Benjamin Attwater, chef de cuisine at Square One restaurant in Park Hyatt Saigon, at work
Benjamin Attwater came to Saigon nine months ago to cook.
The tall Australian exudes a boyish enthusiasm for his work. At the age of 26, Attwater has attained the rank of chef de cuisine at the Park Hyatt Saigon's restaurant, Square One.
Attwater grew up in a household that placed a high premium on food and culture. His father is an art dealer; his mother, Helen, is an avid cook. From a young age, Attwater stood at his mother's side helping to prepare French and Italian meals for frequent dinner guests.
"When Benjamin was a kid, he often worked with me in the kitchen," Helen told Thanh Nien Weekly. By the time he was eight, she said, Attwater had concocted his own lemon and mustard marinade an item he still uses for chicken at Square One.
Vietnam has proven a grand and challenging adventure for the young Westerner.
"I did not choose Vietnam," Attwater said. "My job took me here. But I always wanted to work in Asia where the culture, lifestyle and cuisine are so different."
Once on the ground, Attwater dove into the culture and cuisine full-bore. Attracted by the food's simplicity, he took careful measures to explore Vietnam's complex flavors.
Amelie Nguyen, a frequent French -Vietnamese diner, was shocked by his knowledge of traditional ingredients. Nguyen said she had shied away from the pungent diep ca heart leaf herb until Attwater incorporated it into a sesame sashimi. He carefully balanced diep ca's fishy flavor with a few thia la (dill) leaves. "The dish was a real surprise," Nguyen said.
According to his staff, Attwater walks a careful line between East and West. "Benjamin has many ideas about Vietnamese food," said Tat Ha My Linh, a member of Attwater's kitchen team at Square One. Linh says he tempers his fascination with exotic Vietnamese spices with subtle western herbs, like thyme.
Attwater remains a perpetual student in the kitchen, she added. He's always curious to try new things and learn from his environment.
When he considers serving duck, for example, Attwater asks his Vietnamese staff how their mothers go about preparing it. He may seek to minimize oil and fat in the process, but he'll try to stay true to traditional ingredients and techniques.
For Attwater, the presentation of a cuisine should reflect a culture's history.
This April, he organized the Art & Cuisine menu at Square One. The menu pairs five dishes with five Vietnamese paintings. The idea was to take diners on a cultural journey, of sorts.
Attwater paired "Young Lady," a work by Nguyen Luong Trieu Bach, former headmaster of the Hanoi University of Fine Art, with a tasting plate of Nha Trang rock lobster.
The laquer on wood portrait was produced in 1974 amidst the deprivations of the war. Paints were considered a luxury item at that time, Attwater said. For this reason, he paired the work with a decadent Assiette of rock lobster.
In his opinion, the food culture in Vietnam resembles that of France or Italy. The food is regional and fresh "” each dish the culmination of a great tradition. He thinks it will take around 400 years for Australia to catch up. Food there, he said, is the same all over.
Attwater plans to introduce a selection of Vietnamese hot pot and noodle dishes in August. Prior to formulating the menu, the young chef plans to research the dishes, sample them at different restaurants and, of course, ask his staff what their mothers think.