Tran Thanh Duc is a familiar figure in Hoi An. Locals and tourists know Chef Duc as a Vietnamese success story—one that’s been told to international media outlets and recounted on TV shows. He left Vietnam on a boat at the age of 15 and grew up in Texas. From there “he cooked and surfed all the way around the world” from Mexico to New Zealand taking aboard culinary influences as diverse as his travels—he even worked as a sushi chef in an Austrian ski resort.
Today, Chef Duc has settled back in Hoi An with three restaurants in his Mango Hoi An chain: Mango Mango, Mai Fish, and Mango Rooms, and he has even more stories to tell from his adventures around the world. “Every time I arrived somewhere new, I’d go check out the food. It’s a way to meet local people in an authentic setting, making a connection through cuisine,” begins Chef Duc as we take a seat next to him in Mango Mango.
What are your first memories of cooking?
My earliest memory of cooking my own food was one day when I shot a bird out of a tree. I went to the kitchen and borrowed spices—fish sauce, onion, garlic, and black pepper. I roasted the bird with all those flavors—bitter, salty, sweet, umami—and I shared that little bird with my brother.
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You left Vietnam at 15, can you tell me about that journey and how it brought you closer to food?
It began when I was sent to live in a refugee camp in Malaysia. I was living in a hut with ten people and I was responsible to help cook. We were given the basics but the food was so bad—I just wanted to make it less horrible. You would have to cook things twice or for a long time just to make them edible.
Eventually I ended up in Texas with a Mexican-American family. We were dirt poor so we got most of our food from hunting or fishing. I would help my Mexican mother, Mercy, prepare food with whatever we had at that time.
I’m like my mother, I want to take care of people. In a way, when I cook for people I’m looking after them physically and emotionally. I’m a caretaker by nature and I’ve been lucky to turn that into a career and a business.
What was your impetus for returning to Vietnam? Why did you settle in Hoi An?
I came back to stay in 2003. It was a chance for me to learn to be Vietnamese again and to return to my roots.
Are there particular places in Hoi An you have a special connection to?
In Hoi An, I love the Central Market and Thanh Ha Fish Market. Those markets are full of mothers all with a lifetime of experience and skills to share. The variety and freshness of local ingredients like pumpkin flowers, mulberry, and hibiscus are so exciting. When I first visited I would find ingredients that were new to me. These included line-caught fish like red rock snapper—something I hadn’t cooked before. I would buy two at a time and cook one the traditional way before exploring my own recipes with the second.
What is the concept for your Mango Rooms and Mango Mango restaurants? How did you start out?
When I decided to open Mango Rooms, I wanted to be by the river. Location in the Old Town is so important. I found a building right on the water, close to Tam Tam and Cargo restaurants, but the structure was falling down. I spent three months and most of my money renovating the space. By the grand opening I was down to my last five dollars. I had to make money that day, it had to work straight away. And it did.
I base everything on fresh ingredients and a comfortable space that ignites all your senses simultaneously—good music, bright colors, and beautiful smells. Music is food for the soul and the right music puts people in the mood to enjoy themselves. We usually start with jazz piano, then move to Latin rhythms, and salsa later in the day. At Mango Mango, we have a live band downstairs and a baby grand piano on the top floor.
The design is a fusion of places I have visited. We focus on functional spaces with Scandinavian designs and robust Mexican colors. And we make it a point to hire local craftspeople as well as sourcing only local materials and ingredients.
How do you maintain the “Chef Duc” brand and spirit at your restaurants as the business grows and you spend less time in the kitchen?
It’s not about me and my presence in the kitchen. I am a worker—I work hard and interact with my customers whether they recognize me as the proprietor or not. And I put a lot of work into developing my employees…they’re like family. When someone is looking for a job my conditions are that they respect themselves, respect others, and to follow my guidance. I won’t give up on them, so they can’t give up on me.
Your main customer base is foreign visitors. How do Vietnamese diners respond to your dishes?
Vietnamese diners love it. They say it’s strange but also familiar and delicious. I think they expect something completely different but are surprised to find Vietnamese flavors presented a different way—the Chef Duc way.
Who would be at your ideal dinner party?
My wife and my family—as many family members as I can get through the doors. That is the company I enjoy the most.
If I could choose a chef to join the party, it would be Thomas Keller—an American chef with a total of seven Michelin stars at his various restaurants. He’s from New York and is a very disciplined and soulful guy. He learned to cook from his mother so his philosophy is similar to mine in that he cooks to take care of people.