Young chef Nguyễn Phương Hải is pictured with Vietnamnese bún thang (noodle soup with threads of chicken, pork rolls, mushrooms and dried turnip). Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Phương Hải
By Vương Bạch Liên
I first met Nguyễn Phương Hải in Hà Nội a month ago when he was holding a class to teach people how to make bánh chưng (square sticky rice cake). The free class attracted a lot of people of all ages who were eager to make their very first bánh chưng.
The traditional cake is important during Tết (Lunar New Year) and in Vietnamese people’s culture, but in the midst of a modern and busy life, many families do not take the time to make bánh chưng at home and instead choose to buy them to save time.
With his lessons, the 43 year-old chef wants to encourage his students to preserve this beautiful tradition.
Hải is widely known across Việt Nam for his cooking skills and knowledge of traditional cuisine in Hà Nội.
He was a teacher at Hoa Sữa School and a culinary expert at several well-known restaurants in the capital.
Over the last ten years, he has featured on national and international television cooking shows, including a piece aired on CNN. During one of his shows he shared how to make chả cá (grilled fish), bún chả (grilled pork) and nem (fried spring rolls) on Germany’s DW channel, and on others he has demonstrated techniques from the country's three regions on South Korea’s KBS.
Seeing the flavour of many Vietnamese traditional dishes being modified, Hải has tried hard to preserve them.
“Nowadays, when local people cook, they use different and less ingredients, so the flavour of the dishes change. They are different from the ones I enjoyed during my childhood. It’s been a long time since I ate bún chả outside. Now I only eat bún chả cooked by my mother, as I can find again its original flavour," he said.
Chef Hải holds a free class to teach people how to make bánh chưng (square sticky rice cake) at Meizan Cooking and Baking Demo Centre in Hà Nội. VNS Photo Vương Bạch Liên
Long family tradition
Whenever he talks about his affinity for food, Hải often starts with a story about his grandmother. “My family has lived in Hà Nội for eight generations. My grandmother was among the first students at the prestigious Đồng Khánh School, which was once the only secondary school for girls in the north of the country. She was born in Hà Nội, so she was an excellent cook.”
He lived with her for most of his childhood. He learned from her meticulous culinary skills to cook, from simple daily meals to sophisticated wedding and business parties. He also learned how to make European and Asian dishes. He started to study to become a professional chef at the age of 18.
Besides learning from his grandmother and mother, he also learnt from other culinary experts including Vịnh, the owner of the Gia Trịnh cake shop on Lý Nam Đế Street, and Phạm Thị Vy and Xuân Trinh, the co-founders of Hoa Sữa School, who devoted their lives to the preservation of Hà Nội's gastronomy.
Thanks to his schooling, he started to restore several traditional dishes, inviting his family members to taste first. He has several cooking secrets for many dishes which had nearly disappeared such as chả gà nướng lá dâu (roasted chicken thighs with strawberry sauce), nem mực nướng xốt tương ô mai (grilled jellyfish and dried-fruit sauce), and chạo bò (grilled beef).
Some years ago, he successfully published a cookbook presenting his 36 recipes for traditional dishes from Hà Nội.
A month ago, to promote his delicious traditional Hà Nội dishes, he launched a vlog on Youtube named Bếp Nhà Cháu (Cuisine of My Family) to teach people how to make traditional Hanoian dishes.
The vlog now has nearly 20 000 followers and not only from Việt Nam but also from the US, France and Japan. Many of his viewers have thanked him for the videos, saying he has reminded them of their beautiful childhoods in Việt Nam.
But Hải wants to do more. In March, he will take part in the Cơm Có Thịt (Only Rice is not Enough) charity event by holding new classes to teach people how to make traditional dishes at a cooking centre in Hà Nội, and all the earnings will be donated to children in mountainous regions to improve their diets. VNS
Mọc Vân Ám (Pork ball in jelly), a traditional dish cooked by Hải. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Phương Hải