Not many jobs in the world can bring you happiness every day, but the culinary field is an exception. A delicious dish can bring joy to one who eats and it and divine satisfaction to one who creates it. As Tet, the season of happiness and sharing, draws near, let us meet with culinary artist Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải, one who might have the answer for what we all wonder: How food can bring you happiness!

Chef Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải
Chef Phan Ton Tinh Hai

It is a huge pleasure to meet you again Ms. Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải! It’s been 10 years since you became the cover lady for BusinessWoman Magazine’s very first issue. And I wonder, what kind of exciting experience has such a long journey brought about?

The path I have chosen always leads to one goal, the culinary art. Until now, I am still holding onto this dream, with a vision to convey Vietnamese cultural values through its traditional cuisine. In doing so, I wish not only to express my passion in every dish, but also to forge the young and talented generation in the culinary field, giving them the chance to experience the true values of standard in this line of work. At the moment, I’m quite satisfied to take the position of Director of Product Development and Culinary Quality at the Little Hoi An Corporation in Hoi An, with the responsibility to train over 100 cooks at all the restaurants in the corporation’s chain. I used to live in Da Nang for a while when I was young, so Hoi An always stirs in me a nostalgic and intimate feeling. At this stage of life, I find myself yearning to return and settle in the Central area – with my hometown Hue and my most favourite place, Hoi An. In the flower of my youth, I chose Saigon, the southern land which was much like a huge ocean where I can freely learn anything, try out all possibilities, and make a name for myself. And now I come to Hoi An to renew and spread the love for Vietnamese cuisine through several novel projects in the Central region, with high hopes for a warm and welcoming reception.

With your passion and devotion for the culinary arts over all these years, what do you suppose are the positive signals in Vietnamese cuisine at the moment? And amidst all these changes, what principle in culinary creativity do you pursue?

Nowadays, the social demands for the cuisine market are becoming more modern and growing to include a vast range of choices, and the majority of people tend to seek new experiences when dining rather than just enjoying a good dish. Vietnamese people have also established the habit of meeting with family and friends in restaurants and diners as an occasion to catch up and strengthen their social bonds. In addition, with a growing diversity in raw ingredients, improved manufacturing process and largely boosted investment in the food industry, culinary creativity now enjoys many advantages. Moreover, the value and quality of Vietnamese-immersed cuisine is also on the rise, not only in the domestic market but also in several other countries, with a high appreciation from the culinary experts, international chefs, nations’ heads of state, and foreign F&B markets… Personally, I believe these are very optimistic signals from the market that a culinary artist like me would hope for. That being said, no matter how the trend may change, my principle of creating traditional dishes never will. That is, preserving and honouring the basic foundation and nature of the Vietnamese dish, with zero tolerance for spontaneous flicks that might tamper with the Vietnamese spirit within the dish. A chef may compromise with the assimilation of different cuisines, but I want to put a stress on making my own marks and creating a difference by the distinguishing traits of my personality as well as my dishes. This is also my method to satisfy the various demands from my dining guests without ever diminishing the distinctive standards tied to the name Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải. The culinary art knows no limit, but it is a culture in and of itself, whose core values must be preserved, honoured and never forgotten.

Interview Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải

Having travelled the world to tell the story of Vietnamese cuisine, what does Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải suppose are the distinctive features that can only be found in your signature dishes?

The distinctive features of Tịnh Hải’s signature dishes can be described as a harmonious combination of 5 elements: The “Sauce” that is the soul of the dish; the “Clarity” that can be seen through the dish’s neat presentation; the “Ingredients” that are meticulously calibrated; the “Nutrition” to ensure the diner’s well-being; and finally the “Aesthetics” to feast your eyes upon. Of these, the sauce is my highest priority, because the use of spices is an unmistakable feature in Vietnamese traditional cuisine. As an avid researcher of spices, I have spent a great amount of time and effort to perfect a variety of Vietnamese sauces and pickled vegetables. These are the flavours that breathe a soul into the dishes and help me convey the most distinctive traits of Tịnh Hải’s signature dishes. While many chefs build their personal brand by writing books or becoming judges in culinary events… I use my own way to tell my culinary story through the different sauces that I have so diligently researched, created and standardized. Even though this is quite a rugged path to embrace on, I’ve stuck with it throughout these many years, for the sauce is the heart and soul of Tịnh Hải’s dishes. A creativity worker always walks down an untrodden path, and I believe that your perseverance and class will be recognized if you are truly dedicated to your product.

Doing business with a joyful mindset

Joining the business field with your own sauce brand and several other culinary projects, what experience as a chef did Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải bring into your business activity?

