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Chef sticks to tradition as he innovates

Update: November, 23/2014 - 22:51

French chef Didier Corlou will prepare a 6-course dinner next Friday as part of the sixth Les Aromes Festival, the country's most prestigious culinary event. Corlou, a Master Chef from France and a former chef with the Sofitel Legend Metropole Ha Noi, chose to settle down in the Vietnamese capital, where he creates new tastes by mixing French and Vietnamese ingredients. He speaks with Vuong Bach Lien about his life in Viet Nam and his love for Vietnamese food.

Inner Sanctum: You have lived in Viet Nam for 20 years. Do you speak Vietnamese?

I speak very little. I still make a lot of mistakes when I speak. And I prefer not. Some other foreigners speak Vietnamese, but with bad accent, and finally they find themselves in the taxi but on the other side of the street from where they want to go.

However, I can understand when others speak, I can count and I can go to the market.

Inner Sanctum: So you have no problem negotiating prices at the market?

I go to the market very often, but I normally don't bargain with sellers. It's not in my culture. And although I have lived in Viet Nam a long time, I haven't gotten used to it.

When I want to buy a lot of goods, I take a small amount of things and come back to show them to my Vietnamese wife that Imarried 20 years ago. Then she will go to the market to buy them. She will negotiate the price.

Inner Sanctum: What are your favourite Vietnamese dishes?

I like many things, but one of my favourites is pho. I could eat it all day. For me gastronomy doesn't necessarily mean the foie gras.

Being able to make a good pho, it's ideal. It's not easy to make it. In our family, we make pho on weekends.

I also love eating banh cuon. It's delicious when the rice is fresh, and when we have a good nuoc mam (fish sauce).

Inner Sanctum: It seems to me that not many foreigners enjoy the strong smell of nuoc mam. Why do you love it?

They don't like because they don't know how to use it. Nuoc mam is much better when we eat it uncooked. It's true that it has a strong smell when it is cooked.

That's also the case for oysters. When they're not good and they're cooked, they can smell very bad.

Inner Sanctum: Do you eat street food often?

Yes, I love to. I often go to eat bun bo Hue on Quang Trung near the Viet Nam Airlines office. I used to go to a street resto on Cua Bac to eat eel.

I also love eating in with my family. The rice, the broth, the bowl and the chopsticks in a Vietnamese meal are exotic, and the tradition of sharing food pleases me a lot.

What makes Vietnamese cuisine so good is its simplicity, being combined with fresh herbs.

Inner Sanctum: If traditional Vietnamese cuisine is good, why do you want to modify the traditional recipes?

It is important to create, to bring new things and new tastes to the table. Look at fashion - it changes very often. We all want to try new food.

I'm man of the world, so I combine global flavours with local cooking culture. For example, we can make nem with sea food - why not? And we can eat banh cuon with crab and mushroom, and not necessarily pork, because some people cannot eat pork.

I create new flavours, but I don't change the base of Vietnamese dishes. I am faithful to them. We should keep the traditions alive.

It took me several years to understand Vietnamese cuisine. My wife gives me a lot of advice regarding Vietnamese culture and traditions. If I had not met her, I probably would not have developed this desire to re-interpret Vietnamese cuisine, and I would not have written my books.

Inner Sanctum: What are your newest recipes?

I've made new recipes for pho with clams, and shrimp nem with mint inside. I also make spring rolls with grilled tofu, herbs, noodles and lemongrass. I've also made grilled pork with sesame.

Here it is my new Vietnamese cuisine collection for autumn.

Previously, I also created grilled duck foie gras with lemongrass, spring roll with truffles, banh cuon with caviar and salmon roes, crab cannelloni with sea urchin nectar, rock lobster in fish bladder, pork nougat with caramel, caramelised cream with young rice.

These creative dishes draw the inspiration from the tradition of French and Vietnamese cuisine, by combining with new ingredients: wild peppers and Phu Quoc peppers, bees pollen, ambrette seeds, nuoc mam salt flower, essential oils of Ha Noi as herbs.

Inner Sanctum: Is it difficult to create new flavours?

It depends on the time. There are moments when you can create and when you can't.

I can find inspiration when I see various spices and products in different regions in Viet Nam: in the streets of Ha Noi, on the beaches in Quy Nhon with fishermen, or at Ha Long Bay.

I have also spent many days in the northern mountain regions. That gives me a lot of ideas.

More recently, I spent some time in Si Ma Cai District in Lao Cai Province, located at the Chinese border. I went to the local market on the weekend and found a lot of interesting spices used by ethnic minorities people. Luckily, those areas are still unspoiled by tourists.

I also went to other northern regions, but I won't tell you where, to protect them.

Inner Sanctum: How do you think we can promote Vietnamese cuisine abroad?

Vietnamese has become more and more appreciated, thanks to traditional dishes. But we should create to keep the traditions alive.

People can get bored with the nem they've eaten their whole lives. They might want to try nem with new flavours. We could even make pho with salmon instead of beef or chicken. — VNS

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