Foodies are notoriously hard to please. But the twenty-person panel Vietcetera put together for our Saigon’s Restaurant of 2018 Grand Jury Award were unanimous in their praise of the “creative cuisine and great hospitality” at Anan Saigon, a restaurant that opened in April 2017 among the stalls of District 1’s last wet market. And so the restaurant has claimed the first prize.
The achievement is especially impressive when you consider the number of attractive competitors that opened in 2018—a year of incredible growth and expanding options in Saigon’s dining scene.
But in 2018, Anan Saigon solidified its position as the place to take visitors for a taste of new Vietnamese cuisine. Celebrity chefs constantly dropped by too. And Anan Saigon was kind enough to pop-up overseas with recent successful guest shifts in the kitchens of Hong Kong’s Sake Central and Grassroots Pantry.
So, the Vietcetera Grand Jury Award for Restaurant of 2018 is the culmination of this special year for Anan Saigon. “It has been amazing,” chef and founder Peter Cuong Franklin begins, “with many wonderful memories, starting with the local and international recognitions that we have received for Anan Saigon to the opening of Nhau Nhau Bar two months ago.”
What areas of development for the restaurant did you focus on this year? What were the secrets to successfully developing the concept?
Our focus from the beginning has been about the food and the dining experience. We take a scientific and methodical approach to our cooking and we have a no bullshit rule. If it looks and smells like bullshit, then we don’t do it. This simple guiding principle enables us to be creative and innovative while at the same time paying respect to traditions and staying grounded.
Recently we have been working harder to elevate our service to a more professional and international standard while keeping the dining experience fun and welcoming.
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You continued to develop your pho more this year too. What’s the secret to tackling a classic dish successfully? What makes your pho so special now?
Pho is one of those sacred, iconic Vietnamese dishes you are not supposed to touch—at least according to some people who believe that Vietnamese food should be cheap and never-changing.
I am still on a quest create the perfect bowl of pho noodle soup. I have taken everything that we learned from the success of the US $100 pho to develop a new US $10 pho that distills the essential elements of a classic bowl of pho tai chin. Our pho is unique because we use modern cooking techniques and high quality ingredients to create a bowl with the perfect balance between the broth, the rice noodles, the beef toppings, and the herbs. We will continue to do a lot more eating, testing, and fine tuning to move closer to that elusive perfect bowl of noodles.
The US $100 banh mi and pho earned the restaurant a lot of publicity. What’s the long term impact been like? Have there been any negative aspects to it?
We have become famous or perhaps I should say infamous for our the off-menu US $100 pho and banh mi. The US $100 banh mi is a good example of my effort to change and elevate Vietnamese cuisine. We have incorporated luxurious ingredients into these humble dishes but at the same time retained the integrity and balance of flavors that makes Vietnamese food so delicious.
I think overall it’s created a sense of curiosity. It’s got people talking and considering the possibility of something new and Vietnamese that does not always have to be cheap.
All that publicity meant you were interviewed a lot this year. Which question are you asked most? And which topics do interviewers tend to avoid?
I get a lot of questions about my journey from investment banking to award-winning chef, why I returned to Saigon after achieving acclaim internationally, and the difficulties of setting up a business in Vietnam.
I don’t get a lot of questions about my journey to the US as a teenage refugee…which is probably a good thing since it’s still an emotional topic even after all these years. It was a turbulent period in my life as a young boy trying to survive in a foreign land.
Because Anan Saigon is so synonymous with the wet market on Ton That Dam, could the concept work in another part of Saigon, or in another city?
The market is important part of the identity of Anan Saigon. I love the wet market and, as a chef, the market is a great source of inspiration—and fresh ingredients. Our signature dishes such as the Đà Lạt Pizza, Bánh Xèo Taco, Foie Gras Imperial Roll are all inspired by the food that I have eaten in the market.
But my vision for Anan is to create a distinctively Vietnamese dining experience that can fit into any global city such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and London. However, to do the restaurant in another location or another city we would need to evaluate the fundamentals of the restaurant such as the sourcing of ingredients, the menu, local palates, and the design to fit in with the new environment.
How’s your relationship with the indefatigable market ladies?
Ah, the market ladies. I think they were a bit skeptical about me in the beginning. They would sometimes give me dirty looks or occasionally they’d shout at me for picking up their products without buying them.
But after two years, Anan Saigon has become an integral part of the market. And I have become good friends with many of the ladies. They teach me about the products that they sell, and they recommend ingredients and dishes I should try. When business is slow due to bad weather we commiserate with each other and chit chat about the rain, or about food, or some random news that’s happening. I have really come to love the market ladies.
You’ve been attracting a lot of celebrity clientele—especially foodies and chefs. Which guests were you proudest to welcome this year?
We are fortunate to have a very broad mix of customers, both locals and foreigners from all over the world. We have had many local and international celebrities dine at Anan Saigon but the most meaningful for me this year was when three-star chefs Laurent and Jacques Pourcel and their team came for dinner. Subsequently we have welcomed a number of other Michelin-star chefs to Anan.
And what’s the nicest or most meaningful thing someone said about Anan this year?
People have been saying a lot of really nice things about us this year—thankfully. The latest, I think, was on Instagram: “Peter’s food is food porn. Can we get this man a food Oscar please??”
What would you order if you ate in your own restaurant? And where would you sit?
I would come later, say around 9pm. I would request to sit at the bar and order the Special Pho Dac Biet with the Wagyu Beef Banh Mi. I’d ask that the dishes be served at the same time so I can dip the banh mi into the pho broth create to my own version of a French dip. To drink, I’d order the Pomelo Highball cocktail with Quê Hương shochu, pomelo and lime, which would be a nice match.
What is the future for Anan? And Nhau Nhau?
I am looking to do a 2.0 version of Anan and Nhau Nhau. And I would also love to open a restaurant in Da Lat with a farm attached, and with a farm-to-table concept…