The Daily Telegraph - A cooking masterclass with Michel Roux
July 20, 2014

Classic French techniques and Gallic charm are on the menu at Michel Roux’s restaurant in Danang – his first foray into Asia. Michelle Jana Chan joins him for a cookery masterclass.

We are squatting on inch-high wooden stools under a tree on the bank of a brackish lagoon. As we chat, a train suddenly roars past a few feet behind us. The tracks had been disguised by undergrowth. We both wince; we clearly have not chosen the perfect location for a picnic. Yet we continue stoking the tiny pottery bowl filled with burning charcoal. On top of the grill are a dozen fresh prawns.

“Not too much,” Michel Roux cries out to the fisherman holding the grill in place. Roux grabs a prawn, strips it down and takes a bite. “One minute and a half overcooked,” he sighs.

This is one of those life experiences to savour. “Remember this,” I mutter to myself. “I am eating overcooked prawns with Michel Roux next to a railway line in central Vietnam.”

Suddenly Roux stands up smacking his ankles and undoing the laces of his shoes. “Ants,” he cries out, and rushes off to the lagoon to wash them away.

We then tuck into cooked oysters (the fisherman had thrown them on the coals before we had a chance to stop him). “Not so bad,” Roux says, ruefully. “At least they still have some flavour.”

A few hours later we are sitting around the slick mirrored bar of Roux’s new restaurant, La Maison 1888, at the InterContinental Hotel in Danang. We crack open crabs caught that day at the lagoon – some steamed, some cooked in a sweet, sticky tamarind sauce – prepared perfectly by Hang, one of Roux’s favourite Vietnamese cooks. We eat off white china and drink Roux’s own branded champagne. The scene could not have been more different from our earlier lunch.

After his success in London with Le Gavroche (the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Britain) and in Bray, Berkshire, with The Waterside Inn (the first restaurant outside France to hold three stars for a period of 29 years), Roux has for the first time ventured into Asia with La Maison 1888. He tells me he is relishing the challenge. “I love this part of the world,” he says. “If I were 40 years old, I would move here.”

He believes some of his affection for the country is down to the historical tie between Vietnam and Roux’s homeland. The country was under French colonial rule for nearly 100 years and there is still a connection and crossover, particularly in the arena of gastronomy.

I saw street-sellers in Hoi An touting crusty baguette sandwiches made with pork liver pâté called banh mi, an echo of the French pain de mie. The baguettes are stouter than the French variety and baked without salt but the flavour piques with the adding of nuoc mam, a fish sauce used as seasoning throughout Vietnam.

The national dish, a noodle soup called pho, is a delicious consommé made with shallots, sliced meat, rice noodles and handfuls of ripped fragrant herbs. Some say it may originate from pot au feu, as the final syllable is pronounced the same way. There is also a dish here resembling beef bourguignon but cooked in rice wine, rather than red wine.

“The food in Vietnam is superb,” says Roux. “There are so many dishes that I love.”

“For example?” I press him.

His eyes twinkle. “The problem is I can’t remember the names of them. I confess I have made no progress with the language.”

Roux freely admits he is not trying to be a master of Vietnamese cooking. Nor does he want to bring the two cuisines together in any way. “Fusion is confusion,” he says. At La Maison 1888, it is his own classic French cuisine on offer, which he says “is what I do best”.

But he is eager to visit local markets, to learn about Vietnam’s ingredients and to try the country’s renowned street food. He clearly adores his staff as he moves around the kitchen. “Without the person who washes up,” he tells me, “I am nothing.” And I believe him. After a day in his kitchen, I have a small sense of the teamwork involved to deliver his exceptional food.

Roux visits the InterContinental at Danang four times a year to direct the kitchen, host dinners and conduct cookery classes, and I spend half a day with him learning how to rustle up a three-course lunch: salmon in a puff pastry with beurre blanc à l’Aneth; baby chicken “crapaudine” (spatchcocked and pressed down, “like a flattened toad”) with pomme pont neuf and devil sauce, and a tiramisu dessert.

The menu was almost as intimidating as the company. There were three fellow guests attending Roux’s class. One had excelled on Vietnam’s MasterChef, another had written a cookery book, and the third, a Singaporean woman, ran a pop-up restaurant out of her own home and had flown in specially for the class. All I could offer was that my grandmother was an excellent cook and there might be something in the genes.

While we set about breaking the bones of a chicken and removing its lungs, Roux effortlessly demonstrates how to fillet a salmon, make a feather-light puff pastry and flip a razor-thin herb pancake. His banter is smattered with humour. “Leave the pancake to rest,” he says. “Everyone needs a rest, even a pancake.”

When he introduces his friend Giancarlo Perbellini, a chef visiting from Verona, Roux says: “Ah, Italian food. I think I was born in the wrong country.” He is also quick with praise for his young team. “Perfect,” he says to an assistant, and I can only imagine her high.

Meanwhile, I struggle on. At the instruction “add the chicken consommé”, I stare anxiously at the two pots – one with chicken consommé, and one with beef – and then copy my neighbour. When it comes to making sponge fingers for the tiramisu, I splodge the unruly mixture all over the baking tray. Roux is deliciously patient: “Stop sharply, and then turn,” he says, as I awkwardly try to manoeuvre the piping bag. “It is never too late to learn,” he adds encouragingly, and I do not know whether to be relieved or devastated.

But the angst of my cookery class evaporates as I sit down to eat Roux’s own tasting menu. After watching him and his team at work, I have a new profound appreciation of each flavour, the poised presentation, every sprinkling, dot and drizzle.

It may seem odd to come all the way to Vietnam to experience French cooking, no matter how fine. But Roux’s presence here is not so much about him as it is about his anointing of Vietnam’s cuisine – and that alone should do much for the country’s deserved status as a gourmet destination.


When to go

The weather is at its best in central Vietnam from March to August (but note that from June the number of domestic tourists increases).

Where to stay

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort
On a private beach with 197 rooms, two pools, and an indulgent spa with a studio by celebrity podiatrist Bastien Gonzalez. Danang is halfway between the old imperial capital Hue and the ancient port of Hoi An. Both towns are World Heritage Sites and known for their excellent cuisine.

Where to eat and drink

Morning Glory Restaurant
This is Michel Roux’s preferred local choice, less than an hour from the hotel, owned by chef-entrepreneur Trinh Diem Vy. She also runs cooking classes at The Market, one of her other restaurants.
La Maison 1888
This fine-dining cliffside restaurant at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort serves Michel Roux’s classic French cuisine.

Inside track
Go for street stalls that look popular with locals.

Choose the Hoi An speciality cao lau, Japanese-style noodles with roast pork, bean sprouts and herbs, accompanied by fresh coconut water.

Tipping is not expected.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Experience Travel Group (