Cooking to captivate

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Press Club's Executive chef Marcel Isaak at work

Marcel Isaak may work in a restaurant redolent with appeal of a bygone era, but the food he plates is right up to the minute.

Chef Isaak is the group executive chef at the Press Club, a fine dining institution that's won renown in Hanoi for its hearty steaks, exemplary cuisine, and old world charm. The restaurant is at the forefront of the capital's flourishing culinary enterprises, and the task of keeping the Press Club ahead of the competition has, for the past seven years, fallen into Isaak's frying pan.

Although also popular for its splendid interiors which mirror 1920s Indochine-era hotels, much of the Press Club's reputation rests on the expertise of the amiable, 51-year-old Isaak. His creations fuse his long experience with distinctive local ingredients.

"My first impression of the Press Club is that it is a venue for the cognoscenti to come and gorge themselves silly on sinfully good food," said Ishtar, IgoUgo Inc.

Whatever curiosity did for the cat, it has served the Swiss-born chef well. After an apprenticeship with a French Master Chef at the Union Hotel in Lucerne, Isaak embarked on an international career with premier hotels across five continents. Before arriving in Hanoi, Isaak rolled up his sleeves in places as far-flung as Shanghai, New Delhi, Guam, Sydney, Chicago and Caracas.

"Early in my job I realized there were drastic culture changes and completely different environments only a few hours away," he says. "My interest has always been in travel, and learning about cultures through food. I wanted to push the limits, to see more, to explore more."

In 1994, Isaak's career brought him briefly to Vietnam, where he met the future general manager of the Press Club, and co-authored a book, The Food of Vietnam. "I had an excellent time in Ho Chi Minh City," he recalls, "But I kept thinking my life was not fulfilled yet."

Isaak's wanderlust led him to India, where he sidelined as a host for a TV cooking show, and later spent years familiarizing himself the with cuisine of Indonesia, Guam and Singapore before returning to China, where one day he received a call from an old friend.

"Kurt called and said, "˜Wanna come down here?'" remembers Isaak, "I was excited, I had never been to Hanoi. First, I convinced my wife; then, I packed my bags."

Kurt Walter, who Isaak met on his first visit to Vietnam, was now group general manager of the Press Club, a six-story property designed by a French architect to give a timeless face to Hanoi's ever-changing dining and social scene. The 86-seat continental restaurant is the venue for many of the capital's distinguished informal get-togethers.

Since his arrival, Isaak has elevated the Press Club's menu to levels on par with his five-star background in the food and beverage industry. The 15-year-old restaurant has earned a nod as "Best International Restaurant" from the Vietnam Economic Times for six consecutive years.

"Dishes at the Restaurant in Press Club rival any to be found on the menu in New York or London," writes Sarah Murray of Financial Times. "Food, service, ambience: fantastic," was the verdict of restaurant critic Gail Williams.

The secret ingredient, Isaak says, is great staff. "The people make a heck of a lot of difference," he says. "When I look at our kitchen and the service we produce on a daily basis, I believe we could serve anybody at any time, and they won't leave disappointed. That's because our staff have a lot of pride in doing a good job. You have to respect your staff; once you do, you can keep them forever."

The inanimate elements in the kitchen, however, have a much higher turnover. The Press Club has fresh produce delivered every day, and the menu is adjusted every three months to include seasonal dishes.

The chef admits he has taken to Hanoi as eagerly as Hanoi has taken to his Salmon Praline with Champagne Sabayon and Caviar - in a word, totally.

"Hanoi is definitely not boring. People here are young, the city is alive and exciting, it challenges me all the time," he says. Having just cleared 50, Isaak says he will continue doing what he loves, without distractions. "I'm happy for the superstars, but writing another book or a blog would take too much time away from cooking. I prefer to do things the old-fashioned way."

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