It’s been precisely one month since Angus Brown, chef at Octopus Bar, left Atlanta for a culinary adventure that started in Vietnam and will include stints in Japan and Cambodia. Nhan Le, Brown’s partner at Octopus Bar, has been holding down the fort since Brown’s departure. Brown lucked out with the connections—Le’s family has hosted him, along with the cousin of Lanie Vu, proprietor of Dumpling Girl stands at East Atlanta and Grant Park farmers markets.
A quarter of the way into his four-month trip, Brown has cooked in three restaurants throughout Ho Chi Minh City and Hue, motorbiked through bustling streets with backpack and knives in tow, and eaten fresh street food dishes bound to make any fan of Octopus Bar swoon. Tapping away from his iPhone, Brown emailed updates of his trip so far. In addition to the fun forays he’s made in Vietnam, Brown will soon head to Japan, where he’ll spend some time at the Tsukiji fish market, as seen in the gorgeous and popular food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The only thing keeping serious envy in check is the knowledge Brown will be coming home soon, sharing all he’s learned with the rest of us.
So you got off the plane—and then? The first question Hau (Lanie’s cousin) asked me was if I was hungry. I was starving. He took me to an amazing pho place—a very subtle broth with perfect noodles and all the fixings.
What were your initial impressions of the Ho Chi Minh City?
It was a bustling city center with food, electronics, fruit, massage—anything and just about everything. I found an amazing chicken and noodle soup with liver that had grilled chicken on the side with dried, fried shallots and salad—just three bucks. I knew I was going to fit right in. I had this fish soup with tiny fried fish, river crab, peppered and slightly dried fish. I wanted to try durian [a southeast Asian fruit known for emitting a sweet, yet pungent aroma] so Hau took me to a street where that is all they sell. It was amazing. It’s like sweet banana and stinky French cheese pudding combined, two of my favorite flavors.
What part of the country are you in now? I am currently in Hue after being in Ho Chi Minh City for a few weeks. It was a 12-hour train ride. Hue is supposedly the food capital of Vietnam. Nhan’s family feeds me quite often here, and the food is great—dishes like caramelized fish hot pots, steamed fish with herbs and rice papers, snails with lemongrass and chili, amazing banh mi, clam congee with dried shallots. Banh khoai [Hue pancake], banh Tom [sweet potato shrimp fritters], banh beo [steamed rice cake], banh bot loc [shrimp and pork dumplings], bun Bo gio heo [beef and pork knuckle soup], fermented fish sauce.
Next up on the travel agenda?
On Monday I will go to Hanoi and then Cat Ba Island for a few days, then back to Ho Chi Minh City before Japan for a little less than a month. I will be doing some private chef work for a family in Japan. I am really looking forward to my tour of the Tsukiji fish market and tuna auction. I also have the opportunity to go to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Sawada in Tokyo. In Kyoto, I’ll eat at Sojiki Nakahigashi, a restaurant where the chef forages many of the ingredients himself. I am bringing my knives and will try to work anywhere they’ll accept me in the kitchen.
And then? After Japan, I’ll go to the Mekong Delta then Phu Quoc island where the highest quality fish sauce is made. Then Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The whole trip is four months. I wish it could be longer but since we [at Octopus] are looking for a full-time space, I need to get back.
Has anything surprised you about Vietnamese cooking over there in the motherland? Everything is purchased daily, most places have no refrigeration. There are also many delicate things—I really like the use of the banana flower. Cut paper thin, it is a great ingredient for salads. I also like the vegetable gia, which I had never seen before. It's like an earthy arugula cilantro. I’ve sent gia and chili seeds to our farmer for Octopus, Hudson Rouse. I’m excited to see if they will grow in Georgia.
What's an average day look like for you now? Every day is different. I wake up at 6 a.m. to go to the market to see the real action. I have been running and exercising a lot, which I never had time to do when I was at Octopus. The days I work, I am in the kitchen for 8 hours or so then go and have beers with my many friends I’ve made here. The days I just chill, I usually have lunch with my farmer friend Chung and we go to the countryside and drink rice moonshine and listen to him play guitar. I feel like I wake up in an amazing dream everyday.
All photos courtesy of Angus Brown. Follow Chef Brown's travels on Instagram.