What can be said about Julien Thabault? To start with, the young chef recently opened what he refers to as his new “restobar” Octo Tapas in Saigon’s District 1. The open kitchen, which houses at 75 Ho Tung Mau, gives its diners a glimpse into the lives of who make the tapas magic happen. Thabault is of course very much the driving force. The kitchen team (himself included) never stand still for a second. Constantly creating, chopping, cooking, and plating. “The idea is to cook every day,” declares Thabault as he hops around the kitchen with some kale in hand.
As I sit at a table, a four-course tapas finds its way to not only my belly, but to my heart. The tapas performs their culinary role on my tastebuds like a vibrant four-act play. In other words – freakin’ delicious. The recipes are a combination of classic reinterpretations and new inventions accompanied with (very) unassuming price-tags. A $9 set-lunch at Octo Tapas can be quite the culinary event, but what about the man behind it all?
Between his busy shifts, I had a chat with Thabault to find out more about him and his new venture.
Tell us something about the food of your hometown.
I come from Paris, France, but I lived in Spain for most of my life. I spent 12 years in Madrid and Valencia. Obviously Valencia is near to the sea. So we have more seafood there. Valencia is the hometown of paella and Madrid is the capital, so obviously it’s more modern, more creative in a way. It’s a culture of tapas. I consider myself Spanish at heart.
What are your favourite things about Spanish cuisine? How do you bring those things to Octo Tapas?
It’s got to be iberico, the best ham in the world.
All of our products that we can not make or find here, we import from Spain. We make ourselves things like bread, mayonnaise, sausages, and stocks. I don’t believe there’s a chef that thinks buying pre-made things is a good thing. Anything that we can make, we make. Now we don’t have ice-cream machine, but we will soon. Ice-cream is the only thing here we don’t make.
What is the idea behind Octo Tapas?
Tapas is a concept that I like and I feel is missing here. We try to replicate the culture of Spain. Late night eating and drinking, with good wine and good food in small plates. It’s all about sharing.
Open kitchen, very fresh products, good techniques with simple plating. We don’t want to be pretentious.
How did you find yourself in Saigon?
I’ve been here for five years. I was in Cambodia for five years before. I was working crazily in Paris, London, all over Europe really, but I was fed up. I wanted to travel, see something else, relax a bit. I met some good people along the way. I now have a few businesses in Cambodia. I have a resort and Samai rum distillery there.
One thing in the Saigon food scene that inspires you?
Quince Saigon. It’s a new restaurant that opened about a month ago by a friend of mine who is also named Julien (Perraudin).
Who is the chef that you admire the most in the world? And why?
Bertrand Grébaut from Septime in Paris. For me, he’s one of the greatest. He left a Michelin star restaurant to open Septime. The concept is what we now call bistronomy, doing high-end food at a very cheap cheap price. Instead of paying €200 for five courses, people pay €50. Affordable for everyone.
Most chefs nowadays turn away from Michelin stars, because we’re not here to show off or be pretentious or rip off people using beautiful cutlery. We’re here to cook, make nice food at an affordable price. There’s no reason why everyone can’t taste this kind of food, you know. Food is a right, not a privilege.