I have been through all the highs and lows in both life and career in order to receive such recognition and make an impressive mark of my own today. From the valuable lessons that I’ve drawn, I’d like to share three things. First: Be resolute in everything you do. Life is never easy, especially in business, so in the face of challenge, face it head-on instead of trying to find a way out. Second: Embrace a joyful mindset and stop demanding everything to be perfect. Mistakes always happen during any work process, and in order to be a good business owner, we must learn to sympathize with ourselves and with our associates, so that we can accompany each other with calmness and composure. Don’t be greedy, but “ambitious” to do best at what you are capable of. Third, and lastly: Be decisive. If you cannot make a clean decision in any matter, you will never find the way to make the best one.

People may already be familiar with the image of chef Tịnh Hải who is passionate about cuisine, but how about businesswoman Tịnh Hải? What principles are you pursuing in business?

Within Tịnh Hải lies the potential of a creative artist, but also many traits of an entrepreneur who can come up with products that can satisfy both my own demands and those of the consumers. I believe that in business, not having customers YET doesn’t mean not having customers EVER. But losing customers once you’ve had them means losing everything. Therefore, in order to maintain and develop a product to ensure its prolonged survival in the market, a business must have a strong foundation in many aspects, particularly with its founder sticking with their ideal to the very end. Whether you are a cook or a business owner, do believe that your product will receive its worthy recognition if its quality is ensured and if you can give customers the chance to experience such quality.

Phan Ton Tinh Hai

The development of a traditional cuisine business, however, is not an easy task, since Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải have to renew something that’s old. Is that a challenge for such an accomplished culinary artist as yourself?

Fortunately I still have enough strength and passion to conquer this… challenge. Because with every challenge comes an opportunity to prove your worth in many aspects. I’m pleased to know that, whether in cuisine or business, I am able to deliver standardized products that contain the whole of Vietnamese culinary values wherever I work. Many may consider me too traditional, but they never know how much pride and love I hold for it. As time passes by, I realize that my career path and tradition-bound orientation is a totally right decision.

In fact, everything I do aims at the same goal, having peace. Looking back at my journey, I can really feel this peace now. That being said, I’m still pursuing my culinary dream and immersing myself in it, because my passion has never dwindled. The greatest motivation for me to keep doing this is my fiery passion, loving everything I do and daringly embracing every challenge I can handle.

Finding balance in your own kitchen

Like the flavourful spices that create the impression in your culinary philosophy, how do you manage to keep the “spices of life” so diverse and yet, so balanced?

My line of work is among those public-based profession, with glory and glamour but no less sacrifices and hardships. Nobody is perfect, the point is how well one can endure. And happiness is when your work no longer puts pressure on you, but becomes a positive source of energy to help you improve yourself day by day. I believe that the most beautiful and fulfilled “flavour” to create the “dish” of my life is my work, and the balancing agent is being able to stand in my kitchen. In addition, my children are the motivation and important life source to add more colours to my life.

Being a woman yourself, you must be deeply empathetic with the hardships that women often encounter when getting involved in the food industry, aren’t you?

In order to become who I am today, I had to do everything myself much like a man, and I tried very hard to do so. Therefore, I have an utter respect for women! Already at a disadvantage, women are under an even greater burden in the modern era with more responsibilities and challenges. Not only must they prove their competence to the outer world and build a career of their own, they must at times become the breadwinner of the family, while fulfilling their duty as a caring mother, sister, daughter,… When it comes to cooking, in particular, the job is often considered male-prevalent, not because men are better at it, but more physically suitable for its labourious tasks. On the other hand, standing beside the stove constantly takes a great toll on a woman’s beauty, making it a really tough challenge for female candidates. That’s why I always feel proud to see women who are strong enough to stand on their feet in this field.

Interview Phan Tôn Tịnh Hải

So in order to devote one’s life to the culinary arts, what do you think are the required qualities?

I always try to instill the desire to grow in the culinary field in those interested by calling to their passion. Before you can become proficient in any field, you must first determine your direction. And finding a direction requires lots of time, during which you will connect, experience and approach the outer world. Once you have found your way, it will become the guiding star to help you realize your dream with a will of steel and the courage to surpass all obstacles. In order to do this, find yourself a mentor who will show you the way and reveal the values that you long for. The culinary arts are as deep as an ocean where one must learn with much humility and perhaps throughout a lifetime. Rather than professional skills, it is orientation that is the greatest gift you can possess in any line of work.

Moreover, there will be moments when you are exhausted and doubtful about your own choice, so when you do, allow yourself to take a break and figure out what you love the most and what you are best at. Of course, taking a break doesn’t mean stopping for good, but rather a stepping stone that, by never giving up your passion, you may come back and succeed some day.

Phan Ton Tinh Hai

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Text: JENNI VÕ, HỒNG ĐẶNG | Creative Director: HIEPLEDUC | Photo: HOÀNG VŨ | Makeup: THY TRẦN

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