In January 2019, after announcing the winners of Vietcetera’s Restaurant And Bar Awards 2018, a few of us toasted Vietnam’s F&B industry in the Refinery courtyard on Hai Ba Trung discussed what was coming in 2020.
After months of struggling to stay afloat despite enforced closures brought on by the pandemic, Vietnam’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs are cautiously looking up from their contingency plans and beyond 2020. As we sit down to catch up with last year’s winners ahead of Vietcetera's 2020 #banhmiawards now confirmed for 5 November 2020, the general mood is one of optimism.
Join us to hear from the industry’s heavyweights about what's cooking in 2020, what has changed for them after taking home the trophy, and who they are rooting for this year.
The year in review
At Anan Saigon (Restaurant of 2018, Grand Jury Prize), change is afoot. Never one to rest on his laurels, Peter Cuoung Franklin, the chef-owner behind Anan, is preparing to roll out a new dinding concept. “Later on this year we will open The Dalat Room private dining at Anan Saigon, French colonial inspired, yet contemporary in design, named after Dalat city, my hometown in the Central Highlands,” he explains.
Regulars at Thao Dien’s MAD House had all the reasons to celebrate when their favorite venue won the Neighborhood Hangout of 2018 award. The winning formula? “Drinks and easy sharing food in cosy unpretentious places”, reckons Mad House’s Camilla Bailey. With the recent launch of MAD Wine Bar, she is giving the customers another excuse to linger – reasonably priced wines.
In 2020 Camilla’s focus remains on building trust within the community – an approach that worked wonders for her in 2019 when MAD House retained its regulars and managed to stay relevant and fresh amid a deluge of new restaurants in Thao Dien.
For Au Parc (Lifetime Achievement Award), 2019 was about leadership change. Au Parc’s Noëlle Carr-Ellison spends a lot of time overseas and relies on her team to run operations effectively in her absence. Changes that were implemented last year by the new manager, such as setting up customer feedback processes, have translated into improved communication. "Maintaining daily contact with my team and our regular clients ensures that the quality of our product remains top-notch," says Noëlle.
“Educational” is how the team at Firkin Bar describes the year they took home the Grand Jury Prize for Bar of the Year. “Not just for our staff learning their craft and products,” explain Andy O'Brien and Chris Donnellan, “but also for our customers understanding what we are trying to do.”
Quince (Julien Perraudin, Chef of the Year) spent 2019 on the “up”, calling it “the benchmark year” marked by steady growth.
Last year Saigon’s gourmets voted for Tomatito in the Public Choice Award and when the team took home the coveted trophy, they arrived in droves to celebrate. “Tomatito was perceived as even sexier with a golden Banh Mi award at our entrance!” gushes Tomatito’s Willy Trullas Moreno.
Julien Perraudin, Group Chef at Quince Saigon is grateful for the outpourings of love and appreciation that Quince has been receiving and is gunning for another (as-yet undisclosed) award. But with three industry accolades awarded to Quince in its first year in operation, he believes it will be tough with “a lot of great new places having opened since”.
Julien’s overall feeling about F&B industry awards, however, is that “the Front of House employees are being left out”, while the chef, the barman and the F&B outlet itself all get rewarded. He sees such recognition as a way to encourage the young Vietnamese “to take this profession seriously”, to nurture a new generation of professional waiters, sommeliers, maître d's.
Anan’s Peter Cuong Franklin’s hope is that such industry awards will help put Vietnamese restaurants on the culinary map.“Vietnam is amazing, but unfortunately we have not received the international recognition that we should, particularly at the fine dining level. I hope these awards will bring more notice from outside of Vietnam.”
He sees value in giving “recognition and validation for the restaurants, bars and people in the industry who have played important roles in one way or another to move the Vietnam F&B scene forward” and “to connect and have a great time together.” “Saigon loves a good excuse for a party,” he adds.
Firkin Bar’s Andy O'Brien and Chris Donnellan, who know a thing or two about throwing a good party, echo chef Peter’s sentiments: “It’s important to have industry recognition amongst our industry peers, as we all largely share a common goal.”
As does Tomatito’s Willy Trullas Moreno: “It is always important to be part of the award industry and fantastic to be in it with such an amazing group of peers. We all support and aspire to be better because of it.”
MAD House’s Camilla Bailey gives the #banhmiawards a shout-out for “creating a very nice bond between colleagues” and for “bringing awareness to some unknown places.”
Who will wear the crown in 2020
Andy O'Brien and Chris Donnellan hope to see Firkin Bar in the mix again.
"There are a lot of newcomers and 'experimental' seems to be the hottest bar trend at the moment," the duo commented. But rather than blindly following the trends, the Firkin team intends to “continue to develop [their] craft from the roots up, always with a reference in [their] creations to classic cocktail making.”
Peter Cuong Franklin of Anan, while admitting that he is not good at predictions, believes “that in the Saigon dining scene we now have a number of world-class chefs and restaurants that can rival the competition in other major cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
Among the newcomers that impressed him most he names the revamped Ngoc Suong (“A good example of New Vietnam emerging now.”) and its head chef Vinh Q. Le who “has taken the family seafood restaurant, a classic old school Saigon institution, and refreshed it with a modern and international twist.” One example he gives is chef Vinh’s introduction of refined French-style dishes such as liver mousse laced with cognac and pink peppercorn.
Camilla Bailey believes MAD Wine Bar deserves a nomination, but also puts forward Sol Kitchen & Bar, a personal favourite.
Some trends that Quince’s Julien Perraudin believe are on rise are degustation menus, international guest chefs and elevated cocktail games. Craft breweries and coffee shops are going strong too. “You start to see a lot of Vietnamese chefs going their own way too. Which is great to see,” comments Julien. The ones to watch? Viet Hong from Saigon’s Monkey Gallery and Tung Dining in Hanoi.
Tomatito’s Willy Trullas Moreno bets on “new restaurants like Sushi Sake Restaurant Kiyota, Yakiniku Yazawa and Monkey Gallery” getting a mention.
Parting words of wisdom
“TripAdvisor is dead. Good news.” Noëlle Carr-Ellison, Au Parc
“Drink more and be merry! And when you do, choose quality over quantity, as there is no substitute for quality!” Andy O'Brien and Chris Donnellan, Firkin Bar
“Do not fear to break out of the mold. Bring something new into the F&B landscape. If there is something Quince demonstrates is that you don’t need a prime location with a concept that only follows the trend. Take risks. I mean this is why we are in this business; if we didn’t want to take risks, we should have gone into other businesses.” Julien Perraudin, Quince Saigon