A Vietnamese chef in Germany on his popular fusion restaurants and quest for a Michelin star

Vietnam’s Chinese minority had long been discriminated against, and Ngo’s Chinese father and Vietnamese mother had been forced to close their grocery store after repeated harassment. When Ngo was four his father died, leaving his 23-year-old mother to look after their three young children.

The Duc Ngo prepares pigeons at Le Duc Salon, in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Marietta Arellano

When Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of what was then known as Democratic Kampuchea, Ngo’s aunt on his father’s side persuaded his mother and the three boys to flee Hanoi with her, leaving behind all that they had known.

They boarded a boat for China, designed for 20 passengers but loaded with 80, that crashed into rocks somewhere along the Chinese coast. They lost almost everything they owned.

Vietnamese chefs are updating pho, without taking soup makeover too far

The jade and gold they managed to save they pawned for passage on another boat, also illegal, that they had found after walking for three days, the children carried piggyback when they grew too tired to continue.

When they reached Hong Kong’s outlying islands, they were given safe harbour in a refugee camp – an experience Ngo says was far less distressing for the children than the adults.

“We just played all day, so we kids didn’t suffer. But it was hard for my mother – she had no clue where she would end up and she had four siblings and a father that she had no idea if she would ever see again,” he says.

The art, the people who worked in Japanese restaurants – their hands were like magic

The Duc Ngo

“But the adults had no choice; there was no judgment on whether what they experienced was good or bad, they just had to put themselves in the hands of fate.”

What Ngo’s family endured was distressing, but he is aware that many suffered worse.

“I know that some of the Vietnamese who fled south to Malaysia fell prey to pirates, and we heard stories of rape and murder,” he says. “There were some pirates on our route, but they only took money from the refugees.”

The interior of Ngo’s 893 Ryotei, a popular modern Japanese restaurant in Berlin. Photo: Marietta Arellano

In Hong Kong, the refugees were not allowed to work, but Ngo says some found illegal employment in fabric factories. There was a waiting period of up to three years for refugees to be sent on to the United States, Australia or Canada, but after a few months the family were given the option of going to Germany or Chile.

They opted for Germany, and when the family arrived, in autumn 1979, they were some of the first refugees from Vietnam in West Berlin.

The disquiet of his early life is not something he dwells on much these days. Along with his several restaurants in Charlottenburg, including Asian fusion hotspot Kuchi, the first restaurant he opened, in 1999, and North Vietnamese noodle bar Madame Ngo, he runs restaurants across Berlin and in Frankfurt.

In total, he is involved with 18 restaurants, which employ 600 staff.

The entrance to 893 Ryotei on Kantstrasse. Ngo has seven restaurants along this Berlin street. Photo: Victoria Burrows

Still, in a reflective moment when we chat over cocktails at the bar of his modern Japanese restaurant 893 Ryotei, it is clear that his early years have left an indelible mark on him, giving him an appetite for risk and the determination – no matter the cost – to define his own fate.

It was at the young age of 24 that he opened his first restaurant, after only four years of on-the-job training at a local Japanese restaurant. There were no culinary schools for Japanese food in Germany at the time, and he had “fallen in love” with Japanese cuisine: “the art, the people who worked in Japanese restaurants – their hands were like magic – and Nobu [Matsuhisa, the celebrity chef known for his Japanese-meets-Peruvian cuisine] was my idol.”

Kuchi served approachable, Western-inflected sushi, ramen and yakitori. It was one of the first restaurants in Berlin to do fusion Japanese cuisine, and he was the first non-Japanese chef in the city to serve Japanese food.

“I was very naive. After just a few years of experience I thought I could do it better,” he says. “I didn’t think about whether I would be successful or not, there was no choice, it had to work. I risked everything.”

The well-lit, stainless steel kitchen of Le Duc Salon. Photo: Marietta Arellano

The gamble paid off, and Kuchi was a success.

“Japanese food first came to Berlin in the 1960s and 70s, but these classic restaurants failed – younger people didn’t want to pay for fine-dining Japanese food,” he says.

“We started serving good sushi at reasonable prices. It’s now a model that many restaurants in Berlin have copied over the 25 years since Kuchi opened.”

It is also a model he followed with several subsequent openings, until 2005, when he changed tack, risked it all once more, and this time failed.

He sank huge sums into a 600-square-metre (6,500 sq ft) fine-dining restaurant called Shiro I Shiro, on Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse. It was striking in ocean blue and porcelain white, and decorated with eye-catching art.

For a time it attracted celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Sharon Stone and David Lynch, but as the kitchen sent out increasingly pretentious dishes it fell out of fashion, and the landlord wanted to increase the rent six-fold. After three years, Ngo closed it down.

The restaurants all have properly trained chefs that bring my crazy ideas to life. Trained chefs that have worked in famous restaurants often cannot look outside the box like I can

The Duc Ngo

“It was beautiful for a while. I wore a suit and tie, I employed talented chefs and an excellent manager. But the restaurant was too big,” he says. “I lost all the money I had made from my other restaurants.”

After he closed Shiro I Shiro, Ngo spent six months travelling through the United States and Asia, looking for fresh inspiration.

Back in Berlin, he left his suit on the hanger and donned his chef’s whites once more. He started cooking at a trendy local restaurant, where he met various people who would eventually become his business partners in new restaurants.

He now has seven restaurants in the city with different partners, including a venue that combines Chinese and French cuisine, serving dishes such as fillet mignon with sweet soy sauce and truffles.

He comes up with the concepts and leaves others to turn them into reality.

“The restaurants all have properly trained chefs that bring my crazy ideas to life,” he says. “Trained chefs that have worked in famous restaurants often cannot look outside the box like I can.”

Jackfruit bread with foie gras, chilli gel, and apricots at Le Duc Salon. Photo: Victoria Burrows
Ngo’s latest opening is a more personal affair – another attempt at fine dining, but with the maturity of lessons learned. Le Duc Salon runs every two weeks in a flat on Kantstrasse transformed into an event and art space by his restaurant partner Hyunjung Kim (the artistic talent who was also behind Shiro I Shiro’s interiors).

Here Ngo tests dishes, serving them to guests at a shared table as if dining at his home, the best of which will eventually form the menu at a new fine-dining restaurant.

“I’ve never had the chance to cook the best possible way. I had to train myself, and in my early years I was trying to make some money as a young chef, while after 10 years I employed good, trained chefs,” he says.

“Now I want recognition; I want a Michelin star. I’m still looking for the best way, and do not want to rush. I don’t want to cook the craziest thing and lose half a million every year.”

“Perfectly cooked” pigeon at Le Duc Salon. Photo: Victoria Burrows

At Le Duc Salon, Ngo has gone back to his roots, cooking his own take on Southeast Asian cuisine with international touches. Dishes such as scallops with calamansi, mango and shallot, and the outstanding jackfruit bread with foie gras, chilli gel and apricot, sit alongside perfectly cooked pigeon with a side of pigeon pho and a dessert inspired by Vietnamese iced milk coffee on the regularly changing 10-course menu.

Ngo has returned to the place of his birth many times since he left 45 years ago. Relatives on his mother’s side of his family have remained in Vietnam, while those on his father’s side are spread around the world.

He has tried to find out where in Guangdong province, southern China, his father’s parents emigrated from, but the trail has gone cold.

On Kantstrasse, though, he remains king. Whether his coming fine-dining restaurant will be a success remains to be seen, but with his more measured approach, and with cooking that comes from the heart, his stars seem very much to be aligned.


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