ChômChôm: Interview with Chef Peter Franklin

Private kitchens have been a firm fixture in Hong Kong for many years. Their exclusivity and the dedication of private chefs have beguiled local palates for decades. A plethora of different cuisines are now being explored, focusing on bringing a more refined and personal dining experience. Asian Palate speaks to Chef Peter Franklin, who is one of these pioneers, bringing Vietnamese food to Hong Kong with the opening of his restaurant ChômChôm in Central.


Previously a banker with Morgan Stanley and AIA, Mr. Franklin has dedicated himself to a restaurant that brings traditional Vietnamese tastes from its many varied provinces to Hong Kong. During the interview, he relates to us his experience in Hanoi, watching the pho being prepared before the sun rose at 4:30am, a time-honoured tradition for the past 50 or so years.


Mr. Franklin discusses issues such as the challenges of cooking for different tastes and expectations in Hong Kong’s mixed clientele, as well as the challenges of combining modern cooking techniques for classical Vietnamese dishes.


AP: Asian Palate; PF: Peter Franklin


AP: What inspired you to open and become chef at a private kitchen in Hong Kong, with your strong financial services background in Morgan Stanley and AIA?


PF: I was born in a small village outside of Dalat in south central Vietnam and educated primarily in the United States. After a successful career in banking I decided to follow my passion in the culinary arts by taking a sabbatical from banking to attend Le Cordon Blue cooking school. After graduating from the prestigious Cordon Bleu with a Grand Diplôme de Cuisine and Patisserie, I was fortunate to receive the opportunity to train and work at some of the finest restaurants including Michelin-starred Caprice in Hong Kong, Alinea and Next in Chicago, Nahm in Bangkok and La Verticale and Madame Hien in Hanoi, Vietnam.


Inspired by my mother’s small noodle shop in Dalat in central Vietnam and extensive travel experiences in Asia, I decided to open ChômChôm in Hong Kong to share the diverse flavors of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisine.


AP: Are there any particular challenges to cooking Vietnamese cuisine in Hong Kong?


PF: Since the Vietnamese population is Hong Kong is relatively small and there are few shops selling products from Vietnam, I find that one of the biggest challenges to cooking Vietnamese cuisine in this city is sourcing high quality and authentic ingredients. I took me about 6 months to source some of the key ingredients such as fish sauce, rice paper and fresh herbs required to create the authentic flavors of our dishes.


AP: Hong Kong has a strong private kitchen culture, cooking a wide variety of cuisine from Sichuan to southern French. How does Chom Chom fit into this?


PF: I think that the light, healthy and delicate flavors of Vietnamese cuisine fits in very well in a sophisticated and international dining scene such as Hong Kong. Even though there are numerous restaurants offering Vietnamese and South East Asian cuisine in Hong Kong, few offer high quality food. At ChômChôm we are trying to elevate the standard of Vietnamese cuisine by offering something different from the usual low quality food that Hong Kong people are accustomed to.


AP: How popular do you think Vietnamese food is in Hong Kong vs other Asian countries?


PF: Vietnamese food is very popular in Hong Kong as demonstrated by the large number of shops and restaurants offering Vietnamese food. Unfortunatley, the quality is often poor and the cuisine is perceived as low quality compared to say Chinese or Japanese. At ChômChôm we hope to change this perception.


AP: Vietnam has many different seasonal specialties, such as mulberries, Tonkin jasmine and soan dao . During the summer, ant eggs are also incorporated into soup and rice toppings in Laos. Might you be introducing these kinds of Vietnamese specialties to Hong Kong?


PF: We are very fortunate to be located near the Graham Street Central market and I often incorporate many seasonal fruits, vegetable and other fresh products that are available at the market in our dishes. In the future, I would love to be able to source and include more seasonal specialties from Vietnam in our dishes. For example, the beautiful green color seasonal young rice from Hanoi is one of my favorite ingredients and I plan to create a young rice ice cream and also include this unique rice in our savory dishes.


AP: Dishes such as pho bo and goi cuon have been popularised in the West as quick take away meals. Do you agree that these dishes are the iconic dishes for Vietnam? Are there others?


PF: I believe that pho is an iconic national dish and an original Vietnamese creation that combines local as well as foreign culinary influences. I was intially hesitant to create the dish in Hong Kong since pho has so much meaning for the Vietnamese people. Due to the millennium of Chinese rule and nearly a century of French colonialism, Vietnamese language, art, culture and cuisine have been profoundly influenced by China and France. The Vietnamese took on inspiration with foreign ingredients such as beef, noodles, ginger and star anise; however, they were adept at customizing the dishes by adding nuoc mam (fish sauce) and fresh herbs and vegetables, the defining characteristics of the local cuisine. Vietnam’s cultural traditions are distinct from South East Asian culture due to the strong Chinese influence. For example, similar to China, Vietnam is the only country in the region to use chopsticks as the daily utensil. At the same time, the use of fish sauce, a basic flavor enhancer, rather than soy sauce makes the taste of Vietnamese dishes such as Pho distinct from Chinese cuisine.


