A New Zealand-born, Australian-trained Chef in Việt Nam
With his passion for travel and cooking, executive chef Shane Brierly has lived and cooked in Australia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, and now Việt Nam. Now at the five-star Lifestyle Resort Danang, (currently re-branding to Pullman) his specialty is “modern cuisine with Asian influences, contemporary Western menus and authentic Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.” His menus buck the trends of other luxury hotels in the country, and he’s serving up something completely new in Việt Nam: liquid nitrogen ice cream. He spoke with me about cuisine and life as an expat in Việt Nam.
What are the most popular dishes at your restaurant?
Liquid nitrogen ice-cream made at the table, hot-rock dishes steamed at the table on superheated river stones, steaks, and brick oven sourdough pizza. Most guests try all four over a stay.
Other top-selling “signature dishes” include Barramundi with tomato soya spring onion sauce, Pho Pizza, the Green curry chicken pizza. Our half-pound freshly ground beef chuck burger dressed with roasted shallots and garlic, Pho spices and Pho herbs, cheekily named “The Phoburger”, gets a lot of favourable comments and smiles.
Grain-fed Australian Angus beef steaks, brick-oven pizzas, pork and rosemary sausages …what challenges do you face acquiring ingredients for the non-Vietnamese specialties on the menu?
Surprisingly, not many. I check out what is available fresh and locally and write up my menus around that. Then I look at what fresh imports are available that fall within my quality specs and budget, and how popular they are with our demographic. I use these to supplement the local stuff.
We make most things in-house, which has been a learning curve for the team—and for me. I’ve learned a lot, and we’ve ended up with menus nobody else has. For example, we couldn’t get salt flakes, and after seeing a link on twitter posted by @travelfish, we started making our own from fresh, filtered local sea water.
We make our own curry puff pastry, Peking ducks, Thai curry paste, Jerk spices, all flavor bases, stocks, pastries, breads, chocolates, cakes, sourdough and more.
You’ve been experimenting with liquid nitrogen (LN2) in the kitchen. What’s special about ice cream made with LN2?
Liquid nitrogen ‘boils’ at -197 degrees C. It chills the dairy products so fast, there is no time for the lactose to crystallise. Fresh ice cream made at ice cream places can be nice, but when it goes in the freezer, the crystals grow making the ice cream ‘icy’ and not smooth. That’s why they use stabilisers, xanthan gums, and emulsifiers to keep it smooth. And preservatives so it (and you, eventually) won’t spoil or decompose.
Nitrogen ice cream doesn’t need thickeners or additives. It’s 100% natural. It freezes instantly and gets served immediately, so it’s the smoothest ice cream that it’s physically possible to make with dairy products.
Because of this, the flavours are clean, the texture creamy – and the process is spectacular to watch. You add everything right there in front of the guest, so you can make it more or less sweet, rich, thick, creamy – tailor it to the guest’s taste. We even do diabetic, vegan, or low fat ice cream.
What’s your biggest pet peeve in the kitchen?
Lack of heart, lack of care, lack of interest. Hygiene issues.
Inappropriate equipment. People who resist change, knowledge, community, respect for each other, or teamwork. Dishonesty.
Kitchen utensil you couldn’t live without?
A knife. A bloody sharp ten inch chef’s knife.
Could you talk a little about the state of gastronomy in Việt Nam? Is there a strong interest in taking cuisine in new directions or bringing foreign flavours to the table?
Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have a more vibrant food scene when it comes to non-classic Vietnamese foods of any sort. The larger populations, the expats and visitors offer more of a market for food variety to succeed.
Standard issue cuisines are common; International, Italian and Vietnamese. Or Chinese, French and Steakhouse. Or International, café and Vietnamese. Known concepts are welcomed, big prices paid, and the standard is often mediocre.
French, Italian, Seafood, Pizza, Steak & bars have good followings. The Indian place gets by, but they won’t be getting a new Mercedes anytime soon. Nobody goes to the Singapore place and the Thai one shut down.
We decided to lift the standard a few notches, do some new things, push the envelope. We’re into social media. We have a small expat community. We’ve created a niche that only we are filling, and we’ve created a demand by pricing reasonably, being friendly, approachable and a bit cheeky….irreverent in a way, and bucking the ‘five star snobbery’ that seems to be ‘classic’ in many ‘expensive’ hotels. Now people trust us, know we have a consistent product, and that they’ll be welcome, relaxed and smiling.
So yes, people are open, experimental and willing to support our insanity. We had to work hard to create that interest and that market. It didn’t exist, and we met some resistance at the start.
Now we’ve earned a reputation as one of the top players in F&B in the central region. Not over-hyped, but building solid relationships, having fun and giving the city some spark. People from Hanoi and HCMC have heard of us on Twitter, seen what we do, and drop in when they visit Danang.
Your favourite places and foods to eat?
I like local food. Fresh, honest stuff made from the heart. Street food, local restaurants, markets. I like to photograph it, eat it, blog it, learn it. I like going out to “good” restaurants too– not for price or decor – but food, made from the heart, fresh and tasty, with soul, character or individuality.
Love steaks too, but my favourite cuisine hands-down is Thai. I’d sell my soul to not be deprived of Thai food. Of course I cook it too, so I do hedge my bets.
What do you cook for yourself at home?
We take turns cooking. Vietnamese food, Thai food, some pasta, LOTS of spaghetti with Chiang Mai style Nam Prik Ong spicy Thai “Bolognaise” on top.
And we live in Asia, and with people like you reading my blog and forcing me to disclose local eats, I have to eat out at local places a lot. 😉 Maybe 4 nights a week eating out.
