Star anise, cinnamon, tomatoes and talking – one of Hanoi’s most popular chefs invites us into his home
Words by Sadie Christie ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Images by Linh Chi
The aroma of sautéing onions, garlic and beef greet me as I step out of the elevator. I follow my nose to the apartment at the end of the hall where the door is already open, and find chef Joel Manton in his kitchen dicing plump red tomatoes. “What are you making us today?” I ask as we enter. His answer of beef Bolognese surprises me. It seems an unlikely choice considering Joel’s notable dive into Hanoi’s modern fine dining scene three years ago, and oh the places he’s gone since.
There’s a lot going on in Joel’s world, but today is Sunday—Joel’s day off, and family day. His wife Mai and son, Louie, soon join us, the young boy cooing up at his father as he watches him add tomatoes to the simmering pot.
He stirs the braised chunks of meat, carrot, and tomato as he talks about his favourite flavours, simultaneously filling the room with their aroma as we speak—cinnamon, star anise, and bay leaf. “But fresh bay leaf. Dry is great for slow cooking stuff like this, but fresh bay leaf in a brulee or panacotta, so good.”
Joel was born and trained in Sydney, an education rooted in his mother’s kitchen. “Every night was like a restaurant at my mom’s house,” he says. As the oldest of ten children, he began cooking at the age of twelve for his large family. From there, Joel’s passion and knowledge grew alongside many international chefs in cafes, fine dining restaurants and five-star hotels, influencing his flare for fusion and igniting his curiosity to visit other countries.
“In fine dining you find everyone is trying to copy the best restaurants. They lose sight of the fact that food is meant to be enjoyable, it becomes all about making it impressive.”
In 2012 Joel found his opportunity in Hanoi as head chef of Pots ‘N Pans. Soon after finishing his year contract, he met Chi Anh, CEO of Kitchen Art, who shared his increasing passion for cooking simple, homey food well. “In fine dining you find everyone is trying to copy the best restaurants,” he says. “They lose sight of the fact that food is meant to be enjoyable, it becomes all about making it impressive.” In 2013, the duo opened The KAfé, a reflection of their urban-casual vision of modern comfort food and drinks. Their second location, KAfé Village, opened at the end of last year and this month, their third, KAfé Box, is opening in Vincom Towers.
I ask Joel if his kitchen at home is an oasis from everything else going on, a place where he can practice his art for himself. But he says he considers the kitchen at KAfé Village (which he designed), and the private studio kitchen in Kitchen Art, where they developed all their recipes, to be his true ateliers. When he gets home, he just wants to relax with his family. “I’m in the kitchen all day, so we like to eat out a lot. If I do cook at home I usually do simple pasta sauces—a pumpkin sauce or basic tomato sauce with some lemongrass and clams. I always have tomatoes in my fridge, and all the spices—cardamom, turmeric, cumin, coriander, that kind of stuff. I love cooking Indian food as well. Not from a recipe but just [to] see what happens.”
The smell now permeating the air is redolent of a gourmet sốt vang, and I’m beginning to rethink my initial judgments of Bolognese. Joel lets the sauce sit for a while as he pan-fries homemade gnocchi he’s taken from The KAfé. Hey, he still made it at some point. “Handmade pasta is my favorite thing to make because you can get so creative with the combinations.”
The first bite and every bite thereafter is incredible—simplicity and comfort at its delectable best.
“So why Bolognese?” I ask.
“It’s the first dish I cooked for my family. And then years later, my head chef cooked it. I was working at a really nice restaurant in Sydney, and I still remember the beef Bolognese and gnocchi he made. It was so good. I asked him why Bolognese and I think that was his point. You can do anything well. It doesn’t have to be the cliché food you think it is.”
He plates the glistening golden brown gnocchi, ladles the thick, rich stew on top and sprinkles it with spring onions and The KAfé’s homemade herb cheese. “My cooking started from having a big family and then it became a job,” he says, “but now it’s come back around to simple stuff again, family stuff. Food is about people.” The first bite and every bite thereafter is incredible—simplicity and comfort at its delectable best. Sitting together with Joel and his own young family, beef Bolognese becomes the perfect analogy of his culinary philosophy that’s come full circle to nestle in the concept of home.