I first experienced “new Vietnamese” cuisine in 2017 at Ănăn, a buzzy, dimly-lit restaurant set in a time-honoured wet market in Ho Chi Minh City. Previously at the helm of Hong Kong’s lauded Chom Chom, the chef Peter Cuong Franklin earned headlines for his clever interpretations of Vietnam’s staple dishes—from bánh xèo rice crepes playfully reformatted as crunchy pork “tacos” to classic phở slow-simmered for 24 hours, then finished like French consommé.
Though more polished Vietnamese restaurants had always existed in HCMC, referred to colloquially as Saigon, they catered to businesspeople, expats and tourists. Ănăn may well be one of the first concepts to reimagine Vietnamese food while still appealing to discerning locals. Sure, a dish of caviar served atop a congee-inspired molecular “rice foam” might read, on paper, as elevated for the sake of elevation, but Franklin’s use of local fish eggs and fresh herbs reveal an intimately Vietnamese profile.
“We wanted people from all over the world, whether they’re New Yorkers or Europeans, to have access to Vietnamese cuisine while at the same time making Vietnamese people more open-minded about seeing their food portrayed in a global context,” Franklin proudly asserts. The novelty of Ănăn’s menu is reflected in the fact that it was Franklin who popularised the term cuisine mới or “new cuisine” to refer to his freewheeling approach. But the chef’s continued success speaks to a broader cultural appetite fuelled by Vietnam’s “miracle” economic boom: the country’s GDP has increased tenfold since 1990; and its two largest cities, Saigon and Hanoi, now regularly rank among Asia’s top tourist destinations.
Long celebrated for its world-famous street food culture, Ho Chi Minh City may soon be regarded in equal measure for its chef-driven restaurants, both Vietnamese and otherwise. It’s this nuanced dialogue between tradition and innovation that separates an old-world “food” destination from a true 21st century dining capital. With a strong culinary foundation, an international diaspora, and a young population eager to participate in global taste-making, the city has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s most exciting places to eat and drink.