“We got to know Sonny Side when we were working at Anan Saigon. Our team and Sonny’s team both have the same passion and love for Vietnamese food. So, when deciding to make videos for his followers, from popular street shops to high-end restaurants, of dishes that cost $100, Sonny Side took the initiative to contact us and asked us to be part of this project. Having been a fan to his channel for a while, of course we said ‘Yes!’”
Leading up to The Other Place’s debut on the Best Ever Food Review Show, we asked Vicky and Son, the two founders of The Other Place, a Vietnamese fusion restaurant based in Ho Chi Minh City, to share more about their project and their spring rolls served in Japanese Omakase style. In this latest Vietcetera feature, we learn more about Vicky and Son’s culinary experiences that led to the start of The Other Place.
Best Ever Food Review Show (BEFRS) is a YouTube channel with more than 4 million followers, founded by Sonny Side, to promote unique tastes of Vietnam as well as from many other parts of the world.
What has been your journey to starting your own restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City been like?
Son: Up to this point, I’ve been in every kitchen, large and small, for about six years. My career path in this line of work has mainly been self-taught and ongoing training at many different restaurants.
My culinary journey started at a Japanese style restaurant and Korean barbecue restaurant. After that, I let myself try the other side of restaurants, in hotels. I spent three years working in larger scale kitchens, especially in French cuisine.
By early 2017, I had the opportunity to work at Anan Saigon. This is also my first time working at a restaurant focused on Vietnamese food. It was at Anan Saigon that I discovered a different, inspiring perspective of Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese dishes under the transformation of chef Peter Cuong Franklin took on a very distinctive shape, which can be proudly shared with the world
Vicky: I was in Australia for most of my adult life and officially returned to Vietnam in 2017. Unlike Son, I come from a family full of doctors and always thought that I would follow the same path that my family had set.
The time I spent living and working in Australia has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of modern culinary. Unlike Vietnam, Australia is a multi-culture country without one single ‘traditional cuisine’. This is the much needed freedom that enables Australia to grow and evolve quickly. It is not tradition but rather the unique blend of culinary contributions and adaptations from various cultures around the world as well as the extensive use of local products that makes Australian cuisine great.
It was this revolutionary way of thinking when it comes to cooking and producing that got me hooked in the culinary world. Started out with just enjoying meals in restaurant with friends, I quickly moved on from simply eating to thinking about what I eat. In no time, I become more and more curious about flavours and what makes a dish taste ‘good’, what cooking techniques are applied, what the traditional/cultural/historical factors are involved in the progress of creating a dish! Before I know it, I’ve become obsessed with food and everything around it. And that is also when I know that I have found my life passion.
After the initial ‘crush’ with the international cuisines found in Australia, I started to contemplate more and more about my root which is Vietnamese cuisine. I couldn’t help wondering why this cuisine I love so much is not held in the same place with Thai or Japanese cuisine in the heart of others. Australian love Vietnamese food as it is delicious, nutritional and cheap. Nothing wrong with being all of that, however, it eclipses other highly sophisticated values of Vietnamese cuisine. This, along with our strong tradition in cooking, ironically makes it challenging for our cuisine to continue to evolve.
I came back to Vietnam for first time in years to visit my family in 2017. Words cannot describe how shocked I was at how much this city had grown. I could no longer recognise the way home anymore. On contrary, nothing seems to change much in the F&B scene. Restaurants did change a little bit in the way they plate but the content was more or less the same, if not worse. This strong discontentment I had with the food scene at the time gave me the final push I needed to let go of a much more secured life in Australia and follow my passion. It was not an easy decision; I tell you that much. But I guess my love for food did conquer all.
The thought of opening an eatery with neither previous experience in this industry nor any knowledge about Vietnam market at the time made zero sense to me. Thus, I did what any sensible and desperate dreamer did: finding a job, any job in the kitchen of a restaurant that vibes with me. After some seemingly desperate searches, my luck led me to Anan Saigon. It was my encounter with Peter Cuong Franklin, the executive chef & owner of Anan Saigon, that reaffirms my faith that changes for the better is possible, even in the most traditional environment.
At Anan Saigon, I met Son, who soon later became my ‘partner in crime’. We are both food nerds, hence, share the same perspective and values in this field. He was the diamond in the rough and the knife I needed to shed my own path in the modern culinary world.
What motivated you to decide to launch The Other Place?
