Opening your own restaurant is no easy feat, but often, the path leading up to it can prove more difficult. For restaurant owner Eric Banh, his road to becoming a restaurateur has had its own difficult twist and turns. At a young age, Banh fled Vietnam with his family to a refugee camp in Malaysia before making it to Canada and later, Seattle. Memories of dishes from his native Vietnam led him to open Monsoon and Ba Bar. From freezing Canadian winters to frozen chickens, Banh looks back at his journey, one where memories good and bad prove to be a powerful inspiration.
Photo courtesy of Eric Banh Eric Banh with sister, Sophia Banh
When your family fled from Vietnam to Canada, how was your experience of having to adjust to a new environment?
Our family, my mom, dad and their six kids, arrived in Alberta, Canada in December 1979 after living in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where temperatures were 95-100 degrees. Of course, there was tons of snow in the middle of winter and temperatures were minus 30 degrees plus a wind chill. It was shocking and worse than being stored in the freezer. It was extremely cold!
Safeway was the only large grocery store in Edmonton back then, and most proteins were frozen. Of course, there were a few small stores, like the ones we were used to, but they had very limited selections. The first time we found a non-frozen whole chicken at Safeway, we were very excited and then puzzled, as it had no flavor! Obviously, we now know it was an industrially raised chicken, and we were used to fresh chickens.
I read that your parents weren't pleased about your initial decision to be in the food industry. How do they now view you and your sister's success?
After announcing my decision to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, my dad didn't talk to me for three or four weeks. He said, "Your mother and I risked our lives to come here, and not to see you become a cook!" That said, my parents were foodies back in Saigon, and two years after the birth of Monsoon, they realized that both Sophie and I are very serious about our culinary professions. Therefore, they gave us their blessing.
How is it like to work with your sister, and do the two of you differ in ideas or managerial styles?
It can be challenging to work with your siblings. I used to work with two of my sisters at Monsoon, and there were times I would receive long distance phone calls from my parents twice a day. Let me just say, blood is thick!
Our palates are different, Sophie tends to prefer dishes a bit sweeter than me.
Last year, when you encountered some staffing issues with Ba Bar's bar program, you had some other great staff from Monsoon East who volunteered to fill in. As a restaurateur, what is the most difficult part of staffing and supporting your staff, and what do you think it takes to be a good boss?
Opening restaurant is the most exciting. Yet, the worst stress you can experience. If you want to loose 10 lbs, then open a restaurant! Most opening staffs don't last more than a year due to the demanding long hours, and emotional and physical stresses. Fortunately, the Monsoon family has quite a few long term staff members who are very willing to step up and give assistance with our new establishments.
Recruiting staff is half art and half science. It is not black and white. To be a good boss is to have systems and structures in place, and better yet, to make enough money to hire both managers and assistant managers.
In managing so many restaurants, how do you divide your restaurant up between them?
I like to start my days early in the morning and tackle all the paper work. I also work on research and development of products and dishes in the morning before heading out to the restaurants.
Do you return to Vietnam often? If we were to accompany you on a trip to Vietnam, what would your itinerary look like? What would be your first stop?
Sophie goes back to Vietnam every year. I have not gone since my son was born in 2008. That said, I will go back this coming spring. Saigon is the best food city in Vietnam. All the money attracts good chefs.
Saigon is where I grew up. It is a bustling, crowded, and a great food city. Growth has transformed Saigon very rapidly. You will find awesome dim sum, Cantonese cuisine and the best Hue (central Vietnam) restaurant there, as well as a lot of other regional cuisine. As I said earlier, good chefs follow the money, much like in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle.
I would arrive in Hanoi first to visit the old quarter and enjoy some Cha Ca Lang Van, which is a famous dish. I would stay in Hanoi for two or three days, which is perfect. Afterwards, I would fly to Da Nang to visit Hoi An. It is a romantic small town with old Chinese influenced architecture and it made Vietnamese lanterns famous. There is a beautiful restaurant located in a village along the river. You can relax in Hoi An for couple days before flying to Saigon city.
Which Monsoon and Ba Bar dishes former or present play a significant role in food memories and why?
The Grilled Monterey Squid Stuffed with Duck Meat and La Lot Beef at Monsoon definitely stand out. Sophie and I experimented with numerous versions at home before opening Monsoon. Of course, we broke the boundary by using duck instead of ground pork; and substituting flank steak for ground beef in the La Lot Beef. They are delicious dishes and still favorites today, after 13 years.