Be Lam, a native of Saigon, Vietnam, is the executive chef for Saigon Surface, a restaurant and bar that opened downtown in May 2011. At year's end, reviewers at The World-Herald declared the sleek, modern establishment one of the eight best restaurants reviewed in 2011.
Lam's daughter Ngoc Nguyen manages the restaurant and her son Tu Nguyen handles the marketing. Lam, 57, is also the executive chef for the Saigon Restaurant, a west Omaha establishment that she has owned for more than a decade. Lam enlisted her daughter to help with translation for this chat.
Q. How did you learn to make the elaborate appetizers and main dishes on the menu at Saigon Surface?
A. Back home people invited me to go to weddings and spend time with the elders to learn the techniques, the special ingredients and the way you present the food for a special occasion. It's not the same as for a daily meal.
At home you might cook spinach in broth with pork. For a special event, you would marinate the pork, use more special ingredients and cook in larger quantities.
Q. Is there a dish on the menu that reminds you of a special occasion in Vietnam?
A. Signature Grilled Pork. It takes a long time to prepare. The marinade is very important. You need exactly the right ingredients, in the right amounts and they need to marinate for days to get the right texture and taste.
We serve it with a shrimp-and-pork sausage that I make myself. I grind the pork so I know exactly what cuts of pork go into it. I shape it in a tofu wrapper and fry it. The tofu gets crisp and adds more flavor to it.
The grilled pork is served on steamed rice, with the sausage on the side. The plate is finished with pickled radish, tomato, cucumber and a fried egg.
Q. The restaurant reviewers were impressed with your fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple. Is that a traditional dish in Vietnam?
A. Yes. You would see it at a wedding party but not at home. The pineapple is so fresh it adds to the flavor and it's part of the presentation. People enjoy eating the fruit inside.
The fried rice includes grilled wild prawns, chicken, pork and Vietnamese sausage, plus egg, bell peppers and green onions.
Q. What seems to be the most popular with your customers these days?
A. The grilled combo vermicelli bowl. We put beans sprouts and vermicelli rice noodles in the bowl. Then a combination of grilled prawns, grilled chicken, grilled pork and an egg roll. It's a little bit of everything garnished with fresh mint, cilantro, cucumber, pickled radish and peanuts. It's served with a lime-seasoned house sauce that is light and healthy. It's a good dish.
The oxtail pho (noodle soup) is also popular. People keep coming back for that. It's comfort food.
Q. Do you use a cookbook?
A. No cookbooks. No measuring cups. No measuring spoons. No scales. I know from experience.
Q. Everything in the dining room is so sleek and modern. Is your kitchen that way, too?
A. It's brand new and very convenient. Everything I need is right in front of me, with refrigerator drawers under the counter.
Q. Do you get tired, with your restaurant being open seven days a week?
A. When I work I'm very happy. If I don't go to work I feel tired.
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