‘The Other Place’ literally translates to ‘Somewhere Else.’ It started off as a play of the words often said when diners arguing about where to eat. As our name suggests, at ‘The Other Place’ we serve ‘something different’. What we want to achieve here is to redefine ‘fusion’ food by serving it properly.
We spend almost all of our time in direct contact with food. When we began to look closer at Vietnam restaurant scene and what there was for food, one of the first things we thought of was ‘going to another place.’.
Many places are no longer able to keep the ‘traditional’ taste without them even realising it. ‘Modern’ places, at the time, put their focus on senselessly decorating their plates to be trendy while paying no attention to flavours and cooking things properly. Presentation only goes so far as presentation if your food is tasteless and delivers no emotion to customers. Overtime, we felt that since most of the market was uninspiring for diners, it motivated us to start doing something different by respecting diners through doing things innovatively and properly.
At ‘The Other Place’ we want to express our views on fusion cuisine. As far as we concern, ‘fusion’ is not an alien concept but actually the core of every single cuisine. Looking at the history of any food culture, cuisines grow and become more polished through interactions with others.
David Chang, a very reputable American-Korean chef, believes that Vietnamese cuisine is the pinnacle of fusion food. Our cuisine is a sophisticated harmony of influences from many different cultures from Chinese, French to Cambodian… To us, fusion is core and the key to the development and innovation of culinary arts world wide.
However, to do ‘fusion’ right in the modern world is like walking on a tight rope. We have to constantly research and test out recipes to find the sweet spots where cuisines could ‘meet’ while figuring out our own ‘gravity point’/ ‘philosophy’ in order to maintain the balance. No one can tell you where your balancing point is, the only way to find out is to keep on trying falls after falls.
You could say The Other Place is not our destination but a still-writing journal of us growing through traveling and researching via all means. We open this place simply because we want use the wisdom of traditional cuisines to cook modern dishes that speak for us, for our generation. And we want to do it properly.
We change the ‘focus’ of our menu every year – when we first opened, it was a Japanese-Italian crossover. Then, in 2019, we introduce a little bit of Vietnamese touches to our menu. By 2020, our regulars can see a big shift towards Vietnamese flavours in our new dishes. More than ever, we start to understand why great chefs always go back to the food of their root – flavours they grow up loving.
As young entrepreneurs, we face a lot of challenges opening and maintaining this restaurant. However, the joy we’ve got from being able to freely express ourselves through food is unimaginable. We now have the power to fully control the quality of the ingredients that come in and the food that come out of our kitchen. Maybe, we can make a difference after all.
How do you two complement each other?
Vicky: When I was working at Anan Saigon, I was just a kitchen-hand while Son was a deputy chef. Son brings the depth in technical knowledge to the table, while I’ve brought my fresh eyes and extensive knowledge in ingredients and food cultures. We make up for what each other lacks. A common thread we share is the obsession to understand the mechanics of everything that is going on in the kitchen.
Not only is the process and presentation as detailed as can be, each dish we conceptualize and implement is based on science. The combination of ingredients needs to make sense – we do not put anything on the plate for the sole purpose of decorating. Also, our recipes are always constantly reviewed to adapt to the seasons and when ingredients are most readily available to us.
Aside from the food, what are some other features of The Other Place we should know about?
We’ve devoted our full energy and effort to building the most complete experience for diners that come to The Other Place. The ‘millennial pink’ theme is dominated by a light grained paint to express a fresh feel yet full of character. The atmosphere in our restaurant always maintains an airy sense with natural light.
On the service side, our staffs can share all the details of each dish, how it is made and make excellent cocktail & wine pairing. We are so proud and thankful to have such a skilled, all-rounded team that share the same values with us. They are one of the reasons why we are so committed to being more and more successful so that we can facilitate their growth!
What are some of the takeaways that viewers of the BEFRS video can remember about the experience at The Other Place?
Viewers might think that our spring rolls are made from expensive foreign ingredients or simply appear in a huge serving. All we can say is that you will be in for a surprise! In this collaboration with BEFRS, you will instead see how collaborated Vietnamese food can get. We cannot wait to show viewers the full, detailed process of making the experience so that you understand the message and perspective of fusion that The Other Place has always wanted to convey.
Starting with the very local ingredients, we keep the flavours as ‘traditional’ as possible while applying a wide range of different techniques. The fusion element of the experience is when we enter the stage of presentation and serving. Here we ‘borrow’ Japanese Omakase style as the vessel to tell the story of Vietnamese spring rolls. Through each part of the experience, we hope to be able to bring a fun experience that’s compelling enough for viewers to try out themselves!