Didier Corlou: Chef of innovation

I try to find the answer for my curiosity why foreigners can live in Vietnam for more than ten years, and when I met him, Chef Didier Corlou, I got it

Chef Didier Corlou - Photo by An Thanh Dat
Chef Didier Corlou – Photo by An Thanh Dat

You are well known for hating being interviewed. Why is that?
Who said that? I don’t think it’s true. I don’t like interviews very much. I like to speak, to cook, to talk and … I like people follow my steps through the market, in the kitchen.

Can you speak Vietnamese?
Not very much but when I go to the market it’s OK.

You mean it’s enough for you to select ingredients and negotiate prices?
Actually I don’t bother to negotiate. I go to the market to see the products. Every day I go to the market to see the fish such as mackerel, it’s very fresh. I carry it back and I talk to my wife that today I bought some the market, so she’ll go to buy 10 or 20 kilos for me to make the filet. My wife will negotiate the price when we buy in large amounts, because she is better at negotiating than me. I don’t want to negotiate about the price because the amount is too small, just a few thousand dong. And it’s not my culture, I don’t know why.

Do you like to go to the super market?
No I don’t like it, even if I do go to the super market for some products. I buy pepper for example. I like Hanoi very much because each street sells a different product. I like to go to the market not just because of the quality of the product, but also having personal contact with the sellers.

People say that foreigners come to Vietnam firstly to become rich and secondly to find a beautiful wife. What do you think?
Really? Actually there are pretty girls all around the world. The most important thing is the feeling. I and my wife have been married for 16-17 years, we were one of the first mixed couples in Viet Nam.

Why did you come to Vietnam?
Before coming to Vietnam, I worked in Malaysia. My friend said that French had some special relationship with Vietnam. And the Metropole Hotel invited me to work as its Chef. That’s why I’m here.

You spent years as the chef at the Metropole, and you became famous through that, so why did you give it up?
I worked for 14 years at the Metropole. You can’t make a living through a hotel. I didn’t really cook in Metropole, too may guests, doing breakfasts. A hotel is a place for breakfasts, pizzas, room service, hotels aren’t restaurants. All the best food in Paris, you only can find in the restaurants, not hotels.

Have your family in law helped you in your business?
I have very good relationship with in-laws. I like cooking with Madame Hien, my wife’s mother, and she can speak French very well.

We named the restaurant in Chan Cam Street Madame Hien to show our respect, our love and thanks to her.

France dominated Vietnam for a long time, do you think Vietnamese cuisine was affected by French? And what do you think about that impact?
War isn’t good. But during the time that we were here, we had a good affect on architecture, music and cuisine as well.

Do you think experimenting with Vietnamese food is a good idea? Why do you sometimes decide to modify traditional recipes?
You like reading a new magazine, having a new mobile phone, or car and of course you like trying new food. I respect the culture of Hanoi but I’m man of the world so I bring a global culture to combine with local cooking culture.

Do you have any problems when you try to experiment?
Innovation takes time. Transforming something into haut cuisine takes more time. Young people need to adopt new systems, new techniques and train

You pay a lot of attention to sourcing your ingredients from individual small producers. Why?
I’m lived in Vietnam for almost 20 years. I see a lot of good products. The rich diversity of Vietnam, found in its two deltas, fifty four ethnic groups, three thousand kilometres of coastline, varied climate and many natural resources (rivers, forests, mountains and oceans) means Vietnam has more variety of spices than China or Thailand.

I don’t know why Vietnamese pay so little attention to food. They can have an elegant mobile phone or big car, but they don’t want to pay a lot of money for fish sauce. I have a Vietnamese friend, she has a lot of money but she doesn’t buy anything expensive made in Vietnam but willing to pay a fortune for imported products. We have good milk, some extremely good milk made by small producers, but of course you have to pay for it. People need to get into the habit of paying money for good products. Cheap products aren’t good for the health.

How can Vietnamese food be promoted abroad? Why is Thai food more popular than Vietnamese food internationally?
You have to take Vietnamese chefs outside the country; and you have to talk about Vietnamese products and that is what I did and am doing. One of the problems is that Vietnam doesn’t promote its food. Thais talk about their cuisine, but Vietnam just talks about its scenery like Ha Long Bay when it promotes tourism. Vietnam should talk more about the culture, the food, and people need to realise you have very good products.

What is your favorite Vietnamese dish?
Pho is number one, then Bun Cha, du du (papaya) salad and I really like eating it on the street.

The Vietnamese Tet or Lunar New Year is approaching. Can you tell me how you spend Tet?
I’ve been here for last 12 years because of my wife. We go to the grandmother’s for the first day of the year and we never go outside. Hanoi is beautiful at that time because there are so few people.

Do you have any new suggestions for a Vietnamese Tet menu?
Have something traditional and something new such as crab banh chung (sticky rice cake often traditionally filled with pork), because the rice cooked slowly and keeps the crab moist inside. You cook it in the same way like normal banh chung.
It’s easy to make Banh Cuon (steamed rolled rice pancake), Spring rolls with mushrooms, vegetable, crab, shrimp inside or mushroom hot pot with sliced beef, different seafood, cabbage,

What do you wish for this year?

I’m happy with La Vertical because it has been recognised as one of the best restaurants in Southeast Asia. And we have Madame Hien’s which focuses more on new Vietnamese cuisine. I will work on a new book on Vietnamese spices and focus on three flavours: bitter, salty, sweet. And maybe by the end of 2012, a new restaurant in Hanoi, I will also continue to be involved in training at chef’s school in Paris.

About Didier Corlou and his books
Didier Corlou
Master Chef of France
Member of Culinary Academy of France
5 Stars Diamond Award Chef
President Escoffier Vietnam

Didier Corlou’s Vietnamese Cuisine :

Best book written by a Chef from Asia
Best cooking book written in French
Best presentation by The Gourmand World Book Awards
Didier Corlou explores Vietnamese cuisine, with a particular focus on fresh aromatic herbs and other ingredients from Vietnam combined with recipes from his home region of Brittany. The book also offers a mini guide to Vietnamese markets, herbs and spices as an introduction to Vietnamese cuisine

Cooking with Chef Didier:

Published by the Hanoi International Women’s Club exclusively to raise funds for their Community Aid Programme; the book covers recipes culled from the cooking classes held at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi from March 2000 to April 2003. The recipes are organized chronologically as complete menus, just as the classes were taught.

A la Verticale des épices:
The book focuses on the flavours and tastes of Vietnam’s and France’s culinary traditions. Chef Corlou reveals the secrets of the unique and successful fusion he has developed, inspired by the cuisine of his home country then elaborated upon in his adopted country. The benefits from the sale of this book go to “Coup de Pouce-Vietnam”, an association of volunteers to help deprived people.

PS: This was a pretty difficult interview as I found Didier’s French accented English hard to follow, plus he would sometimes through in a few French sentences. But it was interesting to note that he would always use ‘we’ when referring to Viet Nam, and this revealed to me his sincere love for the country. With his devotion to the Vietnamese gastronomy Didier Corlou certainly deserves to be recognised as perhaps one of the most sincere French contributors to the development of Vietnamese culture.

This interview was published in Nam Magazine, issue 1/2011

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