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A fusion of fragrance, flavour and colour
Nothing fazes Ngoc Nguyen. She is resolute in her approach to challenges, even when she's on completely unfamiliar ground. She couldn't cook, so she went to the world's most renowned cookery school, and now she runs "Knock on Wood" in Basel, a restaurant that no aficionado of Vietnamese cuisine should ignore.
Roman Grünenfelder likes to knock on wood. Literally, not metaphorically. The co-owner of the restaurant and husband of Ngoc Nguyen has kept up this superstitious tradition for years. It has brought luck to him and his wife and given the Vietnamese restaurant on Bruderholzstrasse in Basel its name. "Knock on Wood" is also a play on words. It combines Ngoc's name, pronounced "knock", and the surname of singer William Wood, who performs at the restaurant every week. So it's probably about the best name the place could have. In a tiny kitchen measuring just ten square metres, Ngoc Nguyen and her ten employees conjure up the culinary creations that have gained the restaurant its loyal customer following, won over by her meticulous work and exacting quality standards. "I love Vietnamese cuisine. I want it to achieve the status it deserves. And I want to show everyone that a lateral entrant to the profession can be a successful restaurateur. We put our heart and soul into our cooking!"
The basis of Vietnamese cooking is to achieve a balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot flavours, which can be done by using nuoc cham, a fermented fish sauce, palm sugar, citrus juices, tamarind and chilli. Ngoc uses fresh herbs for her dishes, doesn't make her dishes too hot, and always serves chilli sauces separately. Typical ingredients are ginger, lemongrass, galangal and turmeric. Vietnam is an ancient land with deeply rooted traditions which has developed a cuisine that incorporates surprising and creative cooking methods. Because the country was occupied for thousands of years, its cuisine is infused with foreign influences. For example the name of its famous noodle soup, Phở, is derived from the French term pot-au-feu, meaning stew. The much-loved Vietnamese baguettes, Banh Mi Bee, are also a part of its colonial heritage. Other typical dishes are Bun Bo noodle salad, Goi Cuon (different types of wraps), Pho Xao (fried noodles) and Morning Glory (water spinach), while a special mention should be given to Banh Xeo, a typical streetfood speciality that can be bought on every street corner in Vietnam. These rice flour pancakes filled with carrots and mushrooms are cooked on little hobs and served with a dip made of palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice.
Ngoc Nguyen was born in Sofia (Bulgaria) in 1985. Her parents were on a student exchange to their country's communist brotherland, but the state rules did not allow for getting married and having a child. They were ordered to return to Hanoi and punished for their non-conformist behaviour. The go-getting parents never gave up, however, and constantly strove to improve their financial situation by coming up with new business ideas. For example they produced huge quantities of chilli sauce, but hadn't considered the fact that it wouldn't keep in the heat.
Ngoc grew up in Hanoi until 2001, when her parents split up. She and her sister Anh moved to Basel because their mother got a job at a pharmaceuticals company there. Ngoc went to Basel International School and felt like a bit of a misfit among all the expat children. "I didn't fit in anywhere," she says, explaining that she is Vietnamese but lives in Basel, speaks German but prefers English and can speak Vietnamese but thinks the language she uses is archaic. "I have two homelands, and I choose the best from each," she reflects. She studied economics in Basel and got a job as a data manager in the same pharmaceuticals company as her mother, where she met her husband Roman Grünenfelder. From 2011 to 2014 Ngoc worked as a controller in Ziegelbrücke, enduring a five-hour commute each day. Roman describes his wife as a good boss who is ambitious, quick to grasp new concepts, and a workaholic.
Then came the big change. The couple had both had enough of big companies and wanted to focus on different values. They wanted to open a restaurant, but neither of them could cook. So Ngoc enrolled at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu London Culinary Institute and attended the MBA course for established chefs for nine months.
She graduated with a "Grand Diplôme". At the start she was hopelessly out of her depth, so she used Excel tables to get organized and impressed her tutors with her unbelievable work ethic more than anything else, did every cookery practice twice and got up to speed on what had taken others years. When she told her tutors at graduation that she had never cooked before she started the course, they were stunned. "In nine months I went from being someone who didn't have a clue about cooking to an inspired professional chef with my own style and definite ideas of how good food should taste."
"Knock on Wood" was a success almost from the very start. Says Ngoc, "There are only three Vietnamese restaurants in Basel, and almost certainly only one with a cordon bleu chef. What I learned at the institute was that no dish leaves the kitchen unless it meets my quality standards, even if I have to prepare it all over again. I see myself as an ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine in Switzerland."
More and more people are travelling from Switzerland to Vietnam on holiday and getting to know the people and food there, then they come home and want to extend that holiday feeling in Basel. Vietnamese cuisine fits with the trend toward mindful eating. It is suitable for people with allergies, for those intolerant to lactose because it doesn't use cow's milk, and for those with gluten intolerance because it doesn't incorporate pasta. All of this is helping "Knock on Wood" stay on the path to success.
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