Urbanist Hanoi

BackEat & Drink » Ănthology » A New Generation of Vietnamese Chefs Is Shaking Things up in Prague

A New Generation of Vietnamese Chefs Is Shaking Things up in Prague

 

One of the first Vietnamese in Czechia

“Our parents met here in the Czech Republic after being invited by the government to work in [their] factories around 1983. They were one of the first Vietnamese here,” says Giang Ta, the front-of-house and fraternal half of Taro Group, a fine-dining restaurant group that currently consists of three concepts: Gao Den, Taro and Dian.

Gao Den, Taro and Dian.

“I personally had zero Vietnamese classmates [because] our parents were first generation, ”elaborates Khanh Ta, the older of the two brothers and the one in charge of what goes on in the kitchen. Giang chimes in: “[At 35 and 32] we [are] kinda the older ones from the second generation. I only have one [Vietnamese] mate from secondary school. Now it’s pretty normal to have three Vietnamese people in class.”

Brothers Giang and Khanh Ta at their restaurant Dian.
Photo by Tam Le.

Today, the Vietnamese population makes up the third-largest minority in the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia, falling only behind the neighboring Slovaks and Ukrainains. It also represents the third-largest Vietnamese diaspora in Europe after France and Germany. 

“If you see an Asian person on the streets of the Czech Republic, it’s like a 95% chance they are Vietnamese,” Giang informs me, a fact that delighted me because in the United States, people of Vietnamese origin only make up 9% of the Asian population.

A brief history of Vietnamese in the Czech Republic

But unlike France’s diaspora, or even other countries such as the United States, Canada, or Australia, the Czech Republic’s immigrants originally came from northern Vietnam. In the 1980s and early 1990s, then-Czechoslovakia — and many other communist European countries — had guest worker agreements with the newly communist Vietnamese government, which hoped its citizens would return from Europe to the motherland with new, useful skills.

However, after Czechoslovakia’s government moved away from communism in 1989 and the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, many Vietnamese workers decided to stay. 

Viet Anh Vu at his restaurant Bao Bao.
Photo by Tam Le

“My parents, they were born in Vietnam. They are from the north, close to Hanoi. And then they moved to Russia...in the end of [the] eighties. They went as a group to work in factories. It was quite rushed, I guess, in Russia in those days, so they decided it’s better to move, and Czech was more peaceful. We moved here in 1995 when I was five. We were the first [of our family here],” recounts Viet Anh Vu, owner of the restaurant Bao Bao

Little Hanoi in Prague

Viet Anh’s parents, like many other first-generation Vietnamese-Czech, operated a business in Sapa, or Little Hanoi, the Vietnamese enclave about 15 kilometers south of Prague’s Old Town Square, and one of the city’s only ethnic neighborhoods. Growing up there, Viet Anh helped his mom sell xôi and bánh khúc, and got to know many of the vendors in the area. Now however, his business forces him to remain closer to the city center, returning to Sapa mainly for ingredients. 

This narrative echoes Khanh’s, who worked at his parents’ wholesale imported clothing store — a popular industry for first-generation Vietnamese immigrants — before starting their restaurant Gao Den. “But we still get most of the herbs and spices from Sapa. So we are there like every week,” adds Giang. 

Photo via Châu Praha.

Change is inevitable

Over the past four decades, the nature of the Vietnamese population in the Czech Republic has started changing. 

For one, they became a sizable minority group. Khanh explains: “The first Vietnamese were invited by the Czech government, and then other generations were invited by their relatives here. That’s how it started.”

One such example is Trang Nguyen, the driving force behind Banh Mi Makers. Her father immigrated to Prague in 1998 to earn money and send it home to Vietnam until she and her mother could join him in 2003. Trang was twelve years old when she arrived. “Even though I’ve been here for so long, I still look up at the buildings and am amazed. I love this city,” she exclaims with a happy sigh.  

Trang Nguyen and her mother at their second location of Banh Mi Makers.
Photo by Tam Le. 

Another change is the generation of children growing up in the Czech Republic has entered a much greater variety of careers compared to the previous generation. Trang elaborates: “They call us ‘banana kids.’ Vietnamese people do everything now, in every profession, like lawyers, doctors, in finance, in art... [The older generation] has their own businesses like restaurants, nails, textile shops, and grocery stores... But now Vietnamese people do everything.”

"They call us 'banana kids.' Vietnamese people do everything now in every profession, like lawyers, doctors, in finance, in art..."

As a testament to that, there are more people of Vietnamese origin getting screen time in the Czech Republic, such as actress and café owner Ha Thanh Špetlíková, and Khanh himself. Prostřeno!, the Czech version of the British reality series Come Dine with Me, featured Khanh in the first week of their 2020 season, which has had a big impact on their business. 

Khanh Ta with his fellow chef contestants on the reality TV show Prostřeno!,
the Czech version of the British reality series Come Dine with Me.
Photos via Prima.

“Banana kids” and their take on restaurants

As the Vietnamese population grows and a generation of those familiar with both Vietnamese and Czech culture reaches adulthood, a new wave of Vietnamese restaurants are popping up. These restaurants fight the harmful stereotypes of old-school Vietnamese restaurants with poor service, language barriers, and lack of attention to decor. This means that Czechs unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine are now presented with approachable and attractive options. 

The interior of Banh Mi Makers. Photo via Instagram page Banh Mi Makers.

Vu Anh answers me over the round, lacquered wood table of Bao Bao about why he chose to start a new restaurant over working at his parents’ existing one: “My parents, they are doing the Vietnamese street food [in Sapa] and it wasn’t common in Prague or in Czech. So I wanted to show it to Czech people. I saw an opportunity so I wanted to try it.” 

