Sam Aisbett can’t sit still. The chef is always looking for his next challenge. And he’s found just that in the form of Akuna, the unclassifiable fine-dining restaurant he recently opened in Ho Chi Minh City, better known to its residents as Saigon.
At just 39, Aisbett already has two decades of experience under his belt. After turns in kitchens such as Tetsuya’s, the Melbourne native served as head chef at Sydney’s Quay under Peter Gilmore – “my master” – whose influence he still feels today. “Sometimes I look at a dish and go, ‘That’s a Quay dish.’”
When he left Quay, he spread his wings and founded Whitegrass, an outpost of modern-Australian cuisine in Singapore. It was a defining move for him.
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The accolades came rolling in for Whitegrass: a first Michelin star in 2017 and a spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018. In fact, success came so easily that Aisbett’s biggest fear became complacency.
“We could have kept doing the same thing for 10 years,” he says. In 2018 – before burnout and boredom could take hold – he decided to walk away. “I’m so annoying because I get bored so easily,” he says, laughing. “I have to be doing something, I can’t sit still. I wanted a bit of adventure.”
He came back to Australia to spend time with family, but by 2020 he knew his heart was in Asia. “When I was in Australia I missed Asia. Asia’s home now.” He signed a contract to open a new restaurant in Bangkok. (“I love Thailand and Thai food. I still go there on holiday every chance I get.”)
But the global pandemic got in the way of those plans. In the middle of Covid quarantines and lockdowns, and with no definite plans, he landed in Vietnam. “I didn’t know how to get food, I didn’t speak the language,” he says.
It all worked out. He had found a new home. Unlike the methodical kitchen he was used to at Whitegrass (“I love Singapore but it’s almost too easy. Everyone speaks English”), he embraced the very different working conditions in Vietnam. “I love the chaos – the organised chaos,” he says.
Akuna, which means “water flowing” in the language of the Diyari people of South Australia, is located on the ninth floor of Le Meridien hotel on the edge of Saigon’s bustling District 1. The centrepiece of the dining room is an open kitchen with counter seating for guests seeking a ringside view. There are also two private dining rooms for more intimate gatherings. Table settings include crocodile-skin placemats and claws used as cutlery rests. They aren’t just a design statement, as Aisbett demonstrates during the meal.
The food might be described as unabashedly “Australian”, driven by local Vietnamese ingredients. An Aussie meat pie (served on a wooden platypus-shaped plate, no less) appears next to dried persimmons grown in the cool mountain air of Dalat, in southern Vietnam’s central highlands. Vegemite makes an appearance twice, including as an elevated bread-and-butter course made up of damper and dips. Tonburi (otherwise known as land caviar, a type of cypress seed), crisp sea cucumber and a jelly made from artichoke tea sit on the menu alongside David Blackmore Wagyu from Australia, and it can all be washed down with Jumping Juice Pinot Noir, also from Australia. For dessert, try Aisbett’s reinvention of the Cherry Ripe, made with coconut cream, chocolate-macadamia cake, and cherry three ways.
And then there’s that crocodile, both a wink to Straya and Crocodile Dundee, and an example of Aisbett’s commitment to local, sustainable ingredients. When he found the Hoa Ca crocodile farm in Saigon could make his placemats, he started to wonder what happened to the meat. He began experimenting with different cuts and cooking methods. The result is a broken-rice congee cooked in saltwater-crocodile-bone broth, enriched with tail meat and topped with roasted crocodile flesh.
Sitting in his restaurant after the rush of dinner service, Aisbett reflects on his choice to open a venue in Vietnam – which received its first Michelin guide just this year. “What I loved was that all the big superstar chefs aren’t here. I like the idea that I could come here and no one knows who the hell I am,” he says. “I can come in and learn something new, see something new and I don’t have to worry about anything.”