Ngoặm is a rising star in Hanoi’s culinary world that has captured the hearts of local diners with its unique menu and youthful vibe. From the clever name to the playful dishes, this restaurant exudes an infectious energy that sets it apart. It’s no surprise that Ngoặm has quickly become a popular destination for food enthusiasts in the area.
Ngoặm’s contemporary Western dishes with a local twist have earned them a reputation for creativity and attention to detail. This dedication has paid off with three awards at the Vietnam Restaurant & Bar Awards 2023: Young Leader of the Year, Restaurant of the Year - People’s Choice, and Restaurant of the Year - Jury’s Choice, a testament to the founders’ dedication and the restaurant’s unique approach to cuisine.
Vietcetera recently had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of Ngoặm, Phan Lê Anh Tú and Đỗ Minh Ngọc. During the interview, they discussed their inspiration for founding the restaurant and their recent successes.
Ngoặm first started as a burger business. Why burgers?
Minh Ngọc: There is no specific reason. After studying abroad and returning to Vietnam, we saw many street vendors working hard day in and day out. Feeling bad for them, Tú suggested offering them some money, but I disagreed with it because the money may go to a protection racket (most street vendors and beggars are threatened to pay protection fees).
I wanted to offer real help to the right persons in need. That’s how we started cooking for them because at least we could ensure they had a good meal. To call for more public engagement, we started a project: Selling burgers to raise charity funds.
Anh Tú: Why burgers? They are delicious and easy to pack and ship around. The idea is that for every burger sold, we would offer a free meal to someone in need. At first, we just shared the project on our personal Facebook accounts for fun, and it unexpectedly received so much attention. The number of orders kept stacking until it exceeded our supply capacity, and we had to stop taking orders.
Minh Ngọc: As the business was sprouting, we decided to give it an impressive name to promote our business better on social media. As we sold burgers, we thought of something relating to it. The origin of Ngoặm’s name is rooted in our desire to create a dining experience that’s bold, flavorful, and memorable. The Vietnamese word “Ngoặm,” meaning “big bite,” perfectly encapsulates the sensation of sinking your teeth into one of our burgers or other signature dishes.
Our customers kept coming back and encouraged - some even pushed - us to open an actual store for them to enjoy the food more regularly. So, we gave it a try, first with an online business selling burgers in batches. After about ten months or a year, we considered running our restaurant.
When Ngoặm was first opened, what did you feel the Vietnamese F&B market was lacking, and how do you think the market has changed since then?
Anh Tú: For me, the Vietnamese market at that time probably lacked opportunities for young people. To open a restaurant or follow a Food and Beverage (F&B) career, you must have some fame or a strong financial background. Then you have to make your restaurant stand out among a vast sea of F&B establishments.
Many F&B jobs required some hands-on experience, so there weren’t many opportunities available to inexperienced candidates. It may be unfair to those interested in switching careers in this industry.
Minh Ngọc: I take a different view. Many diners think they can only expect good customer service at fancy restaurants. And although hot-tempered vendors like bún chửi, cháo chửi (cussing noodles and cussing porridge) still exist, I am not a fan of them. For me, in the service-oriented industry, treating customers well should be the norm.
Besides, service jobs like waiters or cooks are so undervalued that most people consider them manual part-time work and not a potential long-term career. In fact, to thrive in the service industry, you must learn relentlessly, invest a lot of creativity and put your heart and soul into it.
At the time, Vietnam’s restaurant scene was quite conventional and needed more concept diversity. Diners were accustomed to having Thai food in a Thai restaurant or Vietnamese cuisine in a Vietnamese restaurant, which lacked innovation and became monotonous. However, the market’s conventional nature made it difficult to introduce bold ideas, and restaurateurs often hesitated to experiment.
Anh Tú: Actually, it was difficult for the chefs to implement their ideas as they are usually not the owners. They are often backed by investors or a girlfriend (smiles), who they have to consult with before making any decision. But I think the F&B scene has gone through a remarkable transformation. Restaurants are getting more innovative with their concepts and menus. The space has been gradually filled up.
Ngoặm is known for wittily named dishes and seasonal menus. What inspires you to come up with such names?
Anh Tú: At Ngoặm, we don’t re-make dishes from somewhere else but invent new ones ourselves. Like newborns, our dishes are unnamed when they are “bred.” So as their parent, I thought, “Why don’t I give them extraordinary names?” (In the end, no parents want their children’s names to sound boring).
Minh Ngọc: Tú is usually responsible for generating ideas for our new dishes. Our common goal is to consistently make pleasingly colorful food which involves a lot of meticulous handcraft in cooking. For our burger, we don’t use molds to shape the patties but knead them with our hands to give them a less condensed texture. Or else, these patties are just like mass-produced Vietnamese pork rolls (giò lụa).
Take our latest seasonal menu, for example. As we see the transition from spring to summer, we think of the theme “xuân-to-hè” (spring-to-summer). “To-hè” or “tò he,” if you switch the tone mark, is a type of Vietnamese children’s traditional toy made from glutinous rice powder in the form of edible figurines. It’s one of the rare traditional toys that survive the test of time and have been treasured by generations.
The artists have to carefully knead and model the tò he figurines by hand, just like how we craft each burger patty. That’s where we drew inspiration for our menu “xuân tòhe” (spring tohe). After deciding on the menu name and theme, we proceeded with restaurant decorations, visual design, and our seasonal menu to stay in line with the theme “tò he.”
