“Jack Is Back”
Celebrity chef Jack Lee is making waves upon his return to Ho Chi Minh City— starting with Compass Parkview’s Acacia Veranda Dining. A long-time high school friend of Thomas Khien, owner of Compass Parkview Apartments, Lee was tempted by the offer when his friend came to him for some help after their remodeling in December.
“He told me, ‘I have a gourmet kitchen, beautiful restaurant in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, District 1’,” Lee said, referring to Khien’s offer. Although it may not have meant much to Lee, location is a must in this city.
Situated on Nguyen Du street in the eye of Saigon’s stormy city centre, Acacia can be found on the 8th floor of Compass Parkview. Green hues accent the dining room, guests are welcomed into a modern yet comfortable environment. Seated in their dining room, guests have front row seats to watch Lee at work or out on their patio with a 260 degree view of the city — ideal during sunsets.
A handful of Hollywood celebrities have chosen Lee to lend his talents for their events, cook in their kitchens and wow their taste buds. With over 15 years of experience and cooking for a plethora of famous names, Lee has racked up quite the resume in culinary specialities. Studying at the California School of Culinary Arts, followed by Le Cordon Bleu program, Lee went onto Bel-Air Hotel and later started his own catering service, Chinoise Cuisine, which he still runs today. Appearing on American TV shows such as, “The Taste,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Rachael Ray” and the Food Network — let’s just say, Lee knows how to entertain while cooking up an ace dish.
“Reconnecting To His Roots”
Originally from Cho Lon, Lee left Vietnam in 1980 and grew up in Southern California. Harnessing his passion for cooking from his mother, he’s kept her as an inspiration all these years. Although he’s returned to Vietnam for holiday and to visit family, his visits have always been cut short. Now, he is able to truly immerse himself in the culture.
“I feel like it is a blessing in disguise because when I left, it was not the best of times. And now I can discover Vietnam again, it's totally different,” Lee explains.
“I’m falling in love with the country and the people and I’m able to help them eat healthy and be happy. I’m ecstatic, it's something to give back to the country, it’s really good.”
With the daunting task of creating a whole new menu for Acacia upon his return, Jack was also confronted with a new set of ingredients readily available to him, most of which are hard to come across back in the States.
“I walked around Ben Thanh market, again and again for three days, trying all of the fruits and stuff. I came to realize, you have to really respect the culture and the ingredients and then go from there. That is how all of my fruit sauces evolved,” Lee explained.
Traveling all over the world and cooking for international hotels and esteemed guests, Lee understands the style of five-star cuisine and how to adapt it to the fine dining world. Coining the term “Jack Cuisine,” — a fusion of Asian, French and Western all rolled into one — Lee puts a twist on your traditional Vietnamese dishes.
“I would describe my food with the word, ‘happy.’ After you eat it you’re going to be happy,” Lee explains with a bellowing laugh.
The way Lee incorporates these ingredients into his fusion-style dishes is what separates Acacia from other dining options around town.
Pairing fruits and meats together such as marinated grilled lamb chops with Balsamic cherry sauce (VND388,000), pork tenderloin wrapped with smoked bacon, poached pear and port wine reduction (VND288,000) or his spicy scallops in soursop dish (VND208,000) — he takes one’s taste buds on a whirlwind.
When it comes to the imported USDA prime rib (VND388,000 for 200g, VND488,000 for 300g), Lee doesn’t mess around. This tender and flavourful meat is slow roasted to perfection, cooking the umami to create natural and authentic flavours. With plans to rotate the menu every few months, the prime rib will be their staple dish.
From their chicken and eggplant quesadilla (VND98,000), deep-fried calamari (VND88,000), passionfruit Foie Gras (VND188,000) to various soups, salads, pasta dishes and more — Acacia covers the fusion spectrum effortlessly.
“I like to do food art. I travel to Da Nang and Hoi An and get inspiration from these different places. Presentation is important to me,” Jack explained. “I think often people eat with their eyes first.” As he is saying this he holds up his phone with a photograph of a portrait he made with Balsamic dressing and lettuce to represent the hair.
When it comes to presentation, Lee takes it to the next level producing works of art not just in the appearance of Acacia’s dishes but also on the side as an added hobby. Another creation Lee made is a Piña Colada salad portrait to portray the drink — decorated with fresh coconuts, pineapples and fruit sauces.
Drawing from life experiences and inspirations, he plays with the textures, colors and tastes of the foods to create something more than what’s at the end of your utensil.
In addition to running Acacia’s kitchen and culinary arts, Lee wastes no time settling in Saigon’s cooking industry. With several side projects in the works come March, he will be gracing our TV screens on YANTV, helping out with a new cooking show.
For the latest updates on Lee’s and Acacia’s current specials, visit their Facebook page. To make a reservation, call 08 3823 5220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
149-151 Nguyen Du St. District 1, HCMC