“I wanted to do something a bit more cool and funky,” he says of his recently opened Mexican restaurant, District Federal. “And I wanted it to be authentic. I see a synergy with Vietnam and Mexico. A lot of the ingredients [in the cooking] are the same and there’s that whole kind of family spirit in Mexico. You go to someone’s house and there’s like 100 people there, and food down the centre of the table. So there’s kind of a synergy with Vietnam. I wanted to get it right.”
His determination to do this meant hiring a chef from Mexico to come over to Vietnam. But getting there was quite a journey.
“First I advertised on Indeed,” says Peter. “We had about 200 chefs apply for the job out of Mexico. I asked everybody to apply in English — everybody applied in Spanish. I went back to about 100 people who applied for the job and asked them if they spoke English. They replied, ‘Si’ and after that, I heard nothing back.
Eventually Peter whittled down the applicants to six or seven chefs. Having done some Skype interviews, he booked a flight to Mexico City and rented an apartment for a few weeks. Then he invited the chefs to come up to the apartment and cook for him.
“I had a week of these guys coming up to the apartment with boxes every day,” laughs Peter. “From the outside it all looked a bit strange. But these guys cooked different dishes and whatever their speciality was.”
“I tried the food. I was looking for something that I thought would match what we were trying to do here, a bit more authentic.”
Eventually having checked out the markets, and taquerias of Mexico City, and having bought glasswear and fake skulls for the restaurant, Peter selected the chef, Louis.
“He’s been a chef for 25 years,” explains Peter. “He originally worked in Yangon for about a year — that was one of the reasons for choosing him as he had some exposure to working in an Asian environment and working away from home. I didn’t want someone coming out and saying after two weeks they’re homesick.”
Fortunately, says Peter, Louis came out to Vietnam and fitted straight in.
“He knew the corn we were working with,” he says. “It’s similar to the corn he used in Yangon. So he could do the whole nixtamalization process, a 10,000-year-old process used by the Aztecs to make masa de maíz, the dough used to create tortillas. That was the main thing; I wanted to create dishes that were authentic and fresh. I didn’t want to take anything out of a packet.”
He adds: “He’s able to make his own cheese, from unpasteurised milk, make his own crema, from the buttermilk. Every day we cook 20kg of dried corn to make the masa de maíz. It’s a 16-hour process overnight.”
“But that’s also been a work in progress. Every place where you make things, you have a different environment. Different things affect it like humidity.
“So, it’s taken us a little while to get to a product that we’re super happy with, where the tortilla doesn’t split, where the chips are not too thick, which they were at the start.”
He adds: “It’s been a super interesting journey.”
District Federal is at 84 Xuan Thuy, Q2, HCMC.
PHOTO BY NAM NGUYEN
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