Mai Phuong, chef de cuisine at Lao, Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, tells us what it takes to stand out on Dubai’s competitive Asian dining scene.
The last decade has seen Vietnamese food take the culinary world by storm. Insanely delicious, it’s hard to imagine that most of these signature favourites have such simple recipes. When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, it’s not about complex flavour combinations, but fresh ingredients that come together to create unforgettable dishes. Of course, much of the charm still lies in the skilled hands working behind the scenes, much like in the kitchens at Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah’s Lao, where chef de cuisine Mai Phuong heads up a team eager to dish out a memorable dining experience.
Tell us about your journey as a chef. How did it all begin?
“Becoming a chef was a natural choice for me. My mother had a popular restaurant in Hanoi for more than 20 years and I spent my time in the kitchen learning and helping her. My love for travel took me to Germany, where I worked in a restaurant and upon returning to Vietnam, I met chef Didier Corlou who mentored me, passing on his knowledge and passion for Vietnamese cuisine. Working with him for seven years provided an excellent opportunity to learn and develop my skills.”
What was your first big break in the culinary world?
“A few years ago, chef Corlou offered me an exciting opportunity to take up the role of chef de cuisine at Le Danang Restaurant in Bangkok. Although hesitant at first, the support of my family and my passion took me on this new adventure.”
Who has been your biggest influence?
“During my career, I’ve had the chance to study under many great chefs, who’ve each inspired me in their own way. But the biggest influence in my life remains my father, who always told me: ‘Just put your heart in your cooking’.”
What is it like working in the kitchens at Lao?
“I dedicate all my passion to Lao and often consider it my own restaurant. The team and their enthusiasm is what makes it successful. With most of them being Vietnamese, we are able to create a truly authentic dining experience for our guests.”
What is the primary philosophy followed at Lao?
“It’s all about heartfelt cooking. This is what I tell my team every day before we begin daily operations. We also use freshly sourced ingredients from our organic gardens as well as local suppliers. The key is fusing traditional cooking techniques with modern presentations.”
Considering the competition in the UAE when it comes to Asian cuisine, how does Lao stay ahead of the game?
“We are one of the most authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Dubai. The dishes we offer promote Vietnamese food as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. We do not use too much oil and spice. In fact, the focus is on fresh herbs and vegetables and our guests love this. We can also personalise dishes according to their preferences because it’s all about creating unforgettable experiences that will remain with them for a lifetime.”
What is the best part about being a chef?
“The act of cooking and presenting food feels like creating art and sharing it with the world. At Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, I launched a bespoke cooking class, which is tailored to every participant’s preferences. It’s an interactive and intimate experience that begins at our hotel’s organic gardens, where we pick out fresh ingredients. We then head to the kitchen at Lao, where we cook authentic Vietnamese dishes such as sea bass and grilled banana. We’ve always received a positive response from our guests and this makes me feel very happy and rewarded.”
What would you consider the best meal you’ve ever had?
“The best meal I’ve ever had was fried spring rolls cooked by my children on their first visit to Dubai to celebrate Tet, which is the Vietnamese New Year. The intimate family atmosphere made the whole experience a memorable moment and this is the very feeling we strive to create for guests visiting Lao.”
When you’re not behind the scenes at Lao, do you enjoy cooking at home? What’s your go-to dish?
“I enjoy cooking for my loved ones at home, which often brings me to the local markets in search of fresh vegetables and meat. I love cooking rice, boiled vegetables and stewed meat with eggs, which is a traditional Vietnamese dish and a favourite of my family.”
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