“When you work with people you know, people you like, people you trust – it’s good, there are no trust issues, no secrets and you can speak freely, which I think is the key to success when working with business partners.” Hailing from France, but having resided in Vietnam for a decade now, Jan Visser explains the realities of owning a restaurant and bar with his friends. Sat around me were four men, united by a love for French cuisine, French wine and good times. Stan Boissau, Jan Visser, Sébastien Dang and Luu Duc Duy have been operating A La Folie together for five years now.
Visser continued to explain how they all met. “We met Duy when we owned a restaurant here, maybe ten years ago – La Cooperative – we did Western food and Vietnamese food there, but we’d hired Duy through a Belgian chef we knew and so he was charge of Western food,” they all burst out laughing. As an outsider looking in, it’s clear that there’s a depth of friendship present here. “But then Duy, he had to leave, he went to Singapore for two years to make some money before he got married and so two years later he returned with no money and we began working together again on A La Folie – this was almost exactly five years ago, on May 1st 2013.”
It’s not always been so cheery and easy though, A La Folie’s previous incarnation was forced to close due to the landlord’s desire to reclaim the property, but Visser explained it was a team effort to track down a new location, “It took a while, but I think Duy was looking in the local newspaper and found this place, it’s a nice location, not too expensive, lots of people walk past it every day so we were all agreed.” It’s true that A La Folie’s new location is big pull factor. Overlooking the placid waters of Truc Bach lake, where amidst the swan boats and the tourists, the view is consistently spectacular with the sun glistening on the surface of the water by day and the neon lights and the traffic casting ephemeral reflections across the lake by night.
The serenity of the lake is a stark contrast to their positioning within the city – situated on Truc Bach street, just off the ever-hectic Thanh Nien bridge between Ho Tay and Ho Truc Bach, yet there is a calm to A La Folie that doesn’t belie the vehicular mayhem that lurks just around the corner. “I think the atmosphere is about relaxation, it’s a French bistro, French cuisine, but it’s not over the top – we want it to be affordable, approachable…” Visser pauses for a minute and the others grin. “You don’t need to wait for it to be Christmas or your birthday to eat here, relaxation is probably the key word,” he looks around, seeking the approval of the other partners who nod in agreement. “Of course, we have a lot of love here to, but thanks to Duy in the kitchen.”
Luu Duc Duy tries to play down his importance here, but the others make it clear that his role is pivotal in ensuring the success of the food. “I’ve been working in kitchens since I was studying cooking at Hoa Sua school, this was 18 years ago, but while I design the menu, we all sit down and discuss it, we all have to agree – this is our fourth version of the menu now.”
As for working with friends. “It has advantages and disadvantages,” laughs Dang, the others all laugh with him and I get the feeling that I’m probably missing something, like being privy to an inside joke. Each friend brings their own insight to the table and all of them offer skills that enable A La Folie to continue going about their business of bringing high quality French food to the lakeside revellers of Hanoi.
“For the food, Duy is the ideas man, yes, but that’s because he’s the man in the kitchen – it makes sense, no?” The others laughing with Visser, as they weigh up their respective roles. “I’m in the wine business, so yeah I help out there, but – like the food – it’s a common decision and we all work together, bring our experience together to agree on what’s best, you know, we need something for everyone.”
I wondered if there was ever an issue of separating business and pleasure, because – well, knowing my friends, any joint venture would rapidly descend into the sort of kidney-killing bender that would only be brought to an end by bailiffs. “Well we try to meet every week, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t,” cue more laughter, “We all have our own lives, we’re all travelling a lot, but also meeting here all the time, drinking all the time, that gets old eventually – we had to set some boundaries though.”