Pho bo , or pho beef noodle soup, is a deceptively simple yet complex dish that is considered the national dish of Vietnam. The pho at ChômChôm is completely different from other restaurants in Hong Kong. Unlike like other pho shops, we do not use MSG. Instead, the broth is enhanced with fresh herbs, ginger, shallots and a light touch of spice including Saigon cinnamon and star anise. Originating from Hanoi in the north of Vietnam about 100 years ago, pho is eaten in Vietnam around the clock. Pho Ga or chicken pho is less common than the beef version. However, it is a simple, light and healthy dish that can be eaten almost every day. Pho is eaten mostly in small shops and restaurants since most Vietnamese do not cook it at home due to the long and laborious preparation required to make the rich beef broth. Beef bones and sometimes ox tail bones with rich marrow must be simmered slowly for at least seven to eight hours and even overnight to extract the full flavor and to achieve a clear broth. Along with pho , cha gio (crispy spring rolls), goi cuon (fresh summer rolls) and banh mi baguette sandwiches are some of the iconic Vietnamese national dishes.


AP: Vietnamese cuisine is very different in the north, centre and south. In preparing dishes like pho , which kind of regional cooking style do you choose to represent these dishes?


PF: Of all the regional variations, one of my favorite is Hue cuisine from the central region. Our current dinner menu includes banh beo or steam rice cakes with shrimps, pork cracking and spring onion oil. It’s a simple, delicious dish and is one of my favorite dishes.


In preparing the pho dish, I am especially indebted to the owners of a small, traditional pho shop in the Old Quarter of Hanoi who allowed me to watch and learn about the traditional method of making pho using charcoal on an open fire which is a dying art that can only be found in Hanoi these days. I arrived each day before the sun rose at 4:30am to watch the daily routine and pho preparation, which probably have remained unchanged for the past 50 or so years since the family shop first opened. I sat on a small plastic stool to watch the arrival of suppliers: a chubby young man on a motor bike (wearing jeans covered with pink protective plastic covering) who dropped bags laden with beef bones and meats, an older man who delivered the fresh rice noodles protected with banana leaves and a lady on a bicycle who delivered the fragrant fresh herbs and scallions. The staff would inevitably pick up a couple of warm, crusty baguettes to chew on from one of the many ladies walking by balancing a bamboo pole with two rattan baskets full of freshly baked bread. My reward for getting up so early each morning was the pleasure of eating the very first bowl of steaming pho starting at about 6am before the arrival of the regular customers. Although we use modern tools and techniques, this little shop with no name in Hanoi serves as the inspiration for the ChômChôm signature pho that I have created.


AP: Vietnamese cuisine is strongly influenced by its neighboring countries, such as Thailand and India. Do you find the influence of Thailand and India in your cooking?


PF: Aside from the strong influence of China and France, Vietnamese cuisine also incorporates elements from neighboring countries. For example, the popular Vietnamese chicken curry dish is reminiscent of the Indian or Thai curry but is much lighter, more balanced and more delicate.


AP: There is a strong rice wine and beer culture in Vietnam, with beer comprising 98% of alcohol sales in 2008. Do you think that the grape wine culture is growing?


PF: I think that similar to China, as the country opens up and the economy expands, the interest in western style grape wine drinking culture is growing rapidly particularly in major cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. In addition to imports from places such as France, the US and Chile, some entrepreneurs are starting to grow and improve the wines from Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. The climate and geographical features are considered suitable for growing wine grapes and developing a wine industry.


AP: Can you recommend a Vietnamese dish that is one of your favourites, and suggest a local Vietnamese grape wine to pair with it?


PF: Vietnamese wine development is still in its infancy but one local wine is widely available is Vang Dalat, a mild, fruity wine made from table grapes ( vitis vinifera grape varieties should be available in the near future) can be paired with local dishes such as crispy spring rolls or my favorite, the classic pork banh mi baguette sandwich.


AP: Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?


PF: My inspiration for new dishes come primarily from seasonal products at the wet market in Central and Wanchai where I shop regularly as well as the traditional regional dishes and the amazing variety of Vietnamese street foods. I travel back to Vietnam reguarly to reconnect with the culture and also to seek inspiration for ideas and new dishes.


Photo credit to Anty Fung, Project Manager of Asian Palate