Steaming bowls of pho, the fragrant Vietnamese rice noodle soup, and crunchy sandwiches called banh mi slathered with rich pâté, pickled vegetables and chilli — both are delicious and readily available in Hong Kong. And yet, surely there’s more to Vietnamese cuisine than these crowd-pleasing (and overly familiar) dishes, right?
To answer that question, we met up with chef Que Vinh Dang, whom you may remember from private kitchen TBLS and Quest by Que, at his latest venture: a Vietnamese restaurant called Nhau. We spoke to the chef to find out what else Vietnamese food has to offer, how he created his cuisine and what’s beyond the kitchen for him.
What does nhau mean? How should we pronounce it?
The proper way to pronounce it is “nyau” but most people say “now” — which is close enough! Nhau means together. In Vietnam you would say nhau nhau, which means “Let’s eat and drink together”.
Describe your cuisine for us.
It’s a contemporary take on traditional Vietnamese flavours — without being fusion. We use the essence of a traditional dish, but use fine-dining techniques to take it to the next level. The flavours are 100% Vietnamese, but it will be something you don’t expect.
For example, we serve bo la lot, which is a popular Vietnamese dish with minced meat and a touch of curry, wrapped in betel leaf and grilled. Our version is a cold [dish] format with Australian wagyu beef tartare mixed with curry mayonnaise, betel leaf purée and homemade beef flakes. It’s then served with crispy beef tendon crackers which have been dehydrated and deep fried.
What are you doing that is different to other Vietnamese restaurants?
All of our ideas are conceptualised from beginning to end, which allows us to build [more] layers of flavour and texture into the dishes. There’s so much more to Vietnamese cuisine, so why focus on the same handful of items [pho or banh mi] that are available all over Hong Kong?
How do you develop your dishes?
Most of the dishes are in my head first. I try to work out the flavours and textures I want before we order the ingredients. I like to approach my style of cooking by keeping certain flavours that I feel my diners can connect with right away and build around that.
Do you have a signature or favourite dish on the menu?
I don’t like the idea of a signature dish. The idea of having an item follow me throughout my career seems a bit lazy. I currently like all of the dishes on the menu, but [at the same time] would happily change all of it, too.
You have a background in French cuisine, so why choose Vietnamese food for the new restaurant?
I’ve been cooking French and various other Western cuisines for the past two decades, and it dawned on me that most of what I was cooking didn’t fully represent who I was. I’ve noticed that every time I cook Vietnamese [food], I feel at ease and happy. It became an issue of what I was trained to do versus what I wanted to do. I’ve chosen the latter and because of that, I feel like it’s the right time for me to explore it, and not just to fill a dining void in Hong Kong’s food scene.
How did you get into cooking?
I realised I enjoyed cooking at a young age. It’s probably because I grew up being spoiled by my mom’s cooking. [But] the real reason why I got into cooking is because it’s a very easy conversation topic to talk about with the ladies! [Laughs.]
Why did you come to Hong Kong?
I was dating this amazing girl who moved to Hong Kong for work, so I decided to join her on this journey not knowing what would happen. We’re married now with three awesome kids.
What are you up to when you’re not in the kitchen?
Aside from family and cooking, my other love is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I think I’m drawn to it because they have certain similarities that are needed in becoming a good chef. For example: solid fundamentals, creativity, humbleness. The faster chefs realise that it’s not a contest, the more creative their cooking becomes, and most importantly, [it’s about] enjoying the moment and trying to be happy.
Do you like the Vietnamese food in Hong Kong? If so, where do you go?
I don’t particularly go for Vietnamese in Hong Kong, but there’s one place I like in Sai Ying Pun. I think it’s called Vietnamese Restaurant, near HKU Station. It’s a no fuss, hole-in-the-wall [kind of place], but food is good there.
What do you have planned for Nhau? No pun intended!
Not sure, I’m still trying to figure it all out. Hopefully I can get one or two diners that can appreciate Vietnamese food for what it can be, and not what most people think it should be.
Nhau, 12 Circular Pathway, Central, Hong Kong; +852 3612 4568