At the age of 31, Adrian Scotti looks like a shy student. It's hard to believe that he takes care of both The Deck and Mekong Merchant, two of Ho Chi Minh City's most hip expat eateries.
Scotti is the head chef and manager of the District 2 establishments, both of which offer some of the best Western-Asian cuisine available here. Before coming to work in HCMC, he worked in Nottingham, England as a chef cooking traditional homemade English dishes, and he then worked as a chef in France for a year.
But Vietnam takes the cake.
For expats like Scotti, originally from England, it's easy to see the lure of Vietnam: "I have more opportunities to do things here than in England... Before I never thought that I could run two restaurants at the same time."
For chefs, it's even easier to see the draw: "Vietnamese cuisine is full of flavors and very fresh. The fish sauce when used in the right way is very nice. The herbs here are very good, the sweet basil has strong flavors which make salad dishes interesting."
Scotti says he tries to use Asian influences to enhance the flavors he knows from his homeland. For his unique Vietnamese-style fish sauce, he adds ginger, chili, garlic, mint, coriander and sugar.
At The Deck, possibly the city's premier water-front dining spot, Scotti has created a brief but impressive fusion menu with special tropical dishes such as Duck Watermelon Salad and Pine Apple Seafood Civeche.
"It is interesting to see how one culture cooks and I find there are so many things to learn here. I like fusion food, for example our Duck Watermelon Salad. The dish has the special softness of fruit, freshness of the fruit, richness of roasted duck, the crunch of cashew nuts and perfume of herbs. It brings a lot of flavors together."
But running a restaurant is not all fun and games. Bogged down with managerial work, Scotti misses the pure creativity of simply cooking.
"Sometimes I miss the time spending the whole day in the kitchen. I love to work with my hands and touching the ingredients, instead of working with the computer."
But he always has time to savor the flavor of Vietnam.
His favorite dishes are homemade bun bo Hue (Hue beef noodle soup), bo kho (beef stew) and hu tiu (rice noodles) cooked by his Vietnamese girlfriend.
"I'm tempted by banh bao (meat-stuffed buns), tao pho (sweet tofu), fruit juice and pho (beef noodle soup) for late night snacks. During the weekend, we go to the local restaurants and try all the special dishes. So far, I haven't had a bad experience. I've even tried the dishes made with animal entrails and chicken feet to understand more about the local style."
The Deck is located at 38 Nguyen U Di Street, An Phu Ward while the Mekong Merchant's address is 23 Thao Dien Street.