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‘I find it pretty ironic that we’re serving this as my lunch, because I don’t serve noodles,’ says Bao La, head chef of Le Garçon Saigon and Le Petit Saigon, as we slurp on the bún bò Huế that his mother, who happens to be visiting, has made for staff meal.

‘But it’s something I really do enjoy eating. This bowl here is probably my death row meal,’ he jokes. Of Vietnamese descent, Bao grew up in Brisbane, Australia, where his parents ran a Vietnamese restaurant, serving suburban favourites like spring rolls and pho. When it came to running his own place, however, he was adamant about showcasing the vast repertoire of Vietnamese food beyond those almost-stereotypical offerings. Le Garçon Saigon is first and foremost a grill restaurant, featuring Vietnamese-style barbecue. In Ho Chi Minh City, where Bao’s parents are from, barbecue restaurants with open-air grills are well-loved and popular for celebrations and get-togethers. Whole pigs are grilled on a spit, while prawns and clams sizzle on the grate, destined to be eaten southern Vietnamese style — with a mountain of fresh herbs and dressings laced with fish sauce.

Chef Bao La of Le Garçon Saigon explains his food philosophy while overlooking the Starstreet Precinct
Bao’s visiting mother, who ran a Vietnamese restaurant in Australia, made traditional bún bò Huế for lunch

So why doesn’t he serve noodles? ‘One of the reasons is because you can't really talk,’ he says. To him, dining out together is a chance to spend quality time with one another, something increasingly difficult in today’s world. ‘I mean, this is what we're missing in our daily lives. We're so fixated on what's happening on the phone or whatever. I see it all the time. Sometimes I see a couple here, and I think to myself, it’s a date night isn't it? One’s on the phone, the other’s on the phone. I'm addicted to my phone as well, but I think I know when to put it down. I do this thing, where I take one photo of the food, then later on if I find out it's bad, tough luck.’

It’s thanks to these photos that Bao posts on Instagram (that are far from ‘bad’) that I discovered he’d been travelling quite extensively recently, exploring Vietnam further, as well as Yunnan and Sichuan in China. These travels, which have taken him from pulsating cities like Chongqing to ancient trade routes like Tea Horse Road, have been an eye-opening experience for the young chef, including a rude awakening about the amount of waste society generates. 

Visiting Côn Đảo, the fabled Vietnamese resort island, and seeing the amount of rubbish accumulated on one side of the isle, Bao started avoiding single-use packaging, and brings his own containers on his regular market runs. ‘I don’t want to preach,’ he says, ‘but if you know you're going to go grocery shopping and you're going to buy things, you already know, right? It’s not that hard. I think slowly it just becomes a habit.’

The chef enjoys talking over food, which is why he doesn’t serve noodles
Bún bò Huế’s key ingredients are rice noodles, pork and beef. While it’s said to originate from Vietnam’s former capital Huế, Bao believes there may be some Chinese influence

These travels have also given him a deeper cultural understanding of Vietnam and the surrounding areas. ‘We're always told about “traditional” food, but traditional food comes from somewhere, it just doesn't appear out of thin air. It’s influenced on so many other levels. So travelling was something really cool, to see how much borders play a part in cuisine,’ he says. As a chef who’s committed to creating a new lexicon for Vietnamese cuisine, tasting the food of these borders has given him new perspective.

‘When I was travelling through Vietnam, especially up in the north towards like Phổng Lăng and Ninh Bình, you can really tell how much the Thai border influenced the cuisine. There’s a lot of bushland and rainforest, and back in the day, this is where, if people wanted to make a living, they’d cross the border, go into the woods and do tree logging, and by going into the woods, you meet the minorities, and just that border crossing the changes the food a little bit. You see the exchange. One thing I saw the most was roast chicken. They catch wild chickens and roast them with spices — a lot of native leaves, native peppercorn, native chillies, that flavour really permeates. It's very different to food down south. You can see some of the dipping sauces, it tastes a little bit Thai, but then there are Vietnamese elements to it at the same time. So you see this crossover.’ 

Bao also observed some crossover between northern Vietnam and southern China. ‘There was also Hà Giang and Kunming — and I don’t want to say a huge crossover, but there was a little bit of Vietnamese influence. So a dish called bánh cuốn, which is I guess, a Cantonese cheung fun or steamed rice paper roll equivalent — it’s a dish that, in the north of Vietnam, is traditionally made with fillings like pork mince and black fungi. When I was in Kunming they had people doing pickled cabbage, tofu — just normal Chinese ingredients, but inside bánh cuốn.’

Looking down at his lunch, he muses, ‘I reckon at some point in time, bún bò Huế might have come from China somewhere.’