You Don't Know Jack
For some time now, Metro Writers have been working on a full-length biography of Chef Jack Lee, Saigon's own celebrity chef to the stars.
I first interviewed Jack Lee for the December 2014 issue of Oi Vietnam magazine. He was highly engaging, amusing, and had a great story. As we were searching for a suitable client for our first major biography at the time, I introduced him to talented local writer NPD Khanh, who spent the next year interviewing, recording, and writing his life story for publication later this year.
I'll be writing more about the project as it nears completion, but for now, here are a few extracts from my very first conversation with Jack that didn't make the final article. Consider it a taster of the personality you'll read in Chef to the Stars. You can read Jack's full 2014 interview with me online here.
What brought you to Acacia?
Two days before the grand opening, I came to fill in for the previous chef. They threw me in here... so I literally had to come up with something really quick. You know, I cook for celebrities, so among my clients were Oliver Stone, Quincy Jones, David Foster...
What did you cook for them?
Same old same old, we did a lot of foie gras dishes back there, because now it's banned, in California it's banned. You can't use foie gras any more because of animal cruelty and stuff like that. You can still do it in New York, Vegas, you know, because there are a lot of big chefs there, so they contest it. But California, no. Calfornia's become, over the last five years, a notable culinary area. They're all into Paleo cuisine. You know you have Ellen Degeneris, Steve Jobs, they were all doing vegan. A lot of... shark fins were banned, foie gras was banned, I don't know what's next. I haven't really kept up, but they're banning a lot of stuff. So chefs are going broke. Hahaha!
So that's why I'm here! Haha... no, I'm here because I'm just helping, and for me something else too, it's a personal challenge, trying to create the best menu in Ho Chi Minh City. As a chef I like to compete.
I also do a lot of Asian fusion, because growing up here, and in the States... I am Asian, right? So, when I was trained under Chef Humberto [Contreras] and Douglas Dodd, Bruno, so they were California French. I learnt from them about eight years. I felt like I learnt enough, probably better than them, so I left. Then I created the Jack Cuisine. So what Jack Cuisine was, was using all these street foods, and making it beautiful. I felt like Asian food, a lot of family styles, just blat - you put it on a plate and everybody jumps in and shares. But where I learned the technique, the plating, the presentation - to me, presentation is everything. So I use Asian food, and I make it beautiful. So that's Jack.
Tell me about your $100 egg roll.
The $100 egg roll is a lifestyle. It's paired with Don Perrignon... our clientèle is so exclusive, you know sometimes they're billionaires. And they want it different. You know... "Jack, do something"... so we added gold leaf, we added the sevruga caviar, that stuff. So we did it for Li Ka-shing from Hong Kong... a lot for Coby Bryant, Shaquille... I'm very fortunate, I've catered for Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt... and at the same time, I'm pretty humble.
I go out and talk to locals - and you really do need to do that, because to understand the heart of Vietnam you really need to talk to the locals, right? They'll tell you what they like and don't like. Part of being a good chef is you have to respect their culture. Respect their food. Everything around you, and not just come in and think you're, "hey, I'm so and so, you have to like my food". That's why I love Jamie Oliver so much, because he understands culture. Even he was born in England, he would go to those home towns, and learn about Yorkshire pudding. I'm like Dude, you're a big chef, you want to learn about Yorkshire pudding? He spent three days talking to the locals and drinking with them, and understanding the history of Yorkshire pudding. It made it really meaningful, and that's what I'm trying to do.
I'm trying to develop and explore Vietnam, and get the essence of, the roots of, the real Vietnamese ingredients, and make a good plate out of it. So, bringing it back to the States, they would appreciate it. Especially movies stars. Movie stars are eating so healthy now, they think they're like, going to die in a few years! Because of all this botox, and surgery... trying to make up for the last ten years of their lives! Like what the hell? So I'm bringing this back and saying, "this is good for you".
I think not a lot of people understand what I'm trying to do. It's not about... they always ask, you know, why are you here? Because I didn't want to leave in the first place. But in the search for a better opportunity I left, and I lost the Vietnamese language, you know... and as I grew older, I fell in love with my motherland, you know, the roots. So coming back here, trying to fulfil my bucket list and also help Vietnam become a better country too - take away the MSG and take away the chemicals. Because here, we don't cook with MSG. So the expats really appreciate it.
Your signature is taking standard dishes and putting in these unique ingredients.
That's Jack's take on stuff. I cook how I eat, so every time I go to a restaurant, and instead of eating it, I'd first taste it and think, how would I make this my way and make it better. I'm not saying I'd make the best food, but I'm always trying to improve it, look at it differently. That's what makes me special, the celebrities really like me, they would hire me to do private stuff and I would cook to their persona as well. Like for Christina Aguilera I would make the plate and then we would do a genie in a bottle, because that's her song. And they love it. Then the presentation kicks in. We try to make every plate look good. We often eat with our eyes first.
So you're more of a visual artist in that respect?
Yeah, with food too. And that's why the celebs really like it, because I educate them about what they're eating, I bring the Asian greens to tell them like Randy Jackson, teach him how to eat some bok choys and stuff like that, because he's vegetarian. So at the same time I tried to audition for American Idol. He said "Just cook. Don't sing" "Keep your day job"
So for them, once they're educated all the celebrities they really appreciate it, so I wanted them to enjoy their meal. Make their every taste more meaningful. I also use plating, presentation, art, you know to personify certain celebrities. I can draw a face and do a salad, and like 'this is your dish'. So there's a thousand dishes out there... haha. But you know, to a point where I can literally just fix anything on the fly, because I'll be competing, travel different parts of the city using their ingredients. I guess that's my fault. It's because I left very early. So I'm always out there, I have to fight, and survive, and through that experience... Chef to the Stars will be released in mid-2016.