Geoffrey Deetz: Our Man in Saigon

Alan couldn’t have given us a better lead.  Geoffrey, a chef from the Bay Area, has been in Vietnam for five years – he came here with his wife on his way to open a restaurant in China and never left.  Today, Geoffrey’s got 140 people working for him, a catering business, a bakery – they had just finished making bundt cakes and were working on M&M cookies when we walked through – cafes in four schools, five restaurants in town, including Black Cat, where the menu is wildly eclectic and super-appealing, and an astounding knowledge of Vietnam’s foods and customs. 

Even though we turned up at Geoffrey’s doorstep on 10-minute’s notice, he stopped everything to walk us around the neighborhood’s day market, where the vendors are used to seeing a tall American who’s fluent in Vietnamese and as passionate about their ingredients as they are.

Market street

The market might have been built from fragments of what I dreamed a Vietnamese market would be like.  It ran on both sides of a narrow, heavily trafficked street and the vendors set up shop on the sidewalks in front of their homes.

Veg stand

At this vegetable stand, Geoffrey asked the vendor to give me a taste of a green that he was sure I couldn’t place – and he was right.  He was also right when he said that once he named it I’d say, “But of course.”  The small leaf had powerful flavor that came in waves.  It was bold and pungent and only obvious when you knew it was cumin sprout.  Geoffrey thought that once it got to the States it would become the darling of lots of chefs and I think you can mark his words.

Cumin sprout

He was so full of great information that it was all I could do to scribble it down.  Seeing a woman peeling the pomelos on her pushcart, he told us that she’d save the rinds, dry them and use them to make shampoo.

Pomelo peels

When we passed a stall with cockles and whelks and snails, he told us that the snails were often cooked in coconut milk and that it was a fairly pricey dish favored by women.

Of course you can’t walk a market without eating – even if it’s not mealtime and even if you’re not hungry – so when Geoffrey saw a family of women making what looked to him like very good Ban Koc, we pulled up stools.

Cooking

As I watched the Ban Koc being made, they looked like old friends to me – they’re the Thai Khanom Krok Swoei’s first cousin.  In this version, the rice-flour crepe batter is poured into the (aebleskiver) pan then, when it’s almost set, it’s topped with ground pork and/or shrimp, given a drizzle of coconut milk and covered to cook through.

Ban kok

But where the Thai cakes are eaten out of hand as a snack, these get wrapped in mustard greens, lettuce and basil and dipped in a chile fish sauce. 

Ban kok greens

This is the kind of dish you could hanker for in the middle of the night.

Thank you Geoffrey.

Dorie Greenspan

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