That was just the start of the fairytale rise to fame of Pham Thi Anh Tuyet. Honoured to feed the great and good on both occasions (1977 & 2017) Viet Nam has hosted the APEC meeting, the 65-year-old from the Hoan Kiem district of Ha Noi now finds herself at the forefront of the country’s tourist industry. The clincher in terms of oohs and aahs came when the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain called her signature dish “the best chicken in the world”.
The path to fame can be long, sometimes tortuous and take a few unlikely twists. But in culinary terms, Madam Tuyet can be said to have been born with the proverbial silver chop stick: she didn’t just inherit her gran’s favourite recipe, she had the inside track on seven generations of Ha Noi chefs.
Destined to follow, she helped pick vegetables as soon as she could walk; at school there was always a cooking class and by nine she was hewing kohlrabi and learning to turn fruit into works of art.
“I absorbed every small detail of the job,” she remembers. “Not only making the food taste good but look good so the customer could enjoy the sight of it. By the time I graduated from the Faculty of Food Technology and the University of Commerce, I had mastered cooking.”
Her first job was in the catering industry but she had to supplement her income at a grocery wholesaler’s where she worked as a packer. With the state relinquishing its hold on the commercial sector, the food business boomed: none more so than her own family firm. Its most celebrated product - the Tuyet sausage - became so popular her relatives struggled to meet demand. Young Madam Tuyet quit her job to help out.
Such was her impact that the firm was chosen to provide the catering when Viet Nam first hosted the APEC meeting in 1977. “It was a great honour for me and my family,” she says. “I received notice six months before the event and took responsibility for the traditional Vietnamese dishes. My menu was approved and to prepare for the occasion, individual workers were assigned a specific task, but the marinating and cooking was done by me.”
It was a daunting task: even the trial runs were draining and the final process had to be approved by White House observers. She says: “I encouraged colleagues to focus on their own skills and told them not to stress over it. Our food was appreciated by the guests and when it was over we all looked at each other and burst into tears. That moment will follow me throughout my life because not everyone has had such a great honour.”
Madam Tuyet’s food was gaining a global audience and she recalls: “A visiting Dutch chef told me: ‘When I give classes, I teach some Vietnamese dishes that I learned from you.’ He wrote a book about cuisines of the world which included traditional Ha Noi dishes and the Anh Tuyet cooking class.
“Each person has a certain destiny and I think mine is making tourists happy. Through food, international visitors will understand more about Viet Nam, and this is also a very effective way to promote our country and culture.”
In the mid 1980s, the winds of change were blowing through the country and Madam Tuyet took advantage to promote many more traditional dishes. At the first food fair held at Ha Noi’s Horizon Hotel in 1990, she beat many esteemed chefs from high-class hotels to take the first prize with her honey roasted chicken.
She says: “This was one of the traditional dishes handed down by my grandmother.” It was after winning the award that the supreme accolade was bestowed. “The US State Department sent a world-famous culinary critic to come to my family and learn about this prestigious dish,” she says. “That person was [the late] Anthony Bourdain who called it ‘the best chicken in the world’ on CNN’.”
With an endorsement like that, her food no longer needed advertising but it did need a restaurant as she was overwhelmed by orders from home as well as abroad. “At that time the Anh Tuyet restaurant did not exist,” she says. “So to meet the demand, I decided to renovate the attic [of her home] into a dining room, set up tables and chairs and had it decorated to serve meals.”
She takes great pride in her food’s reputation but it brought a lot of pressure. She had become the unwitting focus of national and international media attention. “A lot of news agencies and television [networks] of many countries came to interview me,” she says.
Finding a real empathy with travellers who come to sample her cuisine, she says: “I think travelling without thinking about food is a big mistake. When we set foot in another place, another land, in addition to experience the natural landscape, food has a big impact on visitors when deciding to come back or not.”
Her important contribution to the success of the APEC conference in Viet Nam in 2017 was recognised with the Certificate of Merit awarded by the Presidential Secretariat. She was also honoured, along with two others, by the Vietnamese tourism sector who bestowed upon them the title “Top Vietnamese Culinary Artisans” at a ceremony in Ha Noi. Her current challenge is teaching the younger generation but she longs for a research institute to preserve the traditional cuisines.
She is, though, delighted with the Government’s current focus on the country’s cuisine: “It can be said that food is the shortest and most effective way to promote tourism,” she says. “With the prestige recognized by the government, I look forward to contributing to the promotion of the country, people and culture of Viet Nam to the world.”