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