When Bobby Chinn smashed a plate over my head, I had to remind him what happened the last time the Americans tried to take on the Vietnamese,” says chef Nguyen Manh Hung.
And so the terms of the friendship were set; turbulent, fraught, disruptive.
“I was the only person who ever shouted back,” he continues. “And it got his attention, it surprised him. We fought, we got over it, we moved on.”
Hung, now 37, started working with Chinn back in 1999 at the Red Onion restaurant in Hanoi Towers. His memories of the following six years of service include recounts of tantrums and violent episodes that make the UK’s Gordon Ramsay seem mild-mannered.
“It was like being in prison,” adds Hung. “There were rules which had to be followed and standards which had to be met. He was a perfectionist. When something went wrong he would roll around on the floor crying and shouting and screaming. We had to replace the plastic bin on an almost daily basis after he kicked it to pieces. He’s a monster, but I love him like a brother, I learnt so much from him.”
Chickens, Pigs and Electronics
Born in Hanoi to parents who were mechanics, Hung describes his earliest memory of his attitude towards food.
“I didn’t want to eat meat,” he says. “We kept chickens and pigs and when they were killed for their meat I sulked and refused to speak for days on end.”
As one of four children in a working class family, Hung admits to rebelling “against everything” and was considered by his three sisters as being a demanding child for his refusal to eat meat.
Having despised his teachers throughout school, he left education aged just 12 years old, and spent the following years finding creative ways to make a living. “I kind of just kind of floated through life, but I knew I didn’t want to become wild; eventually I realised I wanted to go back to school.”
After short-circuiting a television by taking it apart with a knife and being fascinated by the mechanics of radios, Hung decided to pursue his interests in electronics. He took a job as a runner in a four-storey Korean restaurant to finance a course at Bach Khoa University of Technology, and dreamed of opening his own electrical shop after he had graduated.
But two years later, when the time came to turn that dream into a reality, Hung’s heart had already been sworn to a love of cooking, and so his path was chosen.
He trained in restaurants and hotels across the city, including the Hilton, Nikko, Sofitel and Horison, and eventually his culinary journey led to his appointment with Hanoi’s enfant terrible Bobby Chinn.
It’s 2007 and Hung is in a seafood restaurant on Nguyen Chi Phuong in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the first time he has seen one of the waitresses working there, and beckoning her over, he jokingly tells her he loves her.
“Within a month we were married,” he laughs.
Now a father of two, and still happily wed, Hung has made guest appearances on Discovery’s TLC channel, BBC Asia, and can currently be seen on VTV2 as a cooking instructor. With his new ‘fighting chicken’ restaurant An Lac recently opening on Trung Hoa, Hung has never taken the art of cooking so seriously.
“Anyone can be a cook,” he explains. “The same thing applies to musicians and artists, but only a gifted artist knows how to mix colours properly. Only a real musician knows how to structure a piece of music, how to use the right tones and the right layers. For me, cooking is the same. The flavours shouldn’t be over-powering, they should be subtle, a blend of things which work together to make something delicate, something unique.”
On this Sunday morning, Hung is dressed casually but street-cool and looks distracted by memories as he stirs his coffee, while staring across Trieu Viet Vuong. Whenever he rewards you with a smile, it’s light relief from the depths of his stories and the intense recollections of his time spent climbing the ranks of the kitchen, and what it took to get to the position he is in now.
In a role that is renowned for being heated and pressured, it’s no wonder that Hung’s dreams as an adult have begun to veer towards the desire for a peaceful life.
“I’d love to open an ice cream shop and bakery in Danang,” he says. “To breathe that fresh air, to live somewhere so quiet.”
Citing Vietnam’s epic national poem The Tale of Kieu as his inspiration, Hung lives by the same creed that brought him and his wife together.
“If you see an opportunity, you have to seize it. If you have a chance for happiness, you have to grasp it. But it has to be right — happiness and success are about doing the right thing at the right time. You cannot have one without the other.”