Mark Gustafson, 41, hand makes almost everything that gets served at Quan Ut Ut, the new American-style barbecue restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. PHOTO: CALVIN GODFREY
Mark Gustafson rolled into Saigon like some sort of seventeenth century porkmancer.
He brought knowledge of rib smoking, bacon curing and beer brewing to a town that had little. In a matter of six months, he has unleashed it all at the impressive riverfront eatery, Quan Ut Ut (roughly: “The Oink Oink Tavern”) which he opened with partners Tim Scott and Albin Deforges.
The response has been overwhelming. Crusty old white men are coming in from the provinces having heard rumors of fall-off-the-bone ribs and real bacon.
Thanks to Gustafson, Quan Ut Ut has opened an inter-dimensional pork portal unto Ho Chi Minh City's swine worshippers. Not surprisingly, it was packed before it officially opened.
On March 20, the three amigos hosted three tables of friends; Gustafson has spent every night since hunched over an overloaded 50 gallon grill putting the finishing touches on ribs, pork shoulders and chicken that have already been smoked to a perfect interior pinkness.
His cooking is impressive, athletic and done right out in the open.
Despite the fact that he plates every order in the packed, two-story restaurant, he responds to any and all inquiries about his ingredients, recipes and food philosophy with a wide midwestern grin and a straight answer.
I recently spent a morning with the 41 year old Chicago bear, watching him turn a sack of SABECO two-row malt and a few fistfuls of hand-carried hops into ten gallons of magnificent beer. The batch represented that last he'd hand bottle and it wouldn't be ready to drink for another three weeks.
He was kind enough to spend the morning, in a secret brewing location, explaining his origins and his decision to bet it all on barbeque.
Is it safe to say you're the brains of this operation?
I'd say I'm more the heart and soul of the operation. My partners Tim [Scott] and Albin [Deofrges] found our location and made it look super nice. They hired our killer staff. They're really the brains. I'm just the cook.
Have you always been a cook?
I did online sales for a car dealership -- well three dealerships, really -- in the suburbs north of Chicago and had a catering business on the side. Because of my BBQ, I ended up being pretty much their chef.
Gustafson working the grill on a recent evening. PHOTO: CALVIN GODFREY
How did you end up here?
A high school friend of my named Jake has lived out here for forever. I started coming out five years ago to visit and just fell in love. About a year and a half ago I did a 15-person BBQ for Jake's wedding. I went out and bought a grill at Yersin market and put the whole thing together. Afterward, Tim and Albin asked about maybe doing it as a business.
Really? How did you know those guys?
Jake brought Tim home for lollapalooza [a big Chicago music festival].
Tim's from Australia and wanted to know about barbeque. I was like “what do you want to know about? Memphis style? St. Louis Style? Carolina Style”
He was like: “I want it all.”
So I took a day off from work. We got train-wreck-drunk on my beer and just cooked. A lotta recipes for my sauces we used that day.
Nice. Were you sad to leave Chicago?
Dude, I'd worked the same corporate job for like 15 years. If I'd done it for another 15 years I'd probably have put a gun in my mouth.
What is Chicago-style barbecue?
Usually it involves steaming. Like, wrapping the ribs in foil and steaming them. A lot of time Chicago-style ribs are tough as nails; there's nothing good about 'em. What I do is smoke each rack for two and a half hours, then put them in an INOX pan, steam them. Then I grill them to build a nice little bark on the outside and hit them with the sauce.
A plate of pork shoulder drizzled in Gustafson's sweet, mustard-based Carolina sauce, grilled okra and green beans cooked in plenty of (actual) butter. PHOTO: CALVIN GODFREY
Has it been hard to get your hands on baby back ribs?
They didn't exist here! People are starting to get it. We go through about 200 kilos of ribs a week. I still send about two out of ten racks back.
A proper rack of ribs has 12 ribs, top to bottom, with a half a centimeter of meat on top of the bone. If there's not that half centimeter, it'll just fall apart into a mush and you can't serve it.
What's up with the plate of bacon on your menu? It's delicious. But, well it's a plate of bacon...
We wanted bacon for our burgers but we couldn't find what we wanted. So we started curing our own in brown sugar and nitrates. On opening night, one table ordered four plates of bacon. We've got 150 kilograms curing upstairs right now. We've got bacon ice cream. Bacon vodka. You could literally eat a whole bacon meal at our place right now.
Jesus. What about your beer?
I know how to brew. I made some batches and they were all good. We asked the police if we could brew at the restaurant and they said “no.” The law says if you have residents on either side, it's too dangerous. We've tried out some recipes because we wanted to see if there's some interest. And there is.
Cool. What was the recipe you settled on?
It's a nice, citrusy 4.2% cascade-hopped India Pale Ale. If I allowed people to, they could pound ten and feel good.
So when can I start coming here and drinking it full-time?
It'll be available on a large scale once soon. We're finding a small out-of-town brewery to start producing it en masse.
I'll be talking to some people in town about drinking it en masse. Thanks for your time.
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Quan Ut Ut
Add: 168 Vo Van Kiet Street, District 1, Ben Nghe Ward, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3914 4500
Opening hours: 4 pm - 11 pm every night (with lunch service and delivery to come)
Price: VND500,000 for a full rack of smoked ribs with three sides