With over 65,000 subscribers on YouTube and nearly 29,000 followers on Instagram, “FKN Deliciousness” host Calvin Bui is considerably a household name. But the 6-footer Vietnamese American, with his signature mustache, dark slicked-back hair, and printed polo shirt, still gets a little diffident every time a fan approaches.
Calvin is one of the most reputable icons in Saigon’s food and beverage industry. He came to Vietnam in 2009 from California, eager to showcase his atypical take on food and wide knowledge of culinary techniques in a city that’s equally eager to welcome what’s hip and new.
The next six years after that saw Calvin working tirelessly. He opened a fried chicken restaurant, then a food cart serving street-style pasta, and a pop-up kitchen, among others. Many of these business ventures didn’t work out, perhaps because Calvin went too fast, too soon.
But he’s an entrepreneur and a chef, and an incredibly hardworking man, so his setbacks were only stepping stones as he climbed his way up. In 2018, almost a decade after he left an exciting opportunity working with Chef Charles Phan at Slanted Door, Calvin opened El Camino.
The low-lit speakeasy, offering a fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisines, was a testament to the chef’s boldness to try new, unchartered territories. It quickly became a favorite among locals and expats, so much so that it got nominated for the “Neighborhood Hangout Award” at Vietcetera’s first-ever Restaurant and Bar Awards in 2018.
The world was his oyster.
Calvin Bui’s personal and professional journey seemed to have come straight out of a movie script. He was once homeless and ate food from the garbage bin, and when he moved to Vietnam to try out his luck, his first years were filled with misadventures.
“I lived on $5 a day, thinking that the next day was going to be better,” shares Calvin. “It’s true that when you’re in the dark, it’s hard to see the light. But I still believed being at the bottom was not my end game.”
He struggled and persevered. Nothing can put a good man down, they say, and Calvin was out to prove that. When his then-wife requested sushi on her birthday, they went to a Family Mart branch in District 1 and got themselves a six-piece set of sushi that cost a little more than a dollar.
Six years later, the couple traveled to Japan and “ate ridiculously expensive omakase and ate Kobe beef in Kobe.” They built a big house, opened restaurants and bars, bought a vacation home, explored countries, and tasted food not everyone could afford.
“When I opened El Camino, that was when I gained momentum. Things started to get better. I felt that I had to continue swinging upwards.”
All the misfortunes Calvin had to endure finally paid off. He built a name for himself in the local food and beverage industry. He, himself, became a brand (though he never really found out what his ‘brand’ was), and many emerging culinary entrepreneurs looked up to him.
The world was his oyster. He had everything he ever dreamt of and more. His priceless laugh and comical aura, an always-smiling face that’s always ready to welcome anyone with open arms, was Calvin’s strongest asset. He is naturally friendly, and though he’s brutally honest about his perspectives, he’s also one to speak motivational words.
This is also the reason his YouTube channel, FKN Deliciousness, amassed a loyal following. The way he highlights the food he eats is as inviting as the food itself. His expertise in the field is evident in the way he describes flavors and textures and shares personal anecdotes.
But when the pandemic hit and Calvin had to temporarily shut his businesses due to lockdowns, he flew to the US to join Sonny Side for some episodes of the Best Ever Food Review Show. In the midst of a fun but hectic filming schedule and nonstop eating, Calvin realized that while he was grateful and happy with the life he’s lived, he didn’t connect with the community he was supposed to serve.
He came back to Vietnam months after with questions about whether he was happy or heading in the right direction. That was when he decided to give everything up — his businesses, his ‘brand,’ his status in the industry, and, unfortunately, his marriage.
“You can’t give up everything unless you already have everything,” he says with utmost sincerity. “To have gotten where I could only dream of, to be someone in this lifetime, I didn’t think it mattered anymore. It wasn’t about myself anymore.”
Calvin put his status as a chef and entrepreneur behind him. He doesn’t have any restaurant or bar under his name. But he has a roof over his head, clean clothes to wear, food to eat, and a new mission more meaningful than his previous feats.
Championing the community
Calvin opened a new platform where he could still be true to his food-lover self but give the spotlight on those worthier of it: the local restaurants in hidden corners of Vietnam.
Through his website Calvin Eats Vietnam and his influential social media presence, Calvin is exploring 12 cities this year — one city every month — and goes to 30 mom-and-pop shops at his every stop. He takes his followers on this new culinary expedition, gives them a glimpse of a side of the F&B industry not commonly featured in glossy magazines, and invites them to take their own journey.
“Taste is very subjective, that’s one thing I try to tell everybody. I don’t consider myself a food critic, nor do I have the authority to judge the food. I can sit in a restaurant, order from their menu, savor the food, and talk about my personal experience eating it. But I can’t say ‘the food was bad or the service could be better’ and dictate other people’s opinion about the restaurant.”
As an industry insider, Calvin knows each food in each restaurant has stories to tell. The recipes could be generations-old, or the owners have experiences that led them to sell food.
Why are foods cooked a certain way in this particular shop? Why do they use this technique, these proteins, or these spices? There are so many questions that revolve around one food or one shop, he says, and knowing the whole story behind it is an important part of the experience.
The former chef-entrepreneur posts appetizing photos of the food he tries every day, and posts all relevant information about the hop — name, full address, contact details, and operating hours. His posts about Bò Né Lệ Hồng and Phá Lấu Bò Cô Thảo in Saigon were particularly interesting.
“It’s a gift of life to be able to try somebody’s creations, but we have to understand that it took a process and a lot of people for that food to get onto your table A farmer had to plant a seed, somebody drove it to the wet market, and some chef went to the market and took it back to their kitchen and did something good with it. From the very first person involved in the process, they put their heart and soul into it, into a dish we get the privilege to consume.”
Calvin Eats Vietnam, its owner says, is still small. But he plans to continue growing the platform in the coming years and hopefully take it to other countries in Asia where food is an essential part of the culture.
“I think my purpose in life is to take the spotlight that I’ve worked hard to build over the last 20 years and give 100% of it to others in hopes that it will allow them to strive to be their best. I ask nothing in return. I only want to give them the opportunity to tell their story.”
Adding more perspective to Flavors Vietnam 2023
Calvin Bui is also taking his mission bigger through Vietcetera’s Flavors Vietnam program. Joining this year’s months-long series of events as a curator, Calvin is expanding the program further and deeper to discover the industry’s real stars in the making.
He’s already familiar with the program, as a nominee and host during the first season. Calvin has seen the evolution of Flavors Vietnam and its admirable goal to celebrate industry shakers and emerging.
Flavors Vietnam is an avenue to recognize the F&B industry — from highlighting new restaurants and showcasing a new breed of chefs and mixologists to giving kudos and acknowledgment to the people who brought Vietnam to the culinary map.
With the solid support of Mastercard, Flavors Vietnam has now become an institution in its own right — a cultural and business platform for the fast-evolving industry.
As a curator, Calvin says his main goal is to find the “diamond in the rough,” the people and places that really make this community an amazing place.
“What Flavors Vietnam can do is to inspire the new generation of industry players to continue to build the F&B community. They then become old-school, and the people before legacy builders. And every year, we constantly find new passionate individuals and give them the spotlight.”