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Life Support: Alex Duncan

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Life Support: Alex Duncan

By: Alex Duncan, Group Account Director

I’ve always loved cooking. My grandmother taught me a lot about American and European food growing up, so I’ve been seriously cooking since I was a child and have hoped to complete an immersive cooking experience for my sabbatical since I started at TMA eight years ago.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere that got me out of my comfort zone and daily habits. Though I’ve been to southeast Asia several times and loved it, not knowing much about the food or culture of Vietnam specifically made it seem like the right place to learn something new.  

Planning my journey

I chose to study at HCM Cooking class with Chef Tan, an Australian-Vietnamese chef who offers private, professional instruction. Chef Tan’s school is located in Cu Chi, about an hour and a half outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon.) He mostly works with students who are interested in opening their own Vietnamese restaurants.

Classes are taught in an open air pagoda and overlook his organic farm, where every ingredient that we cooked with was grown or raised. He also has a background in holistic medicine and uses many of the herbs as preventative cures for common diseases. 

What I learned

Chef Tan taught me 30 different dishes over a period of three intense days. Everything from the Beef Pho he once prepared for Anthony Bourdain, to fried oyster mushrooms, to my favorite dish: pork belly with fried quail eggs in a clay pot.

I also learned the principals of Vietnamese cooking, which can be compared to a “happy family.” Every dish needs:

  • A mother who is sweet: sugar
  • A father who is salty: in Vietnamese cooking it is fish sauce, in Chinese cooking it is soy sauce, and in western cooking it is salt
  • The first child who is sour: kumquat or lime juice
  • The second child doesn’t matter: water
  • Something spicy to keep the love alive: chili sauce

Farm to Table

I learned about farming methods and spent some time picking fruits, vegetables, and herbs that can be used for different ailments. HCM has an amazing mushroom house where the soil from the nearby rubber tree forest is used to grow giant oyster mushrooms. After living with Type 1 Diabetes for 11 years, I have great interest in understanding where food comes from and how it affects your overall health. Chef Tan told me that bitter melon would rid me of my diabetes if I ate it consistently for 3 months.

We also visited a rural market where several locals wanted to take pictures with us––most Vietnamese people in this area don’t see Americans often. There we saw live seafood, frogs, rats, and other proteins I won’t mention. Vietnamese cuisines is heavily influenced by their history and nothing is left to waste.

To get even closer to nature, we stayed in an AirBnB located on an organic pigeon farm. There was a pack of dogs that watched over the property while the owners grew papaya, oranges, and possibly frogs … still not sure if the frogs were being farmed or if they were just natural.

Traveling North

After more than a week in the South, we traveled to northern Vietnam. There are key differences between northern and southern cuisine and culture and I was excited to learn a different perspective. In Hoi An, about halfway between the North and South, I learned to fish while sailing on a traditional basket boat.

I took an additional cooking class on an overnight trip through Halong Bay where I learned to make northern spring rolls, which are fried and have a bit more texture. 

We also traveled to the mountain town of SaPa, where the climate and farming methods are completely different than in the South. They use water buffalo for most of their fertilization, grow the majority of rice in Vietnam, and rarely fish.   

Takeaways

This sabbatical shed light on the insignificant nature of my everyday challenges. On most days my biggest struggle is trying to book a conference room, not fertilizing a rice terrace with a single water buffalo. While I have no plans to start a Vietnamese restaurant, I returned to TMA with no fear in tackling a new challenge and being creative in my approach. 

I went to nine different cities within Vietnam and Hong Kong, studying the culture and food in each location. The people there couldn’t have been more welcoming, and told us how much they loved seeing Americans come visit. 

Vietnam has a history of resilience and resourcefulness and its food is very reflective of that. Chef Tan told me that nothing in Vietnamese cuisine is strictly Vietnamese, it’s all fusion of the many countries that invaded the land for hundreds of years. They kept all of the good flavors and left the bad memories out. It’s an amazing thing to learn a country’s history through a bowl of noodles.

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