Anh Tú: We both agreed on giving our extraordinary dishes extraordinary names to impress customers better before they even step into our restaurant. The name is usually somewhat related to the ingredients used to make the dish.
For example, there’s a dish that has “kẹo cu đơ” - a candy made of roasted peanuts with molasses, and put between grilled rice paper - sprinkled on the eel (lươn in Vietnamese), so we name it “lươn lẹo” (which also mean “crooked”). Another dish is made with a type of veggie called “ngót,” which sounds similar to “god,” so we name it “oh my ngót.”
We are so into naming dishes that every time we introduce a new menu, all our staff gather and enjoy discussing the name for it. Many of our customers also join the fun too.
Minh Ngọc: Seeing customers giggle as they read the menu is a priceless sight. And it makes me feel happier. Some customers are so baffled that they ask, “What is it?” or “Why did you come up with this?” Then, there is my chance to step up and explain the ideas to them.
How do you maintain a brand identity while introducing new dishes and changing menus?
Anh Tú: With every menu change, Ngoặm’s team receives a mix of praise and playful-but-not-really threats, like “if this dish isn’t back on the menu soon, then…” Although the second half of these comments are often in jest, there’s a real pressure that comes with it, pushing the team to constantly innovate and transform for the better.
Minh Ngọc: Moreover, changing the menu is part of our brand identity, so Ngoặm is not Ngoặm without renewing menus.
For us, Ngoặm is like a recreation of our childhood. For example, the shelf on Ngoặm’s first floor reminds us of the shelf that every household used to have when we were young, which stored all of our parents’ sundries. Who knew that one day, we, as grown-ups, would open a restaurant that recreated our childhood?
Anh Tú: We founded Ngoặm at the age of 22 so it is a reflection of our spirit and passion at that time. Maybe one day, we won’t fit the image and energy Ngoặm wants to convey anymore. Therefore, Ngoặm’s brand identity shouldn’t be solely about us, but focus more on our team - the people. As long as Ngoặm’s spirit still lives on from generation to generation, our brand identity will remain.
What is your biggest gain from founding Ngoặm?
Anh Tú: Weight (laughs). In fact, before founding Ngoặm, I had quite a lot of free time. Sometimes I start my day not knowing what I should do. After Ngoặm, I’ve found more meaning in life. Now, every morning, I wake up knowing things are waiting for me - a business to care about, many people to meet, and a lot of questions to answer. Every moment going by is meaningful.
Minh Ngọc: For me, it is about having a future to strive for and creating a brighter tomorrow for young people to thrive in this industry.
Both of us have no proper training or have previously worked in the F&B industry, so don’t be afraid if you didn’t roll in an F&B school or have much experience. To work in this industry, all you need is a proper attitude and perseverance to learn.
What is your biggest struggle?
Minh Ngọc: Our main challenge is to establish a work environment that is both comfortable and unique for our staff while maintaining certain standards. I want to avoid limiting our employees and encourage them to express themselves freely and greet and serve customers in their own way. Additionally, societal prejudice towards this career path can discourage young people from pursuing it, leading to the unfortunate loss of talented individuals.
Anh Tú: I share the same concern, and I also face challenges when it comes to changing our menu. Our fixed price point prevents us from using premium or imported ingredients, so we must rely on local and seasonal options. While this can sometimes be difficult, it forces me to be more creative with everyday ingredients.
You won 3 awards at the Vietnam Restaurant & Bar Awards 2023. What do those big triumphs mean to you?
Minh Ngọc: That is the recognition for all the efforts we’ve invested and a big motivation to our team. I also realize that just by doing your best and competing with no one but yourself, you will reap the reward you deserve.
Anh Tú: Despite not having completed university or obtained a driver’s license, winning those trophies gave me a sense of accomplishment. While we may not be the best cooks in Vietnam, I am proud of our team’s passion for our work and for each other. Together, we are committed to continually improving and growing our restaurant.
Which dish are you most confident in cooking?
Minh Ngọc: I don’t cook. I believe there should be only one person who can cook in a household.
Anh Tú: If you’ve ever made a dish that good, the pressure that you must do better the next time is higher. So, the dish I am most confident in cooking is the dish I have never cooked before.
If you could only choose three ingredients to use in Ngoặm’s dishes, which ones would you choose?
Minh Ngọc: The first one is beef because we can make a lot of dishes with it. We can use beef tendons for stewing and beef fat for cooking. If you pay closer attention to our menu, you’ll see that we use a lot of minced beef tendons and dried beef tendons in our dishes so beef is a must.
Anh Tú: The second ingredient is onions. This is such a common ingredient that you can find everywhere on Earth and you can cook it with anything.
The third one is salt because I love savory food. When I was living in Northern Europe, the food there was very salty, so I had to adjust my palate to the local taste.
I always tell my staff that a perfect dish must be richly flavourful and balanced in taste. However, if I have to choose between a salty and a light dish, I will choose salty. For me, it’s more important to show customers that you have the intention to season your food but may just overdo it than to let them think you don’t have such intention or even forget it. (Also, salty food makes people crave water - a chance to boost our kombucha sales).
If you could only eat one dish for a lifetime, what would it be?
Minh Ngọc: This is a very difficult question for me. I can’t eat one dish for the rest of my life but if I had to choose, it would be instant noodles. There are tons of flavors to choose from, so I won’t get sick of it.
Anh Tú: This is a very easy question for me. The answer is always phở. Not trying to be sophisticated, phở just as traditional as it already has all my respect.
Translated by Bich Tram