Eats

The Vietnamese Chef Who Defies Odds to Build a Hospitality Empire

By Asyraf Naqiuddin

The Vietnamese Chef Who Defies Odds to Build a Hospitality Empire

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Ms Vy running a cooking demonstration during the recent Hoi An International Food Festival. Image: Hoi An International Food Festival

In conjunction with the recent International Food Festival in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam’s central coast, I caught up with festival chairman Trinh Diem Vy also known as Ms Vy (pronounced Vee), a 47-year-old Hoi An native who has published a cookbook, and runs a cooking school, a hotel and multiple restaurants in the city as well as Melbourne, Australia.

Find out how passion and perseverance leads to a successful career and how travelling is key in unlocking opportunities.

travel360: As a third generation cook, when was your first cooking experience?

Trinh Diem Vy: I grew up in the kitchen! My grandmother owns a restaurant at the Hoi An Central Market. My parents took after the business from 1980 to 1991. I was eight when I became a kitchen hand, which mostly involves washing the dishes after school hours. Breakfast preparations start as early as 5.30am and the restaurant runs until 4pm.

I love my job so much that I quit high school in 1986 without my parents’ consent. My father was furious when he found out I played truant for a month after my neighbour said goodbye to me while she was on her way to school.

I told him I was not performing in school … that I prefer to spend time in the kitchen, get more things done to expand the business. Growing up with five siblings, two of my sisters and myself doubled as hostesses, attracting people to dine at our restaurant. As the crowd grew, we prepared 500 meals a day and I would wash over 1,000 bowls daily. I loved every minute of it — the pressure, the heat, the noise in the kitchen, everything.

Did you go to any culinary school?

No. The people of Vietnam were still living with rations then. We hardly made any profit that our family only eat leftovers from the restaurant. Every month, Vietnam has two days off to observe the full moon and new moon. From 1980 to 1986, our family would help ourselves to a tiny serving of rice, one duck egg with a lot of fish sauce and cabbage during those two days. That’s how we survived.

How did your career kick off?

When I got married in 1991, my parents dropped a bombshell saying they want to retire because the only reason they ran the restaurant was to support us. So, I asked if they can pass down items from the business like tables and chairs. A year later, I opened my first restaurant, Mermaid.

Six months into my business, the country’s policy change saw foreign tourists coming to Hoi An in droves. With just one guest house (developed and known today as Hoi An Historic Hotel) with eight rooms in operation, Mermaid became a hit because it was the only restaurant in town!

We didn’t have a proper menu. I hardly knew English language then, so most of the time, we would just put the dishes on display and the patrons would pick their favourite. By 1993, the 40 tables weren’t enough and I started thinking about expanding. Fast forward to 1998, I opened my second restaurant White Lantern that mainly serves tour groups.

When did the cooking school come into play?

I learn a lot of things from tourists despite the language barrier. Other than questions about culture and the people, I found myself like a broken record, sharing recipes to curious patrons. Thus, Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School was opened in 1996. I personally taught 20 students a day in the first year. Today, the school welcomes at least 100 participants daily.

Visitors learn how to create Vietnamese cuisine at Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School.

With that many kitchens to run, did it ever get overwhelming?

The distance between each establishment isn’t big, so I just run around!

Does travelling inspire you?

My first trip outside of Vietnam was an eye-opener. Tourists who became friends suggested that I serve cakes and coffee in Hoi An. I didn’t focus on the idea until 1998 when a friend invited me to Melbourne, Australia.

The trip taught me that people are willing to spend for good food. A French couple who owns a bakery in Paris but residing in Hue – Pascal and Evelyn – helped train my staff for six months. By 2002, I opened a patisserie, The Cargo Club, that also serves Western dishes.

Since there were no direct flights to Hoi An then, visitors usually start from northern Vietnam and make their way to the south. By the time they get to Hoi An, some of them, especially Westerners, start to crave for something close to home – that’s how Cargo gained its popularity.

Ms Vy at a lounge area of her hotel, Maison Vy, in Hoi An. Image: Taste Vietnam

Any advice for aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs?

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Always stand up for yourself and get a clear vision of what you want to do.

For details about Ms Vy’s hospitality establishments, visit tastevietnam.asia.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Da Nang from various destinations. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.

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About the Author

Asyraf Naqiuddin

Having served various desks at Malaysia's oldest daily, Asyraf Naqiuddin believes there’s a story anywhere you turn that could inspire readers around the world. With a penchant for high-powered motorcycles, he hopes to one day get back in the saddle and cover the globe on two wheels.

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