It took some convincing but Mark agreed to leave behind his life in the US and move 13,976km across the world. “To cook American BBQ for Vietnamese people,” I can imagine him justifying his decision to his friends back home while they raised their eyebrows in confusion.
We had the idea and we had another partner on board, Albin. The three wise men. The three little pigs. You can choose. “We are bringing American BBQ to Vietnamese people. You know, making it… accessible.” But we were far from knowing how we were going to pull it off. In a country without the right equipment, tools or ingredients we were just going to have to get creative. One thing was paramount: we could not compromise on authenticity or quality. We felt like pioneers. Like Neil Armstrong taking the first steps onto the moon, the stars in our eyes, but first having to improvise a ladder from leftover shuttle parts and velcro straps.
We got to planning. We researched smokers for months, and finally had an engine builder put one together for us from barrels we found in District 10. As the first cuts were made into the steel and the shrill scream of the grinder rang into our ears, we stood back in awe. Partly from the beauty of the flying sparks showering the alley, but mostly because there was a really hot girl, braless, standing in the adjacent doorway looking on. We did out best to look manly.
I drove to District 12 and picked up a hundred or so kilos of fire brick and teetered my way back downtown, balancing the precarious load on the back of the bike. We trawled through Alibaba and called dozens of wood suppliers to find out what was available to smoke with. Finally we narrowed it down to a handful of available woods and blind tested on my rooftop. Each time a new smoking wood was added to the Weber, we stood over it breathing it in and analysing it like smoke connoisseurs. “This Eucalyptus wood has notes of menthol and burning tires, a lingering hint of vanilla and dead gecko.” The Eucalyptus got scrapped. We did our first test on the new smoker in the rubble of the construction site and handed out leftovers to our inquisitive neighbours. They liked it.
We made sauces. A lot of sauces. So many sauces my kitchen cupboard was filled with little else. We spent most days in my kitchen experimenting with different techniques and flavours. Many times there was that perfect moment after the first taste. Just that quick acknowledgement in the eyes that we’d found it. We faced great challenges with the unavailability of key ingredients, which forced us to innovate and seek alternative options. And this approach opened a whole new world to us. Everything had to be just so, and when we couldn’t find a vital piece of the puzzle, we regrouped and started at it again from scratch. We dug deep into the field of food chemistry and cast aside traditional conventions in favour of alternative solutions. Bit by bit our menu came together.
Albin set about the restaurant design. Our approach was to make it homely and unpretentious. A place welcoming and casual, and embracing the eating culture of Vietnam. Dining in Vietnam is a social experience, and should not be too dependant on formal etiquette. We researched picnic tables and sketched our own style. We found a woodworking shop willing to take on our project and make all our odds and ends. We handmade our lights. We spent more time that I’d care to admit looking at pictures of pigs online to find just the right ones for our walls. Anyone looking up our google search history at the time may have had quite the shock. “Pig ass image.” “Handsome male pig.” “Maria Ozawa.”
So we slowly assembled the velcro straps and leftover shuttle parts and built our ladder. And as we prepared to take the final step into the unknown, not sure if the ground was solid or made of delicious moon cheese beneath us, we crossed our fingers and held our breath.
“This is one small step for man, one giant feast for mankind.”
– Quán Ụt Ụt