Saigon's Celeb Chef
Chef Jack Lee has cooked for some of Hollywood's most famous stars but he's taken a sabbatical from Tinseltown to showcase his virtuoso talents at Acacia Veranda Dining, in Saigon, his hometown. By Connla Stokes. Photographed by Morgan Ommer.
Published on Sep 14, 2015
NO ONE COULD EVER SAY that Jack Lee was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but by the time he reached adolescence, this child of Cholon, Saigon's historic Chinatown, long had been wielding a kitchen ladle. Poor, widowed and with five children, Lee's mom in 1980 sent her nine-year-old son, née Ly Vinh Vien, off on a boat to Singapore, and then the U.S. From that point on, his efforts in kitchens both paid tribute to his mother, who had taught him to cook, and allowed him to send money back to his family. He worked his way from the very bottom of L.A.'s culinary industry—bussing tables at age 12 for minimum wage—to the tip top, as the banquet chef at Hotel Bel-Air, before opening his own business, Chinoise Cuisine. But now Lee has embarked on another challenge: coming home.
Chef Jack Lee.
Best known in certain quarters for creating the "hundred-dollar egg roll" (Maine lobster, Alaskan crab, summer black truffle, sevruga caviar and gold leaf garnish), Lee's client list reads like a who's who of L.A.—Angelina Jolie, Kobe Bryant, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey to name but a few. Yet for all the Hollywood hype, the Viet kieu, who always takes his food seriously but never himself, was a complete unknown in his home country, where he has taken up residence as head chef at Acacia Veranda Dining. "My friend tricked me into coming. He said, 'Oh I have this worldclass kitchen in District 1, which is like the Beverly Hills of Saigon,'" he says with a wink when asked why he has returned. "But honestly, my only regret is I didn't come back earlier."
Better late than never, say Saigon's epicures, who quickly got wind of Lee's talents (and effervescent personality) thanks to his innate flair for PR—he is already the celebrity chef on two Vietnamese TV shows. On his return to the motherland, Lee is clearly out to electrify Saigon's relatively circumspect fine-dining scene. "That's why I am really here—to put Acacia Veranda Dining on the map," says Lee, who has infused his exquisite Asian-French-Californian cuisine with a plethora of fresh local tropical fruits.
To get the gist of his self-styled nouveau "Jack Cuisine," try the watermelon-seafood martini before sampling either the foie gras, enriched by a passion fruit sauce, or the scallops, abetted by a viscous and delicious soursop sauce. For a main, get the guavainfused short ribs or a lamb chop marinated with local herbs. Having access to fresh Asian produce "is a dream come true because I've always used fruits in my alcohol reductions," Lee says.
Herb-marinated lamb chops in a balsamic-cherry sauce.
He insists you try a slow-roasted prime rib au jus. But watch your wine glass, because Lee's likely to snag it to splash your beef with a little extra red tableside. The fast flair should be no surprise coming from a man who says he's part Jackie Chan and part Bruce Lee. To which we'd also add, 100-percent his mother's son. 8F Compass Parkview, 149-151 Nguyen Du, District 1, Saigon; +84 8 3823 5221.