Hanoi alone is bursting at the waistband with foreign delicacies. If restaurateurs announced that there was a critical cheese shortage in Hanoi, thousands of foreigners and Vietnamese alike would perish in the ensuing carnage and they all eagerly clambered over the mounting pile of corpses to acquire the last slither of delightful dairy. Thankfully, cheese stocks are high and you don’t have to meet some dodgy reprobate down an alley at midnight in order to get your hands on some burrata. Instead there are people like Antoine de la Mardière at Classic Fine Foods and we are all the richer for it.
“Well, some of our clients – if you check their menus – they will put the brand of the products on there, so there is some traceability and you know, they’re very proud to advertise it because they know it’s been done the proper way.” Mardière is an affable Sales Manager and he explains the benefits of working with Classic Fine Food, a food importation company that’s been operating across the world since 2005. “That way, you know what we bring and we bring the best from the world, that way you can see what we do, how it arrived, everything – more people want to know the origins of the food that’s in their dish,” Mardière observes.
With 280 active accounts in Hanoi alone and over 150 employees who work across the country, Classic Fine Foods has made a name for itself as the go-to-guys for high-end European imported delicacies. Mardière has been in this business for four years and after spending some time in Da Nang, Classic Fine Foods have brought him up north where his expertise can be leveraged in the blossoming Hanoi restaurant scene.
When Vietnam gained accession to the World Trade Organisation on January 11th 2007, the national GDP was at USD$77.44 billion and Vietnam was forced to make concessions regarding the protectionist policies it’d held over imports and exports if it wanted to get a thick juicy slice of the international market. While certain concessions were made, Vietnam – like all other WTO members – reserves the right to restrict the importation of certain goods, particularly those that Vietnam makes, grows or produces itself. Flash forward to 2018 and things worked out pretty damn well for Vietnam, with a GDP of USD$223.86 billion last year and an incredible amount of progress being made across the board.
As such, Vietnam is now able to try its hand at producing more items – many that would’ve otherwise been imported, but are now facing restrictions as agricultural regions like Da Lat are now growing produce that was never native to Vietnam before. “Last year, it was kiwis, the year before, certain root vegetables – imports are now limited, because they make it in Da Lat, they’re just protecting their market, the same as we would do in our country.”
This is a notion that Cyprien Pierslovisi, owner of Cousins and Cugini, agrees with. “The quality of local products has vastly improved yes, I’m thinking vegetables from Da Lat, what with the organic trend settling in. Some people are doing great clean products, but only specific products – Fargreen produces great mushrooms, but that’s all they produce.”
Pierslovisi has been working in Vietnam’s hospitality for longer than most can remember and in that time, he’s seen firsthand the changes that have swept through. “Now we can actually work with products that are produced in a pretty conscious way and they’re great in terms of quality. At Cousins I made the choice to use only sustainable fish, some organic certified products with no hormones, no antibiotics, but quite a few customers don’t see that. They often don’t realise that what is served is often terrible in terms of ecology and quality, and having a clean option is a tad more expensive.”
It’s not that this growth in imported goods has come without challenges for Classic Fine Foods though. “Transportation is a bit complicated, the city centre in Hanoi is locked between 3pm and 9am, so there are no trucks allowed, this means we need all of our deliveries completed by 3pm, which takes some working out in terms of logistics, especially because well, traffic jams!” Mardière laughs at the simplicity of the issue.
By far the largest source of all these edible wonders from afar remains France, Mardière himself is French and it is his contacts at home that allow him to bring in the much sought after cheeses, oysters, scallops and other high end products that Vietnam’s mercurial climate is not conducive to creating. For meat though, Australia reigns supreme, partly out of geographical proximity and partly out of knowing what a damn good pie ought to contain, but according to a report by VNExpress earlier this year, Vietnam only has the means to produce 80% of the beef and buffalo needed for domestic consumption, with imports of “more than 262,300 live cattle, and nearly 42,000 tonnes of beef and buffalo meat, valued at more than USD$410 million, according to the Animal Husbandry Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.”
For Pierslovisi the issue of quality stems from what he perceives to be a general lack of understanding. “You have to be realistic, if a place sells you a sea bass fillet for under VND200,000, it ain’t a sea bass, it’s probably a barramundi, which is from a slightly similar family, but it’s a hot water fish, so it’s different in texture and taste.” Having previously worked in the importing game before shifting seamlessly into the role of renowned restaurateur, he voiced his vexation with getting certain ingredients. “But like the sea bass, meat is imported, if you pay VND200,000 to VND300,000 for a premium cut then it is obviously low grade, back home you have no import tax, no air shipping cost and how much will a good steak cost you? Certainly not ten bucks.”