Star chefs on the Mekong

Two celebrity chefs re­veal the ups and downs of cook­ing on the Mekong

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - |

Cook­ing along the Mekong River and on the Mekong Delta can be chal­leng­ing for even the best chefs. Menus need to be flex­i­ble and kitchen crew sure-footed as they deal with snug gal­leys, daily mar­ket vis­its and the oc­ca­sional per­nick­ety pas­sen­ger.

With con­ven­tional res­tau­rants be­side the wa­ter­ways few and far be­tween, and sup­ply lines un­pre­dictable, on­board cui­sine takes on a spe­cial res­o­nance, a fact not lost on Thai cui­sine spe­cial­ist David Thomp­son, con­sult­ing chef for the ul­tra-chic, 20-suite Aqua Mekong, launched last year, and Syd­ney restau­ra­teur, chef and tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Luke Nguyen, hands-on Asia am­bas­sador for Aus­tralian op­er­a­tor APT.

Nguyen not only leads two cruises on the Mekong ev­ery sea­son, com­menc­ing in Ho Chi Minh City with a visit to his cook­ing school Grain Stu­dio, but he de­signs menus and works with the ex­ec­u­tive chef to train the kitchen team on board RV AmaLo­tus. He is also over­see­ing menus for the com­pany’s bou­tique-style RV Sa­matha, which will launch in Myan­mar in Jan­uary.

Presently in Viet­nam work­ing on a new SBS tele­vi­sion se­ries ex­plor­ing South­east Asia’s street cui­sine, Nguyen says he “loves the work” he does with fam­ily-owned APT and meet­ing food lovers in per­son “rather than through a cook­book or tele­vi­sion screen”.

In Ho Chi Minh City, he is given carte blanche by APT, so pas­sen­gers can ex­pect a taste of the real Viet­nam and its lively street food when they ven­ture into Dis­trict 1, where Nguyen’s par­ents grew up, to meet his ex­tended fam­ily. “I want to help peo­ple un­der­stand more of the cul­ture,” Nguyen tells me, “while also de­mys­ti­fy­ing Viet­namese food.”

He ad­mits there are re­stric­tions to cook­ing aboard a river cruiser. “A ship’s kitchen is hot and tight,” he says, “and at ev­ery port, af­ter pas­sen­gers dis­em­bark, chefs must go ashore to the mar­kets to source pro­duce. You never know what you’re go­ing to find … so while menus are de­signed in ad­vance they must be flex­i­ble not only be­cause sup­ply is un­pre­dictable but so are pas­sen­ger pref­er­ences. We have a great team, they live on board and work so hard pre­par­ing three meals a day, but seem to be al­ways smil­ing and I love any op­por­tu­nity to work with them.”

At the mo­ment Nguyen is spend­ing al­most half the year in Viet­nam and in the fu­ture hopes to ex­pand his Grain Stu­dio school to in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion.

As a culi­nary am­bas­sador for Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions, the lux­ury river cruise com­pany launched on the Ama­zon by Francesco Galli Zu­garo in 2008, Thomp­son spends sev­eral weeks and then a full month on board each sea­son, plan­ning the daily chang­ing menus fea­tured on Aqua Mekong’s cruises, from three to seven days, be­tween Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam. “The real chal­lenge is cater­ing to a di­ver­sity of ex­pec­ta­tions and tastes,” he says, adding that he wasn’t pre­pared for the myr­iad culi­nary predilec­tions of pas­sen­gers.

“Some­times I would send out a dish that I thought wasn’t very spicy at all but would send pas­sen­gers run­ning from the din­ing room gasp­ing,” he laughs. “Our ini­tial menus were quite rigid but we quickly learned we had to be flex­i­ble; some­times in­gre­di­ents are not avail­able … and we need to re­spond on the spot to re­quests.

“We can al­ways pull some­thing out of the hat … I have been known to cook a risotto, a sour orange curry and a steak all at once while stand­ing on one leg. It’s all about strik­ing a happy bal­ance, which is why we have pizza day … guests don’t want to be bom­barded with restau­ran­tqual­ity food at ev­ery meal.”

On Aqua Mekong, lun­cheon menus are light, fea­tur­ing dishes such as crab fried rice, pho soup or laksa noo­dles, with a more ex­ten­sive choice at din­ner. Lo­cal seafood is prom­i­nent and most dishes have a South­east Asian fo­cus but there are also Western op­tions. On the lat­est menu you’ll find caramelised co­conut with pep­per on pineap­ple with co­rian­der, and Kam­pot mud crab with hot basil, chilli and pep­per­corns, but also less-spicy op­tions such as river prawns braised with white wine and herbs, and pea and pro­sciutto risotto.

Thomp­son cred­its Aqua Mekong head chef Adrian Broadhead with the qual­ity of the food. “He’s at the coal face; I flut­ter in and out … th­ese days our menus walk a fine line … of­fer­ing flavour and au­then­tic­ity while hav­ing the broad­est pos­si­ble ap­peal. We have to re­mem­ber pas­sen­gers are not just here for the food … if you don’t ac­cept that you are bound for tur­bu­lent times in the kitchen.”

He adds that many pas­sen­gers tend to group South­east Asian food into one fam­ily and they may not al­ways dis­cern huge dis­tinc­tions. But he also ad­mits there are vast dif­fer­ences, while con­fess­ing, un­sur­pris­ingly, a pref­er­ence for Thai. Why? Be­cause while many dishes may be com­pli­cated — Thomp­son’s best-sell­ing Thai Food has had many an am­a­teur cook ready to throw them­selves on to a co­conut husker — he says you won’t find “a clut­ter or ca­coph­ony of tastes, rather a rounded sym­phony of flavours”.

Nev­er­the­less nom ban chok, or Cam­bo­dian noo­dles, is a favourite dish of Thomp­son’s and snake­head fish a pre­ferred in­gre­di­ent. “It has a sin­is­ter name but a won­der­ful flavour, rather like Mur­ray cod.”

On RV AmaLo­tus cruises, some of Nguyen’s most pop­u­lar dishes in­clude river prawns coated with green rice flakes and then crisp fried; and pork ribs slow braised in young co­conut juice, star anise and cas­sia bark.

He says pas­sen­gers join­ing APT’s new RV Sa­matha in Myan­mar can look for­ward to the likes of pick­led tea-leaf salad; steamed turmeric fish in ba­nana leaf; tomato chilli prawn curry; and popiah spring rolls with wok-tossed veg­eta­bles.

Clock­wise from main, SBS pre­sen­ter, restau­ra­teur and APT am­bas­sador Luke Nguyen; Mekong mar­ket, Viet­nam; Aqua Mekong; Thai cui­sine spe­cial­ist David Thomp­son

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