Que Vinh Dang – Chef at Nhau
Chef Que Vinh Dang first became a well-known presence in the Hong Kong food scene a decade ago when he opened his first solo restaurant, TBLS, which inspired almost a cult following. He was then involved with Hong Kong’s first brew pub, followed by his second solo project, Quest.
Now, after a two-year hiatus, he’s back with Nhau, a restaurant that sees him go back to his cultural roots: Vietnamese. But it’s Vietnamese food with a difference – while staying faithful to the flavours, he playfully takes apart traditional dishes and presents them in unexpected ways.
So Chef Que, you’ve taken a break for two years but now you’re back, and, unexpectedly considering your training and previous restaurants, cooking Vietnamese food.
Yes, after I shut down Quest, I took a break, and started cooking this kind of food, and started loving these flavours. It’s not what I was trained to do nor what people expected me to do, but it’s what I want to do. Asian and especially Vietnamese cuisine is in my DNA. It’s been such a joy doing this concept, writing the menu and designing the look of the place.
We’re representing Vietnam without being generic – there doesn’t have to be Vietnamese hats on the walls, and it doesn’t have to be colonial cooking. At Nhau, there’s no connection with French food, but I’m approaching the food with the things I like about fine dining, adding fine dining details to the food.
Your background is extensively in fine dining, isn’t it?
Yes, I trained in pastries, then moved to fine dining, mainly classic French, new American, modern French and some Spanish, and then more modern molecular stuff.
And now Vietnamese, and an unexpected take on Vietnamese.
Yes, it’s a contemporary take on Vietnamese. I don’t like to do what people expect of me. They assumed that as a Vietnamese, I would cook Vietnamese. And now, people like pho and bahn mi – they single these things out as if that’s all that Vietnamese food is about. It got a bit annoying, I had to keep explaining that there is so much more to the cuisine. So I decided to just show them.
Can you give an example of the sort of dish you’re referring to?
I have a take on the Vietnamese sandwich, it’s a taco. But taco is Mexican, people say, and, yes, my dish looks like a taco but it is made from Vietnamese ingredients, rice flour, and BBQ pork, fresh herbs, pickled carrots and daikon, so I just call it a taco. The dish can also be made with Impossible meat; this has been very popular in our soft-opening phase.
I would say I am being authentic to the flavours of Vietnam; I’m not cooking traditional dishes, but it’s definitely Vietnamese, not any kind of fusion. These are the flavours I grew up with and I’ve experienced on my travels. The tacos are modelled after the Vietnamese sandwiches I grew up eating in Brooklyn.
I take the essence of a dish, take what I like about the dish, and roll with it.
This kind of creativity was surely part of the appeal of TBLS. TBLS was such a success, why did you close it?
We were booked three months in advance for three straight years. It was exhausting. TBLS started as somewhere I could just do my own thing – if I had an idea, it would come through on menu and there was no one to dilute my ideas. Diners really liked it, but then regulars couldn’t get a table, there was big pressure from new diners who had waited so long for a table – expectations were so high, was it worth the wait for them, I didn’t want to disappoint them. I pushed myself for new ideas and different things. The guests enjoyed it but it was hard, especially as I didn’t have consistent staff. The stress got to me. So I ended up shutting down a very profitable business.
So you found hiring staff a problem?
Yes, there were constant staff turnovers. There’s a big staff shortage problem in Hong Kong. Most don’t see it as a career, or something they really want to pursue. It’s a job that pays more than other ones if you don’t have a university education. We don’t get the best, most dedicated talent – they choose medicine or banking.
So after TBLS you entered into a partnership and opened a pub concept?
Yes, I partnered with some of my guests who had bar concept on Wyndham Street. They asked me what I would do with the space, and I said Hong Kong’s first brew pub. But it was difficult at the time, as we were too new and it was hard to find the right people. It was hard to find brewers. We did pretty well but after while, the majority shareholders started implementing what they thought they should do, so I stepped away as wasn’t really my concept any more.
And then it was Quest.
Yes, Quest was my own place again. It was supposed to be TBLS2.0, still with degustation menus, but with a better kitchen and better equipment, more toys to play with. We enjoyed the food a lot, and guests enjoyed it. But the spark I had with TBLS, I didn’t have with Quest – I constantly felt like I was meant to be proving something.
Towards the end I was cooking more Asian stuff, and I really loved it. So when I closed Quest and took a break, opening a Vietnamese restaurant was what I realised I wanted to do next.
And now you’ve done it, and it’s already looking like it will be a great success. All the best with it, Chef.
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