Celebrity chef Jack Lee opens up about his rough childhood, a USD100 eggroll and his planned comeback.

If you go nowhere else this month, don’t miss out on the chance to take a meal at Compass Parkview’s Acacia Veranda Dining (149-151 Nguyen Du, D1, which reopens after remodeling on December 15) and shake the hand of the head chef – it’s about the closest you’re ever going to get to the likes of Angelina Jolie, William Shatner, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. Acacia’s cheeky cuisinier Jack Lee – an honest-to-goodness celebrity in his own right back in Hollywood – has cooked for them all, and with his extensive experience as a TV personality, culinary artist, and caterer to the stars, you might be justified in wondering if he’s not perhaps a little big for this town – it’s a bit like finding Mark Zuckerberg teaching English at VUS. Under normal circumstances you’d be right – this is hardly the place for a Hollywood high roller – were it not for the fact that this is the city where Jack Lee was born.

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Originally known in these parts as Lý Vĩnh Viễn, Jack is back – and he’s already making a splash in a city where he has the curious distinction of being its most famous unheard-of son. Until his surprising performance in the local Golden Spoon awards in August, he was relatively (if not entirely) unknown in Vietnam – and this is a situation he intends to remedy with his own distinctive flair.

“It’s a really funny story,” he chuckles, taking a few minutes out from the kitchen where he’s training his local sous chefs to emulate the signature Asian/California French fusion cuisine he regularly serves at celebrity events. “The owner’s wife here took me out to see the ceramics at Van Thanh Park. It was my second day back, I was looking at all the plates, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, why are there so many stoves set up here? What are we cooking?’ Then the security guy starts chasing me around, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Who are you?’ and so I go, ‘I’m Jack Lee, who are YOU?’ He said, ‘We don’t know any Jack Lee here.’ So the owner, Cindy, the wife, she’s like, Hey hey, he’s a visitor.’ He said, ‘Visitors have to stand over there, because we have a competition.’ So I went and I said, ‘What competition? Can I join?’ They said, ‘Who are you anyway? Can you cook?’ I said ‘Well… I can cook a little…’ Then they told me, ‘It’s too late. People have to take one month to prepare. We don’t even know if you can cook, do you even have a menu?’ So I wrote one down on a napkin and said, ‘Here’s my menu!’”

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Jack’s boldness got him a spot in the contest, and before long he found himself among the competitors. “I had fun in there,” he grins. “In the States, we have 20 minutes to prepare, but here they have two hours. So I took a nap, I had a coffee break, cigarette break, they’re like, this is insulting! Nah, I’m just kidding, we had a lot of fun. Short story is, I placed second. Considering I had five hours total to put it all together, you know. So they were all, ‘Who are you again?’ I’m half Jackie Chan half Bruce Lee man, I’m Jack Lee.”

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Placing in the Golden Spoon may serve as an appropriate platform to announce the return of the wayward son who made it big overseas, but to Jack, it’s not something he takes for granted. “Part of being a good chef and doing catering is that you’ve got to do a lot of marketing,” he says. “Getting out there, networking. I have to be good at networking. Be on the scene, and then hopefully they go, ‘Hey! We have a birthday coming up, why don’t you cook for it?’ The high-end niche is different. You constantly have to be there.”

It’s also not the first time Jack has had to start building his reputation again from scratch. Diagnosed with severe sleep apnea just a few years ago, Jack underwent intensive surgery on his jaw and tongue that significantly damaged his gustatory nerves. “I lost my taste for like 10 months,” he says, “so I lost a lot of accounts – because in Hollywood, outta sight, outta mind. They nearly forget you. I had to climb my way back up. So doing this is to let the world know I’m back. I compete a lot on TV because I want to know for myself where I stand. Even in Vietnam I want to know. I’ve come back here and I want to be the number one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. So I go to eat everywhere and I’m trying to taste everything, seeing what it’s made of, and trying to make it better.”

Food is Art

Developing the cuisine for Acacia has been a creative process that Jack has undertaken with the seriousness of a fine artiste. Known for taking Asian street food concepts and transforming them into haute cuisine by using superior ingredients and fine plating techniques (his most notorious creation was a USD100 egg roll made with Maine lobster tail, sevruga caviar, and Alaskan king crab garnished with a gold leaf), Jack regularly releases collections of dishes that are literally sequences of fine art. Focusing as much on color contrasts and symbolic representation as they do on matching tastes, Jack’s oeuvres stretch traditional conceptions of the way art plays to our senses. Part of his mission in Vietnam is to work on the next collection he’ll be showing off in Tinsel Town, which will feature the exotic tastes of Vietnam – although while he’s developing his creative work, he’s also focusing on bringing classic Vietnamese ingredients to the standard of international dining for connoisseurs here.

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“I do a lot of Asian fusion,” he says. “I was trained in California French cuisine for about eight years. Then I created the ‘Jack Cuisine’ which basically was using all these street foods, and making it beautiful. I feel that Asian food, a lot of family styles, is just splat – you put it on a plate and everybody jumps in and shares. But I’d learned all that technique, the plating, the presentation – to me, presentation is everything. So I use Asian food and I make it beautiful.”

