Made of Iron

Far from his native Chicago, a chef carves out a career and life in Saigon with the help of a few choice words from his mother…

GABE BOYER’S MOTHER once said to him: “A love of food is a love of life.” That simple phrase guided him throughout his career as a chef. “It’s the one thing we all need several times a day, and it’s important,” says Gabe. “A bad meal is soul killing.”

However, when Gabe Boyer arrived in Vietnam in September of 2010, cooking was the furthest thing from his mind, let alone competing on the television show Iron Chef Vietnam. He came to take a break from working in kitchens, wanting to teach English and get away from the chaos of restaurants that had been his entire working life until that point.

After more than a year of teaching English, he decided to return to Chicago. It didn’t take long in a Chicago winter for him to miss riding his motorbike in the warmth of Vietnam. “I realized how much easier it is living here, and I had people [in Vietnam] begging me to work for them,” he explains. “So I hopped on a plane and when I got back I was hired as the sous chef at Chill Bar.” From there he was quickly promoted to executive chef, and not long after he transitioned over to Cirrus/Strata/Alto as their executive chef.

It was there where he was asked to compete on the cooking show. He was flattered, but initially turned down the offer. “Curiosity got the best of me,” Gabe admits. “I thought it would be good for my reputation and for business. I also thought I could do very well and wanted to find out.”

The show schedule proved rigorous as contestants were required to meet the crew at 5am each day to be transported to a new location to shoot an episode. “It was challenging, because I had to work until 10pm every night as well,” he recalls. “You’re exhausted and you have to be sharp to pull off the challenges. And they try to push you to get a reaction, or make you angry.”

Aided by a translator, the show marginalized him at first, but when he started to win challenges he earned more and more camera time as they drew closer to the final episodes. In the challenge that catapulted him into the final episode he created a durian stuffed squash blossom which he tempura fried and served with a spicy tamarind dipping sauce. The judges were so impressed they declared it the best creation of the competition to that point, and one judge, who owns Pho 24 among other restaurants, asked to put it on one of his menus.

No Glory

For the final show, the contestants were asked to make a fivecourse meal with a romantic theme using lobster as the main  ingredient. It was pouring that morning and they were forced to cook under a canopy, which only increased the difficulty. In the end, Gabe lost a heartbreakingly close competition. A tidy VND20 million prize as runner up helped soften the blow. He says the experience cemented his resolve to one day own a restaurant, the theme and style of which he keeps close to the vest.

“I’m generally disappointed by the upscale Western restaurants here,” he laments.

When asked to recommend his favorite fine restaurants in HCMC Gabe is reluctant but says he would tell people to visit the obvious three, The Deck in District 2, La Camargue, and Opera and Square One in the Park Hyatt. His personal favorites, though, are the snail restaurants in District 4 (along with a few others he prefers to keep secret).

Despite the long odds against having a successful restaurant – 95 per cent close within four years – it remains his dream. “Restaurant people. I love their personalities, their energy; true restaurant people are the same everywhere. I love going into a kitchen and getting ready for service, it charges me up.”

Of course the cooking was and is first. “Taking raw ingredients from the earth and turning them into a dish for people to enjoy, from wild chaos to a composed meal. It’s art.”

Even though he has cooked in a three-star Michelin restaurant, he claims that he wouldn’t want to create that type of food again. While a terrific experience, the level of complexity and pretentiousness required is over the top. The stress and worry that comes with acquiring, and keeping, those stars prevents many chefs from enjoying their lives and Gabe’s desire to make his life a rich one outweighs his desire for glory. Keeping his priorities clear, his mother’s early lesson is his beacon: A love of food is a love of life.

Image by NAM QUAN

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