A Successful Restaurant Recipe – The Asif Mehrudeen Way

food - Saigon/HCMC: Dec. 2, 2016

Soon after wrapping up his career as an executive chef, Asif has now become one of the city’s most prominent restaurant developers. He has recently brought his third successful concept to life in Ho Chi Minh City: Di Mai Restaurant.

Asif has over 20 years of experience in F&B outlets, including world-class resorts and high-end restaurants. He has toiled in kitchens in Australia, Japan, Bali and India, eventually landing in Ho Chi Minh City. Finishing a stint as the executive chef at Park Hyatt Saigon, he created D1 Concepts, an F&B concept and management company.

There, he went on to conceptualise San Fu Lou and Sorae, which are now some of the city’s most well-known restaurants. We sat down with Asif to discuss the rapidly evolving restaurant scene in Ho Chi Minh City.

How have restaurants here evolved?

Design, quality and service are finally starting to matter when creating a new restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, but this is still not prevalent. For example, with San Fu Lou, it took time to catch on. For the Vietnamese, it looked too sexy, so they thought it was probably expensive. Slowly they began to see it was reasonable. Now 80-90% of the customers are locals.

How do you ensure quality service at the restaurants you help create?

We hire young staff, 18-25 years old, since they are easier to train. Older, qualified staff are more difficult, while new recruits are hungry to learn.

How is staff retention at San Fu Lou and Sorae?

There is about an 18-20% turnover, which is quite low for Vietnam. No one gets bored. If someone wants to get training in another area, they will be allocated time after work. It’s almost like we run a mini hospitality school. Capella offers stability and a growth plan, so they stay. We have plans to open two more San Fu Lou restaurants and we don’t have to hire that many people, since we can take from our pool of candidates and current employees.

What are challenges for restaurant developers here?

Location is quite a challenge. Keeping staff in line is fine as long as the managers are up to speed with what you’re trying to do. Getting the food and hygiene right is difficult. Open kitchens do help public perception though, as they show the market that you’re not afraid to show what you do behind the scenes.

How is the restaurant market here evolving?

I think we’re in a restaurant bubble now. Probably 60% of operators will not survive when that bubble pops. It’s become a status symbol to own a restaurant, so anyone with money can start something they think will work. The success stories, such as the Racha Room guys, are former F&B professionals, restaurant managers, bartenders, and so on. They understand the business.

How do you ensure hygiene is kept up?

I gave suppliers a hard time in the past [laughs]. You have to be serious about the freshness of your food.

Does Vietnamese food have potential as an international cuisine?

I think Vietnamese food is the new Thai, and maybe in the next five years it will be bigger than Thai food. PepsiCo owns a chain of banh mi shops in America already. Vietnamese food has a rich set of flavours, with so many regional variations. Thai food, in comparison, is pretty simple.

Do locals have any resistance to new cuisines?

The Vietnamese still need their home country food every day – their rice and their banh mis. But locals are very open to trying something new. Just look at all the steakhouses that have opened: people are looking for a good piece of beef. Office workers want to have fun during lunch, try something new. There is a demand for new cuisines.

Do you think prices for food are higher today?

Yes, because operators are looking for a different market. Vietnam, after all, has the fastest growing middle class in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese are starting to travel and get used to the prices in more expensive countries. They are also curious about new cuisine, so they won’t mind paying for a chicken from France if it costs more than a local one.

What are your favourite restaurants in the city?

The guys at Stoker are doing a really good job. The experience there is really personalised. For Vietnamese food, Pho Le on 413-415 Nguyen Trai is my favourite.