German man's Vietnamese in laws help him open a broken rice eatery
Ralph Ludwig's Com Tam Ba Son in Phu My Hung urban area in HCMC's District 7
Making a proper plate of com tam Vietnamese broken rice does not come easily, even to experienced local chefs.
The dish, a typical specialty of South Vietnam, made from cheaper "broken rice," most commonly goes with a grilled pork chop, a fried egg, shredded pork skin and a pork-egg custard alongside pickled vegetables (usually carrots and parsnips, but sometimes also cucumbers and cabbage).
The dish is accompanied with super-sweet fish sauce and chili that northerners and people from the central region sometimes have a hard time getting down because of all the sugar.
But German Ralph Ludwig, who comes from Augsburg City in South Germany, has had no problem eating plate upon plate of the stuff. He fell in love with the dish so deeply that he now sells it at his own Com Tam Ba Son Restaurant.
With support from his Vietnamese wife's family, which has 40 years experience making com tam under its belt, Ludwig decided to open a restaurant named after his father in law, "Ba Son."
Opened in Ho Chi Minh City eight weeks ago, the venture has been successful so far.
At the age of 45, Ludwig looks agile and vivacious. In a T-shirt and shorts, he quickly moves up and down and in and out of the restaurant to manage things and help out his staff, to whom he seems very close and friendly. He looks like their friend, even though they call him "boss."
"We already have some loyal customers coming every day," he says. "At the moment, we're very happy."
Road to rice
His wife's family has been selling com tam in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap for decades. His uncle-in-law is still running the original Com Tam Ba Son Restaurant there.
| Ralph Ludwig
"It's not a franchise. It's a family business," Ludwig says.
Before coming up with the restaurant idea, he was thinking of retiring after 10 years of doing businesses in Vietnam.
For the first six years, he worked for Siemens group, an electronics giant from Germany, as CEO of the Communications Division. He looked after branches in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and South Korea from HCMC.
He was then appointed the position of CEO of Communications for China. The job required him and his wife to move to Hong Kong.
They lived there for fourteen months but they did not like the life there, so they returned and he started his new job in 2010 as General Director of the Schindler Ltd. Vietnam, specializing in elevator and escalator equipment sales.
But he decided to step out of the executive management last year and knew that he would need to do something to keep himself busy if he were to retire.
All in the family
The idea of opening the com tam restaurant came from his wife.
They called their parents for help and chose the Phu My Hung urban area in District 7 because Ludwig wanted to have a clean environment and a location that would attract foreign customers.
"I know they want to see a foreign face, and maybe they feel more confident about the food," he says.
Tran Thi Hong Hoa, his mother-in-law, has moved to the city to help out. She too was thinking about retiring, but she can't get enough of selling com tam.
Hoa now takes care of the kitchen as the main cook. Ludwig is in charge of management.
Speaking about his strategy to compete with the city's thousands of com tam shops, Ludwig said firmly that what makes people keep coming back to his place is the quality of the food, the restaurant's environment as well as its service.
As a businessman, he knows how to make "Com Tam Ba Son" a famous brand. "To develop a brand, we need to have sustainable quality," he says.
"About the taste, we cannot discuss, because your individual taste is different from mine, so we've been focusing on quality, sustainable quality, and good service."
He says that along with quality ingredients, it's cleanliness - from the table to the kitchen to the restroom - is the primary standard at his restaurant.
"This restaurant is a Vietnamese restaurant, with a very small part of Germany, that is, management from Germany."
"Clean, very clean, and professional as much as possible. We've also trained our waiters and waitresses very carefully to make sure they bring good service," he said.
He said the prices were a bit high because of the quality of the meat.
Apart from com tam, Ludwig's Com Tam Ba Son also offers a few German specialties: sausages and beer.
"Vietnamese can eat com tam everyday, but foreigners cannot," he says.
Ludwig is also super proud of the homemade lasagna he makes himself and sells at the shop. He smiles brightly as he shows it off, like a child happy with a major achievement.
The best thing about Com Tam Ba Son is the secrete meat marinade and fish sauce made with his mother-in-law's family recipe, handed down from generation to generation.
"I asked some customers why they come back. And they answers "˜your fish sauce is delicious and we particularly like meat"¦ soft and not dry.'"
Ludwig's favorite "funny and surprising story" from his shop is about the day a group of Vietnamese people on motorbikes stopped at his place and ordered some com tam to take away.
COM TAM BA SON
SB10, 1 Nguyen Luong Bang Street, Phu My Hung, District 7, HCMC
They looked at the menu prices of around VND55,000-70,000 per dish of com tam, and complained that the price was too high, and that they could have the same com tam at half of those prices at a place not very far from there.
But they decided to try Ludwig's com tam, and now they come back almost every day.
Only two among his 15 waiters and waitresses speak good English so he and his wife are there to help foreigners.
"But in the meantime, they are trying to learn English. They like to work for me because they want speak English to improve themselves."
"I like to work with Vietnamese people, especially the young, because they are keen to learn, they are fast learners, and most
of them want to work and want to improve, and they love to
keep themselves busy. What I like more in Vietnam is that we always have a lot of business opportunities. If you have some particular good idea, and you are keen on it, you can easily get success," he said.
At the moment, Ludwig still runs his own company in Germany apart from Com Tam Ba Son, but he spends almost all his time in Vietnam and just looks out for that company via phone or email through a general director over there.
"I want to spend the rest of my life in Vietnam, definitely."
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