pursue a career in culinary?
I initially followed in my family’s footsteps and studied civil engineering, but during my university days, I worked part-time in restaurants doing food delivery and dishwashing. I found myself drawn to cuisine and decided to pursue a degree in Hotel Management, seeking opportunities to work in kitchens for more insights into kitchen management. That was how my culinary journey began.
Over time, I have gained rich experience in various culinary cultures, including Mediterranean, Turkish, French, and Asian cuisines, thanks to serving in a wide variety of restaurants.
Tell us more about Esta’s humble beginnings.
I have dreamt of having a restaurant since I began working in the kitchen. Esta started small, initially located in a narrow alley on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. I poured my passion into every dish and did my best to serve my guests.
Eventually, Esta moved to Tran Quy Khoach Street, where it garnered more attention and affection. With more space, I was able to design my ideal Esta, featuring an open kitchen that minimizes the distance between the chef and the diners.
At Esta, we approach cuisine openly without being bound by old norms. We use local spices to elevate the main ingredients, creating unique and memorable flavors that have pleased our diners.
What are the challenges in using simple Vietnamese ingredients for fine dining?
It requires understanding and subtlety.
First, we need a thorough understanding of the culture and flavors of local ingredients. Vietnamese ingredients are not easy to use. The country’s distinct climate and topography offer a diversity of unique ingredients. It’s important to taste and smell them. I study the best terroirs for each ingredient to source the best.
Only by understanding can we combine them into a harmonious and sophisticated blend. Each ingredient’s proportion, processing, and presentation vary according to each chef’s mastery, experience, aesthetic perception, and imagination.
I am passionate about integrating different textures into the same dish. Therefore, I always go the extra mile to ensure that every course at Esta will take diners on an unforgettable emotional journey from start to finish.
What do you think is the magic ingredient?
It’s definitely tomato. Besides being a universally used ingredient, available in almost all cuisines, it also contains rich flavors, such as sweet, sour, and umami, and different textures depending on the cooking method. At Esta, tomatoes can deliver a meaty taste or a honey-like texture thanks to modern techniques.
Is the concept of fine dining still unfamiliar in Vietnam?
Fine-dining restaurants celebrate the beauty of gastronomy and the dedication of culinary artisans. Fine dining is a newcomer in the Vietnamese culinary scene, yet to build a large following, but undoubtedly carries a lot of potential.
Fine dining has gained popularity in Saigon over the past few years, serving diverse culinary styles from many countries, including France, Italy, China, Japan, and more.
How do you define a perfect dish?
A dish’s perfection is attributed to many contributing factors and never to the chefs alone. From my perspective, perfection is defined by diners. Besides well-crafted dishes, Esta’s team always goes to great lengths to offer guests a perfect dining experience, and the guests can feel that energy. I always suppose I have yet to cook a perfect dish, and I will continue striving for perfection on a daily basis.
If all cuisines are fusion cuisines, which one has influenced Vietnamese cuisine the most?
Vietnamese gastronomy is strongly affected by Chinese and French cuisines, two big names in the culinary world. Such influence, coupled with the country’s unique climate and topography, has contributed to a distinct and delicious Vietnamese cuisine.
Vietnamese food culture embodies the balance between Yin and Yang and different flavors. The yin-yang philosophy is closely associated with how to combine spices and flavors. Salty food belongs to the Yang, while sour and sweet food falls into the Yin. All flavors are harmoniously blended in Vietnamese dishes.
On the other hand, the French introduced many new ingredients and flavors to Vietnam, and the baguette (banh mi) is probably the most popular. While French people prefer eye-catching food presentations, Vietnamese dishes are naturally colorful and appealing.
What are your plans? Is there anything you would like to learn more about?
For me, it is essential to cultivate knowledge and curiosity. At the age of 36, I continue looking for opportunities to work in Michelin restaurants where I can expand my horizons, learn new things, and identify suitable practices for Vietnam food culture. Those priceless experiences are not always available and accessible.
“Chef of the Year” and other awards mean so much to me because they are a recognition of my 13 years of hard work and constant learning to fulfill my passion. I plan to dig deeper into local ingredients and contribute to elevating Vietnamese cuisine to a new level.
What restaurant do you dream of dining at?
Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Who is the chef you want to work with?
Chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz of Central Restaurant in Lima, Peru.