“I was born in Cho Lon. Actually, my first taste of foie gras, pate, was in Cho Lon. A lot of kebabs, the skewers, that stuff. Now that I’m back, I’m trying to develop and explore Vietnam, and get the essence of it, the roots, the real Vietnamese ingredients, and make a good plate out of it. There are a lot of exotic ingredients here. For me, it’s personal interest as well, trying to create and develop a new type of cuisine. In LA they always say ‘from farmers to table,’ you know? But here, it’s really true! You go out there, you go to Ben Thanh [Market], you literally have all these vegetables, these plants, the freshest fish. For me, it’s really a blessing to have that.”

Acacia’s menu is replete with examples of what Jack’s doing with local ingredients, and we start with a particularly delicious case in point – the scallops with soursop sauce (VND208,000). Garnished with a shaped taro leaf, the contrast of flavors immediately reveals the benefits of an innovative use of local fruits. “I always want to be the first,” says Jack. “That’s why this has really become very interesting for me – I get addicted. I feel like soursop is the perfect blend for seafood. We do a similar thing with guava and salted ribs – braising them together so you get that taste.”

Jack’s foie gras with passionfruit sauce (VND188,000) is similarly exciting on the palate. “Foie gras is known to be really fatty,” says Jack, “so I usually pair it up with fruits. I do a lot of foie gras in the States, where I do it with rhubarb and strawberry sauce. But here, the passionfruit really hit me. So I pair it with passionfruit, dragon fruit and kiwi. It all comes together. I have had customers come in and say that this is the best foie gras they’ve had in a while.” I can vouch for that – with the foie gras gently cooked to form a delicate crispy shell, the passionfruit sauce flows into the creamy meat paste on the tongue at the first bite, immediately setting off fireworks, and making it easily the most extraordinary dish of the evening.

Hearing that I’m from New Zealand, Jack’s quick to recommend his lamb chops (VND388,000). He’s very focused on matching his food and presentation to the individual diner – he once even cooked a  ‘genie in a bottle’ for Christina Aguilera. Again, the lamb embodies his signature flair and flavor matching. “We use the local herbs to marinate it, we use the cherry sauce to make it, and then we use a mint oil and a local black vinegar,” he tells me. “Then you have a little mashed potato, but we mix it with lotus – which is actually good for curing insomnia. Helps you to sleep.”

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While we have a brief dalliance with Jack’s quesadillas (VND98,000) – a very popular dish that uses imported tortillas rolled with chicken and local white eggplant and served with guacamole – for the main course we choose a US prime rib with wine sauce (at VND388,000 for 200 grVND488,000 for 300 grams). There’s a little performance involved with this one. “When I take a bite of this,” Jack demonstrates, “I usually put a dash of red wine on the meat to enhance it.” He then takes the liberty of dousing our steak from my glass of Australian Shiraz. “It adds a little sweetness. We do that in the States – I teach the celebrities to do it, they’re all like ‘woo yeah!’” For the record, Jack’s not wrong, and the effect is something like an instant marinade, standing comfortably tart against the richer wine sauce. “The sauce is a reduction of red wine and beef stock. We make everything from scratch. We don’t do shortcuts here; I don’t allow them to use MSG – so it’s very clean. If you cook the beef, slow-roast it long enough, the meat itself will release the umami, the natural MSG of the meat. So you really don’t need to add anything else.”

With all these fine dishes, perhaps the only thing missing is his USD100 egg roll – I ask him if he has any plans to introduce it to Acacia’s menu, and he laughs. “Not really. Maybe we can do a VND100,000 egg roll here.”

Point of origin

For young Lý Vĩnh Viễn, the road to becoming Jack Lee was unforgiving. “I cooked because I could relate to my mom,” he says. “We were always in the kitchen cooking. It was our bonding time. So that was good. Cooking would always bring me back to home.” Their happiness was short-lived, however. “I left when I was nine,” he says sadly. “My father passed a few days before I went. Mom was pregnant at that time. She wanted me to have a better opportunity, so she sent me off. It was very hard. Knowing he died. And my mom put me in a boat and she said it was a joy ride. A few days later I was in Singapore, you know, and I didn’t know why my dad died and why Mom didn’t want me.”

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Even after all these years, Jack’s pain is still palpable, and he gets so choked up that it takes some time for him to compose himself before he can continue his story. “She wanted me to be something. Vietnam back then was really tough. Then I learned  to depend on myself, you know. I worked various jobs sending money home, because I have three brothers and one sister. I was working when I was 13 years old, packing food. I always got beat up because I was too slow. It was tough.”

In those conditions, the only ray of light turned out to be American television sitcoms. “I struggled trying to learn English at that age by watching Three’s Company,” he says. “I named myself Jack after the character Jack Tripper. He became a chef, and I became a chef.” It turned out to be a good move – before too long, he was studying with some of the biggest names in the industry, working at the prestigious Bel Air Hotel, and then moving on to create Chinoise Cuisine, the catering service that would see him rubbing shoulders with famous people.

With that said, Lý Vĩnh Viễn shakes himself and all the camp slapstick of the Jack Tripper persona returns. He motions to our photographer, “Hey, do you want a good fire shot?” And then they’re in the kitchen, the flames leaping from his frying pan as he writhes and kicks for the camera, hoo-ing and ha-ing like Bruce Lee, laughing like he probably never could as a kid. Just a short cab ride away from the little kitchen in Cho Lon where he once stood next to his mother, grinning as the two of them cooked together for his family, yes – Jack is back.

Images by Ngoc Tran.