“We don’t want to try and make it some sort of gourmet place, we’re still using traditional Vietnamese recipes, but we’re using modern techniques and applying Western standards.” The jovial Scotsman sat before me is Gillan Kingstree, head chef and culinary consultant at Chopsticks.
“Sure we want to elevate the food, but we’re not fancy about it, it’s got to be fun, casual and relaxing.” Kingstree himself has been a chef for longer than I’ve been drinking and has racked up an impressive string of culinary positions back in the UK in The National Gallery and a host of other places I couldn’t afford to eat at. It’s safe to say, he’s a professional and after leaving London to work with friends, he found himself in Hanoi helping to get the recently opened Chopsticks off the ground.
Vietnam is often lauded as a food Mecca and the inconceivably tiny blue plastic stools have become synonymous with roadside dining delights, but Chopsticks is on a mission: treats from the streets on comfier seats. “Initially we wanted to just do bun cha – but it wasn’t really feasible, although this is still our signature dish,” continues Kingstree, who insists this isn’t some sort of fad-driven fusion restaurant, but authentic Vietnamese food made using Western methods and five-star dining standards. “We use quality ingredients and we take our time over our food – the pork belly in the bun cha for example takes three days to prepare – we want it to be good!”
Good is an understatement, with a big focus on presentation and fresh, sumptuous ingredients, Chopsticks aren’t reinventing the wheel – just giving it a good polish. One look around shows the mission has been a success after just one month of being open; Chopsticks has already built up an impressive reputation for quality, “We’ve got a return rate of about 50% right now, which is mad for just under a month!” Everything from the recipes to the decor has been painstakingly crafted to preserve the traditional Vietnamese roots that inspired the restaurant. The recipe for their spring rolls has been passed down innumerable generations from a family in Ha Long, their seats are reminiscent of the electrical wiring in Hanoi and the shutters that adorn the walls are instantly recognisable to anyone who’s walked around the Old Quarter.
This past month has been a whirlwind for Kingstree and his team; getting the menu collated and finalised, training the staff and dealing with the difficulties of setting up a new restaurant in the run-up to the national holiday Tet. “It’s been a challenge,” laughs Kingstree, “We’ve got the food sorted now, but the bar is still developing – I mean it took us six months just to find the location, so we’re just taking things one step at a time and trying to make sure we get it right rather than rushing it.”
In the last few weeks, Chopsticks has opened up their Lounge Sessions on Friday and Saturday nights where they’re providing a classy, comfortable place to drink away the pain of being human until 2am – replete with DJs, craft beers courtesy of the local breweries Pasteur Street and C-Brewmaster. “We want to get a late-night snack menu up and running soon, lots of spring rolls and finger food,” it’s definitely worth noting that culinary options for the nocturnal drunkards that occupy the Old Quarter are limited as things stand.
“We’re still working on the bar menu though – want to expand the options for beers, wines, spirits – everything.”
Chopsticks are dipping their cutlery in a variety of metaphorical pies – they’re cooking up a storm with their tangy chilli sauce and their hoisin sauce. “We’ve already lost 32 bottles in the one month we’ve been open, it’s all made in-house – I mean the chili takes about a week and a half to ferment, but the hoisin just needs cooking and pureeing.” Currently they’re reaching an agreement to sell these sauces by the bottle in New Zealand and Australia – a testament to the quality they offer.
Ever fond of playing the devil’s advocate and never afraid to poke bears in the eye with a stick, I had to investigate – why should people pay VND140,000 for a bowl of bun cha at Chopsticks when a bowl on the street costs anywhere between VND30,000 to 50,000? “You’re paying for quality here, you’re paying for friendly, attentive service, you’re paying for a good experience – it’s a step up from the street.” Kingstree explains that although many of their customers have been foreigners – it’s the Vietnamese who are the biggest spenders at Chopsticks. “We’ve had a lot of locals and they love it – it’s not the same as what they’re used to, but it’s familiar and it’s high quality so they’re happy to pay.” Kingstree stressed again that they want Chopsticks to be an inclusive venture – there’s even a vegetarian bun cha option.
“We need to prove it works here first, but ideally – I’m talking long-term here – the aim is to open up a Chopsticks back in the UK, but we’ve got to see how it goes here first.” Thinking big is at the heart of what drives Kingstree and his team here, but they’re doing so without sacrificing that chilled environment. “Now consumers are caring more about the source of their food – you see it everywhere in Hanoi, things are moving off the streets and the standards are improving. It’s the last frontier of the Wild East – other big cities in the region have become indistinct, but there’s such a strong food culture here, we love it!”