Most unusual ingredient you’ve worked with?
Well it depends on where you’re from and what you call unusual.
Australia: Witchetty grubs, possum, Kangaroo, crocodile, shovel-nosed ray, akudjura, Tasmanian pepperberry, beef tendon. And if you’re Asian, the cheeses get pretty weird and smelly.
Thailand: Smoked wasp larvae in the hive, Maeng Da water beetle, Maeng Da Talay (horseshoe crab), snake, frog, live baby shrimp, fried grasshoppers, dry-roasted crickets, flowers and leaves of an incredible variety, buffalo, thousand year eggs, dried prickly ash flower
Kazakhstan:Sturgeon fillet, horse meat, horse milk, fermented horse milk cheese, caviar, farm fresh cheese and dairy.
Vietnam: baby birds, frog, pigs ear, tu hai otter snout clams, tiger conch, iguana, many snail varieties, fresh jellyfish, baby eels, and HUGE awesome mussel scallop alien thingys that are really hard to google but prevalent everywhere in Danang. Oh – and amazing herbs like diếp cá and ngò gai.
I failed to answer that question appropriately. But I think the weirdest ingredients would be the processed trash and lazy food that is becoming mainstream in most of the modern world. They’re killing us but we still use them?!
Your greatest influences in the culinary world?
I love David Thompson’s work, knowledge and passion. Brad Ford, a great Western Australian chef who was a huge influence, Maurice Guillouet and Denis Dupart who taught me a lot as a young, disorganised chef.
Love the writing of Anthony Bourdain if not the food. I respect trailblazers like Rick Bayless, Morimoto, Heston, Charlie Trotter, Tetsuya, Neil Perry and Classical Masters like Thomas Keller and his ilk.
Any particular dishes you think can only be experienced in Việt Nam?
Mi Quang (Danang style noodle soup) with local herbs, Vietnamese coffee on a plastic chair for 33 cents, mussels and fresh local prawns on the beach, a bloody good banh mi for fifty cents.
Duck egg foetuses at 2 am on the street corner, while sharing laughter, conversation and toasts with rice wine with locals – all of you talking, understanding, but not speaking each other’s languages.
You can export Vietnamese food or make it overseas, but not the honesty, vibrancy or ambience that gives it soul here. But I’ve had better Pho in Sydney than any of the 30 different places I’ve tried it in Vietnam.
What were your first impressions of Vietnamese cuisine?
Hated it. I loved the ‘jump out and punch your face’ flavours of Thai cuisine and found Vietnamese bland, tasteless and rudimentary. Now that I’ve been here two years, I laugh about that. The flavours here are more ‘hidden’ compared to the bolder, brasher Thai food scene. Now I’m really enjoying it. Especially the freshness of everything, the herbs and greens, and some of the more unusual discoveries yet to be found.
Your biggest discovery in the Vietnamese flavour palette?
Well, I’m not up to Bun Mam or dog. I like exotic food, but both are off my lifetime list of Things to Try.
Diếp cá, an ivy-shaped leaf with a strong flavour, is a firm favourite. As are the astringent banana blossom (love it in salads), La Lot leaf, and Bun Bo Hue. Oh, and “Heo Xào Lăn” with ngổ điếc (rice paddy herb). OH. MY. GOD. Awesome.
One ingredient you couldn’t do without?
Do you offer cooking courses at the restaurant, for tourists who’d like to learn how to make the perfect spring roll?
Sure. Our course includes cooking five dishes for two hours with 5 chefs, a full-length Resort apron, my 32 page colour paperback cookbook and e-book, eating all the food with a partner, and a glass of wine or beer for the poor exhausted, hungry, overworked student. The classes are very popular; they’re really hands-on and loads of fun.
Biggest challenge for you as an expat living in Việt Nam?
Best thing about living in Việt Nam?
The people. Amazing. Danang people are warm, honest, sincere and welcoming. This is the most awesome place in the world because of Danang people. I feel more welcome and at home here than where I’m from.
One dish no visitor to Việt Nam should miss?
A GOOD Bun Bo or an AWESOME Banh Mi, a Vietnamese Coffee, grilled Tu Hài clams with shallot, garlic & spring onion, Stingray grilled in La Lot leaf, my Mi Quang. Tu Hài
Clams with Da Nang Saté Sauce
Lifestyle Resort Da Nang features several places to eat and drink. Chef Shane oversees the business and shenanigans at all of them. The Lobby Bar’s windows open onto the infinity pool and a view of the ocean. At Senses Restaurant, his team can host a sit down function for up to 400 guests or put on cocktails for up to 700. At the Beach Bar and Restaurant, guests can linger over ‘The World’s largest cocktail’ while listening to the house band. These ginormous cocktails are also available (along with a fantastic menu) at Lello, the newly opened beach lounge right out on the sand.
Those who follow @LifestyleDanangon Twitter can take advantage of frequent specials. Best of all, followers are welcome to bring guests, friends, or family to share the offer.
Lifestyle Resort Da Nang
Truong Sa Street, Ngu Hanh Son District
Da Nang City, Vietnam
Tel. 084 0511 3958888
Note: Lifestyle Resort Danang is in the process of re-branding, and will be re-badged as Pullman Resort Danang within the next 6 weeks. Menus and food will be keeping the same focus.
Where to find Chef Shane online:
His menus on Scribd http://www.scribd.com/chefshane
Ezine Articles: http://ezinearticles.com/?expert=Shane_Brierly
All photos used with permission from Chef Shane.