CELEBRITY chef Nikki Tran can taste a lot about a city from its Pho.
Passionate about creativity and working nuanced flavours into traditional dishes, Tran said it was still important to keep the basics authentic.
Pho should be the queen of noodles, Tran said, and she has found good Pho in Ballarat.
Tran is partnering with Saigon Allée's Lucy Nguyen, a friend, to bring the popular American street pop-up concept to Ballarat this week.
Whether she feeds one person or hundreds is far from Tran's objective here. Tran wants to raise awareness for good Vietnamese cuisine and to break expectations of cheap Asian food with mixed-culture menus like Singapore noodles and Laksa.
In doing so, Tran aims to show what could be possible outside big cities like Melbourne, Los Angeles or Houston. People travel for good authentic food.
I don't expect everyone to be authentic but I think Vietnamese itself can standalone, especially as Vietnamese chefs become more confident in their own cuisine.Nikki Tran, chef
"I don't expect everyone to be authentic but I think Vietnamese itself can standalone, especially as Vietnamese chefs become more confident in their own cuisine," Tran said.
"If I go to big cities and give my two cents there are always lots of other chefs who can give advice. In coming to a smaller city like Ballarat, I feel greater appreciation is given."
Tran has never been trained in traditional Vietnamese cooking. She has built a career with restaurants on two continents and three Netflix cooking series on her own style as a Saigon native and her home in Houston: Vie-jun (Vietnamese-Cajun).
"I hate to call it fusion. I make my own style based on my experience and my childhood, the way I grew up," Tran said.
"I have also learned a lot by myself in cooking. I embrace the more traditional style but I see a balance to it. The reason Vietnamese food is so trendy now is the balance of ancestry - Chinese, French, Japanese, American and Russian offer very unique aspects."
I hate to call it fusion. I make my own style based on my experience and my childhood, the way I grew up.Nikki Tran, chef
One of Tran's best-selling dishes is her Grandma Subsidy. Growing up in Saigon after the war, there was a lot of hunger and Tran said people became creative both in how they sourced food and the way they ate.
Her grandmother would often use the burnt, crispy rice from the bottom of the pot to mix with spring onions and a little fish sauce. Tran draws on this to serve up with pork belly, garnished with "fancy" Japanese seaweed.
Broken rice is a dish Tran said should be the signature dish of Saigon, a foodie city filled with flavours from migrants. Tran has been working with Saigon Allée to tweak the menu, train staff and add to the growing foodie culture in this city.
History is important to Tran who liked to "dig" into each city she visits.
Ballarat's historic architecture offered a Louisiana feel to Tran, reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter, while the roomy footpaths and people sitting outside to eat offered her a "strange feeling" to Saigon of the 1980s.
Tran said 99 per cent of her travels are in major, global cities but her trip to Ballarat has offered her plenty of food for thought.
Ballarat foodies will be able to taste some of Tran's Vietnamese street food with a Cajun twist in Saigon Allée's pop-up night with Tran in the Armstrong Street restaurant on Thursday. An eight-course meal (small courses) will be matched by Ballarat wine-buff Brad Fernando with local wines.
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