One of my favorite things about traveling is the people we meet. We have met a ton of amazing locals, travelers and foodies everywhere we have been; every once in a while we meet someone really inspiring. We met such a person in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. He is a chef, entrepreneur, restauranteur, farmer and passionate foodie. It was while attending his cooking school, Ho Chi Minh Cooking Class, that we met Chef Tan, a man after my own heart. He not only believes in healthy eating, he lives it and encourages everyone else to live it as well. He is passionate about sustainable, local foods, organic farming and understands that food that nourishes the soul can also benefit the body. He started his cooking class after returning to Vietnam from Melbourne, Australia where he was a chef and where he still owns two restaurants. Although everyone called him crazy for starting his own cooking class and crazier still for starting a farm in soil that was more like clay, he stuck to his guns (and picked up a few earthworms to soften the soil) and now runs classes out of his gorgeous facility on his 15 acre farm. His classes range from a few hours to chef training that lasts a few weeks; many of his graduates have gone on to start their own restaurants (including a fellow Coloradan who nows runs a restaurant in Gunnison, CO!).
During the few hours we spent with Chef Tan we cooked four amazing courses and everything we cooked was fresh- I know this because we picked all the herbs and vegetables ourselves in his organic garden. Chef Tan not only grows his own vegetables and herbs; he also has rice patties and keeps pigs, chicken, ducks, cows and prawns and brews his own rice wine and rice beer. Every single thing we cooked and ate during our class came from his farm- talk about eating locally!
Our class started with a tour of the farm, from the mushrooms to the peanut plants to the hole in the ground that becomes a lake during the rainy season. Throughout it all, Chef Tan’s passion for the food and the farm came through in his every word and action. He was a wealth of information about the herbs and vegetables we picked. At every herb we would stop and he would give us some insights before we picked a handful of the herbs. He had us pick just a few extra garlic chives which, he informed us, would come in handy if any of us had really shoddy knife skills and cut ourselves as a paste of garlic chives would stop the bleeding almost immediately. He warned us that there were snakes, but not to worry, we were picking Vietnamese mint which would stop the poison from the snakes. He warned us that many westerners get sick eating street food but that a few bites of basil would stop the…errr… runs. Naturally, we help ourselves to plenty of basil when eating street food now!
I have always loved Vietnamese food. The flavors are so clean, and the food is so healthy- tons of fresh herbs and vegetables and small amount of meat to complement the vegetables. I love the tangy pickled veggies that always seem to accompany the sweet meats. However, no matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to re-create my favorite dishes. Turns out, I was way over complicating things (What? Me? No way!). The meals we cooked at Ho Chi Minh Cooking Class were so simple. It was about quality ingredients and balancing sweet, salty, sour and spicy. We used many of the same herbs and sauces for our dishes, but combined them in different ways to create different flavors.
After the tour, everyone was sent to wash up before we started our first course- spring rolls. We reconvened in the beautiful outdoor kitchen where we each had our own station set up. Chef Tan walked us through each step and since everyone cooked their own dish he encouraged us to make our dishes to our own liking, adding spices as we liked. His recipes were based on ratios- very simple but very flavorful. They were also easy to follow and could easily be adapted for one person or a large dinner party. While he taught us traditional Vietnamese recipes, he put his own unique and flavorful spin on everything. We made traditional spring rolls which were great by themselves but then he had us wrap them in fresh mint, basil and mustard leaves and they were absolutely out of this world!
I really loved the way the class was set up. We cooked one dish, sat down to rehydrate and enjoy the fruits of our labor before doing it all over again. It broke up the class, gave us a chance to appreciate each dish individually and (most importantly) we were not ravenous by the time we ate. After enjoying our spring rolls we started in on one of my favorite Asian dishes- papaya salad. Only this time we dressed it up by adding a few pieces of flavorful grilled pork marinated with ginger, lemon grass and five spice- another of Chef Tan’s unique and delicious touches.
We followed that up with a super easy and unbelievably delicious stewed chicken in clay pots with some of the home-grown oyster mushrooms. Another easy dish that could be made for one or scaled up during the cold winter months.
We finished with Chef Tan’s most famous and requested recipe- banana spring rolls with coconut cream. After one bite, we understood why they were his number one requested recipe!
We had a great time, learning, cooking and eating. It was a ways outside of Ho Chi Minh City but absolutely worth it. It was great to get away from the noise and crowds of the city and escape to his picturesque farm and for a few hours. Not to mention it was some of the best food we have had and Chef Tan was an absolute joy.
We were guests of Chef Tan, but all opinions are 100% my own. Thanks for a great class, Chef Tan!