Phan Thanh Danh is carving out a name for himself in Vietnam’s culinary scene thanks to his unique take on one of the country’s most popular street dishes.
Danh, 30, is not the only chef in Ho Chi Minh City putting his own twist on traditional banh bao (steamed rice buns), but he certainly is making the biggest splash.
According to Danh, the fusion buns he is serving up at Got Bun? – a stall at Ben Thanh Street Food Market on Thu Khoa Huan Street in District 1 – are a big draw for young people searching for a modern twist on a classic snack.
Unique steamed buns
Steamed buns are not exactly hard to come by in Vietnam.
Step onto any neighborhood street and look to your left or right, chances are someone is selling them.
Still cannot find them? Don’t worry! It is likely that your nearest convenience store has a display case full of the buns.
But if you are looking to break away from tradition, you might have to travel a bit further to Danh’s Got Bun? stall.
Unlike regular Vietnamese steamed buns, which usually contain quail eggs or salted egg yolk and meat on the inside, Danh's buns are stuffed with fillings that he knows will hit his diners with a burst of flavor – twice-cooked Chinese pork belly, Thai Five Spice pork, and fried oysters to name a few.
And he does not stop at the fillings. Each bun is served with a unique sauce that is sure to add an extra layer of flavor to the dish.
“It’s mostly young people who are interested in these unique steamed buns,” Danh said.
“Older customers still prefer the traditional style.”
And it seems those young people are more than just interested. They are addicted.
“Since I like the buns here I just have to keep coming back!” one of the customers commented on a food review website.
Beside fusion steamed buns, Got Bun? also serves Western dishes, Vietnamese street food, and traditional courses, such as Vietnamese pancakes, rice with twice-cooked Chinese pork belly, and spring rolls.
|Pham Thanh Danh poses for a photo with foreign tourists who have Vietnamese pancakes (banh xeo) at his diner in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quoc Linh / Tuoi Tre|
Starting from scratch
Danh first began cooking as a means to satisfy his craving for Vietnamese comfort food when he moved abroad after high school.
Every time he started to miss a specific dish, he would call his mother to ask for a recipe.
“My mom had a great impact on my decision to pursue the culinary arts,” Danh said.
And the cook refused to let distance keep him from the food he loved so much as a child.
“Even though I studied abroad I kept cooking Vietnamese dishes and fell in love with cooking,” he shared.
After completing his studies at a U.S. community college, he began splitting his time between obtaining a degree in hospitality management at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and working as a server and cleaner at a Vietnamese restaurant to earn extra pocket money.
“There were times when I was feeling discouraged since I had never had to clean toilets or sweep floors at home,” he said.
After finishing his studies, Danh traveled the world in search of inspiration, trying as many cuisines and dishes from different countries as possible and finding his own ways to incorporate those flavors into his foods.
Eventually, he was offered a job at a restaurant in Macau, where he worked before moving back to Vietnam to open his own diner.
“Danh has spent a lot of time in the kitchen so he not only understands the dishes, but also the difficulties of being a cook and working in the food industry,” explained Nguyen Thanh Son, a cook at Got Bun?.
And Danh is fully aware that understanding his employees’ struggles is part of what makes him such a great employer, and he is not ashamed to show it.
“I always say I am a cook when someone asks me about my job, but I notice that many people do not want others to know they’ve chosen cooking as a career,” Danh said.
So what is next for Danh?
Everyone pursues a cuisine career to have his or her own restaurant, he says, explaining that his goal is to eventually open a place where he can experiment freely with each dish.
“Most importantly, once I have my own restaurant I can serve customers better,” the young cook said.
“Customers not only have a need to eat good food, they also want a good experience.
"It's difficult to satisfy such diners at my current joint."