Bao Bao flanked by typical Prague architecture.Photo by Tam Le.

Giang, who focuses on the service aspect of the brothers’ restaurants, muses: “Maybe the food is not that different from other restaurants. It’s still bún bò and phở that you can get anywhere in Prague. [But] we are thinking about not just the food. From the point [of view] of a Vietnamese restaurant, I think that the big change here is the atmosphere, service. For us it’s really crucial to have the best service, to have people feeling good in the place. I think that’s why our restaurants are so popular now.”

“For us it’s really crucial to have the best service, to have people feeling good in the place.”

The interior of Khanh and Giang Ta’s restaurant Dian.
Photo by Tam Le.

Giang isn’t giving his brother Khanh enough credit. Yes, the interior of Dian, the most casual of the three restaurants, oozes class and balances luxurious, velvet, brass-accented chairs with the lush, verdant, tropical atmosphere of hanging pothos vines and pots of fiddle-leaf fig trees. However, dishes like their signature beef rendang on milk bread toast — topped with a generous amount of truffles, shredded to resemble chà bông more than the coveted wild mushrooms — don’t appear on the menu of every Vietnamese restaurant. At Dian, the gỏi cuốn is topped with a passionfruit gel and served like pieces of maki sushi. 

From top to bottom: Dian’s signature beef rendang on milk bread toast,
poached shrimp in a tomato consommé, and beef summer rolls.
Photos by Tam Le.

In all my years of eating Vietnamese food, I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish quite like their poached shrimp in a tomato consommé. The first bite was a flavor explosion. The generous pieces of tender shrimp were accompanied by marinated cherry tomatoes and chili-tinged jackfruit. The basil and dill were herbs outside the usual Vietnamese repertoire, and reflected Khanh’s European upbringing. Everything about Khanh and Giang’s restaurants defies the country’s outdated stereotypes about Vietnamese restaurants. 

Life after bún bò Nam Bộ 

This boom in service-focused, approachable Vietnamese restaurants has paved the way for passionate up-starts like the aforementioned Trang to introduce more Vietnamese dishes to an open Czech audience. 

Bún bò Nam Bộ is synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine in the Czech Republic, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given the diaspora’s northern roots in the country. Every restaurant I interviewed, from casual to fine dining, despite their specialty or niche, lists the northern stir-fried beef noodle dish as their bestseller.  

However, every restaurant I interviewed also lists bánh mì — pronounced almost like “báng mì” in their endearing, slight northern accents — as a well-known Vietnamese dish among Czechs behind phở and bún chả

“Actually I bring [sic] the first bánh mì to Czechs,” Trang of Banh Mi Makers modestly admits. She wanted to introduce her country to this dish that’s been a part of her life since her childhood in Vietnam and adolescence in the Czech Republic. Her face lights up as she tells me about her two-month trip down Vietnam, learning to make the iconic bánh mì baguettes. After months of trial and error back home, she was finally confident enough to start taking orders online and delivering her sandwiches, all while finishing up her university degree. 

“I wanted to show how Vietnamese food is actually cooked; to bring the authentic taste of bánh mì in Vietnam without having to fly there,” Trang passionately declares.

Banh Mi Makers’ grilled duck bánh mì is unlike anything I’ve tasted in Vietnam.
Photo by Tam Le.

I wholeheartedly disagree with her, however. Her bánh mì tastes like no bánh mì I’ve had in Vietnam. It tastes so much better in my opinion. One of the most controversial hot takes I have is that bánh mì are simply not good. The bread is airy and tasteless with the only texture being the crunchy shards that rain down every time you take a bite. Just try eating bánh mì while seated and wearing black; it’s worse than a case of serious dandruff. Not to mention there is an excess of cilantro stems and at least two surprise slices of thick chili peppers, ribs and seeds still intact, that will — out of nowhere — set your mouth on fire. Even if you had the foresight to open up your sandwich and toss these little devils out before your first bite, their heat still remains as a ghostly presence, contaminating random pockets of your bánh mì with a burn you never asked for. 

Banh Mi Makers’ baguettes are reminiscent of Hội An’s torpedo-shaped loaves with ends that come to a point. Their baguettes are soft and don't leave an explosion of crumbs in their wake. There is no sneaky chili and the cilantro and pickled vegetables are kept to a reasonable amount. However, my sister and I have been unable to determine exactly why Banh Mi Makers’ bánh mì are the best bánh mì we’ve ever eaten. Could it be the homemade mayonnaise developed by Trang and her mother? Could it be because the meats are treated to a long marinade and grilled over charcoal, a feat difficult to accomplish in small urban restaurant kitchens? Or is it because we’ve eaten nothing but Czech food now? 

Whatever it is, it’s no surprise Banh Mi Makers went from a dorm-room dream to an anticipated four locations in Prague. 

What’s next?

It’s now been many decades since Khanh and Giang’s parents made up the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to the Czech Republic. Since then, a generation of Czech-born children has grown up, mastered two of the world’s most difficult languages, defined for themselves what it means to be both Vietnamese and Czech, and built their businesses to reflect that. I, for one, can’t wait to see how the Czech culinary landscape will change in another forty years. 

Chef Khanh Ta overseeing orders at Dian. 
Photo by Tam Le.

Graphics by Phan Nhi and Jessie Trần.

Ănthology is a series exploring stories of Vietnamese food served around the world. It focuses on chefs and restaurants that are reimagining Vietnamese cuisine or crafting traditional dishes in new contexts, and how our national dishes have evolved in response to different geographic tastes and ingredients.

Partner Content