Good food from any origin and cultural background often has a beautiful story behind them, elevating the dish to not just a flavorful treat for the tastebuds, but also for the hearts.
The Ratatouille dish was chosen as the center point for a movie surely not by coincidence. When Remy the mouse presented this “peasant” dish onto a fancy plate and served it in a fancy restaurant, he made a point: no matter where you are from, you can create magic.
Vo Hoang Sang — demi chef at Pullman Saigon — was crowned the winner of the Rising Chefs Challenge in Saigon. Like Remy, he took inspiration from meaningful moments in his own life and incorporated them into his cooking, and those stories played a big part in winning over the judges’ hearts.
The story of one’s roots
Vo Hoang Sang’s first dish to impress was a beef salad with starfruits and green bananas. Compared to other teams that went in for Greek or Eastern European dishes, Sang’s choice seemed muted.
Yet, Sang stuck by his choice, because it reminded him of two things.
First, his hometown, represented by the “commoners” ingredients of starfruits and green bananas. Easily found at any market, these ingredients are sometimes overlooked and dismissed as base for exquisite dishes.
Second, his mother. The tartness from star fruits and green bananas reminds Sang of his mother’s journey through all the bitterness of life to raise him into the man he is today.
Both one’s hometown and one’s mother are representative of one’s roots, and so, the story of Sang’s first dish was to never forget where you came from.
Sang’s beautifully nostalgic inspirations were also evident in the dessert he prepared: A sweet soup with lotus seeds, snow fungus, and nipa palm — a type of fruit Sang grew up with in his maternal grandmother’s hometown.
The crimson shade of the dessert came from Long An red dragonfruit. “Dragon fruits from my hometown would sometimes sell slowly, so I would like to use this dish to promote my hometown’s agricultural produce,” shared Sang.
Each of his dishes is colored vividly with stories about his hometown, and perhaps that affection earned him his win.
The story of the past
Without yesterday, we won’t be who we are today. While some people choose to forget their tough upbringing, Sang chose otherwise.
Hoang Sang chose har gow with Chaozhou sauce as his vegetarian dish for the competition. When asked why, he honestly shared that at the beginning of his career, his boss gave him a challenge to make har gow, and he spent countless hours learning how to make different types.
“Whenever I think of har gow, I’m reminded of my self-learning journey that took me to this point.”
Practicing endlessly by himself was how he continued progressing after finishing 21 Professional Western-Asian Cooking Technique courses at SESAME, becoming a sous chef at AN Restaurant and now a demi chef at Pullman Saigon.
“Try to cook from the heart”
When you have your heart and style in your cooking, the guests will know whose food they’re enjoying, just like how it is for Trinh Cong Son’s music — even first-time listeners know it’s his music.
And Vo Hoang Sang has achieved that. His dish: beef roll with pork paste filling and "mac khen" sauce, served with soup sandwich, got praised by Chef Peter Cuong Franklin of Anan.
"His creative take on a modern beefsteak is quite unique. Sang has combined the French roulade technique — ribeye steak with a thin layer of pork and greens — with a very Vietnamese sauce base.
It’s not easy to craft your own style, but a way to simplify it is knowing that it all starts with appreciating your past and where you came from and using it as a base to create a unique culinary experience. Vo Hoang Sang did just that: using his ingredients and techniques to tell his stories.