Dining with Stars

The nation’s hospitality industry not only stood up and took notice, but was stunned into silence when InterContinental Danang announced at the end of last year it had snapped up Michelin Star chef Michel Roux OBE to front their flagship restaurant La Maison 1888.


Arguably the world’s best chef, the Frenchman’s protégées include Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White — these are just two of the names who have excelled under his wing.


Signing up for a figure rumoured to be in the region of US$200,000 (VND4.2 billion), his team of overseas chefs alone are believed to be pulling in a monthly wage packet of over VND200 million, a substantial sum in a country where the average salary is just VND2 million.


Many local critics think it is a huge faux pas to bring Roux to Danang, the nation’s third-largest city, rather than Saigon or Hanoi. Will, they ask, anyone go that far just to enjoy food served by a French legend?


A Gastronomic Coup?

However, spokesperson Hoang Thuy Trang insists the resort is merely taking a page from the same blueprint Roux used when he kickstarted his British culinary revolution.


“To explain the location we can look back to the story of the Waterside Inn,” she explains. “When Michel Roux opened his restaurant in Bray, 40km from London in a little village, people still came to visit the award-winning restaurant. So he expects the same thing with La Maison 1888. Yes, the location is important, but it does not have to be in a vibrant town with many people. La Maison 1888’s location is beautiful and unique. So… as long as we can offer a truly special gastronomic experience, people will come to visit and see what we have to offer.”


Procuring Roux’s undeniable talents was more than an accomplishment — in football terms it is like Danang FC signing Barcelona genius Lionel Messi. However, the resort did have an ace to play after they had earlier snapped up Food and Beverage director Christian Fumado and restaurant manager Matteo Portioli, who both worked under Roux at the Waterside Inn.


Coincidence, or a pre-emptive strike which worked a treat.


“Mr. Roux knows and trusts the people that he is going to work with,” adds Trang. “It is always a good start for any partnership. And also, the brand name of InterContinental and the resort itself is another reason for him to join us. We are very excited and also honoured to have [him] with us.”


So, is Vietnam ready for the equivalent of a Michelin Star restaurant? The resort team says ‘yes we can’. And Trang scoffs at suggestions that millionaire Roux is in Danang for an easy payday.


“We will not try to achieve the star-equivalent restaurant right away,” she says. “It will take time and a lot of effort. We will not use luxurious ingredients, but the freshest ones available. Michel Roux and his team will provide training to a team of young and enthusiastic Vietnamese staff to guide them how to cook, taste and what to look for in a fine dining atmosphere. We cannot confirm the wage of Michel Roux. We can, however, confirm that it was not about the money. Mr. Roux is looking for a new challenge in his career.”


French Trained, English Famed

Following his brother Albert into becoming a pastry chef, Roux arrived in England at the age of 27 to open their first restaurant, Le Gavroche on Lower Sloane Street. Already with a reputation in tow — Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner attended the launch — in 1972 they followed up on their first venture with the inauguration of The Waterside Inn.


Two years later when Michelin stars were first awarded in the UK, Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn were both among those restaurants to win a star, and when a number of establishments won two Michelin stars for the first time in 1977, both Roux restaurants were in the mix. This was followed by three-star ratings in the 1980s. Together the brothers have been described as the “godfathers of modern restaurant cuisine in the UK”. And with an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) to his name, quite an achievement for a Frenchman in a country that has a love-hate relationship with their Gallic neighbour, the younger Roux is a regular face on British television.


But the past is past and the three-starred Michelin chef can’t wait to get his hands dirty with his new ‘baby’ in Danang. He admits he loves Vietnam and feels that people are drawn to this country.


“Vietnam will attract so many people, who will come to this country and this part of the world,” he says. “Everyone in the international community just loves their time here. Vietnam has a young population and there are exciting times ahead. And as for the food, wow, I would say it is my cup of tea. Healthy, light and fresh — pho broth and noodles is magnifique.”


In La Maison 1888, Roux not only wants to create the best restaurant in Vietnam, but he wants to train young Vietnamese chefs to be the best in the country and later Asia. He admits teaching young people requires one thing — patience.


“I want my chefs to be like a sponge,” says Roux, who started his culinary journey in France at the tender age of 14. “I will teach them how to approach the job. I love to travel and when I arrive, I go straight to the market as I want to know what the local people eat. My inspiration to cook comes from the market. I think cooking is a performance. The kitchen is the heartbeat, the front is the theatre.”


He scoffs at the mere suggestion his cuisine is classical French, instead insisting it is modern and relaxed. Food, he stresses, is meant to be enjoyed — his restaurants not only have a reputation for high standards but a relaxed ambience.


Having sold millions of copies of his 12 cookbooks, with a 13th on the go, Roux insists it is all about one thing. “I do this for the people; food is for the people. Poor, working class, wealthy, very wealthy — I cook for all people.”

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