Imperial Traditions Reborn: Banqueting with Thu Buser

The chef and food stylist breathes new life into fruit and vegetable carving at Ăn Cỗ

Thu Buser’s otherworldly tablescapes have graced the pages of glossies like Bon Appetit and T Magazine, but her culinary ambitions extend far beyond the visual. The Saigonese, New York-based chef and food stylist has parlayed her on-set skills into an experimental and multi-sensory dinner series, transporting guests to specific moments in the cultural mytho-history of Vietnam. “Ăn Cỗ” literally translates to “attending a banquet,” but Buser tells me that for Vietnamese speakers, the phrase conjures a distinct sense of conviviality: “It’s an occasion where you eat a lot of good food, you socialize, you talk, you drink and you have fun.” To celebrate the year of the Dragon, she collaborated with Monsieur Vo in the East Village on a five course Imperial-inspired feast, complete with custom cocktail pairings and a dream-like installation of birds and flowers borne of humble fruits and vegetables. I caught up with her a few days ahead of the festivities to learn more about her practice and long term plans to revive this dying Vietnamese art.

Jake Stavis: When did you start carving? What are some of your earliest memories of this practice?

Thu Buser: I really only started seriously doing it a year or two ago, but I first became interested in learning about it at the imperial citadel in Huế, the place where the carvings that inspired me were originally created. My friends surprised me with a gift to a class there. It was so hard and required so much control, and I just thought, “there's no way I can do this.” Fast forward, I moved to the states and that's when I realized how much I missed home and how little people know about Vietnamese cuisine and history here. I’ve made it my mission to promote those traditions.

JS: I want to know more about this class. Were you working as a food stylist at the time?

TB: I wanted to know more about Imperial Cuisine, and not necessarily just carving - culinary philosophy during that time saw food, medicine, and magic as intricately linked. A dish that represented the right elements in the right ways was not only delicious but also healthy and even able to impart luck to those who consume it. That style of cooking is something that most people know very little about, and there’s no better place to learn about it than Huế. My friend worked in the tourism industry, so she helped me find the class.

JS: Where did you grow up?

TB: I grew up in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

JS: And was food a big part of your life growing up?

TB: I actually grew up in a restaurant that my parents owned, seeing my mom making beautiful feasts, throwing parties for people. But my mom never wanted me to be like a chef.

JS: That’s usually how it goes.

TB: Exactly – she was like, just go to school and don't go back into the kitchen at all. So I graduated and got a job in food media, producing ads and stuff like that.

JS: Was your parents’ restaurant catering to locals, tourists, or a mix?

TB: It was mostly locals. We served Vietnamese drinking food, and it was a great place for people to have parties. My mom closed it down when I was 13 or 14 because she felt it was not a good environment for kids to grow up in, but funny enough, some of my first memories of carving are actually watching my mom making flowers and leaves and mini sculptures for banquets. I think all those memories of seeing my mom doing that on the day-to-day helped me keep at it, despite the difficulty.

JS: It’s like with most specialized kitchen skills, every time you do it, it's practice. So you take this class, then you come to New York. You start working as a food stylist. How did you hone your skills?

TB: I wanted to promote Vietnamese food arts that people don't know a lot about here, and so I considered ways to use the connections I have. I work with photographers, set designers, and prop stylists. So I basically worked with friends to create my own side project. We’ve worked with Vietnamese jello arts, we’ve done fruit carvings, we’ve explored mung beans as a canvas.

JS: Have you been able to insert these elements into any of your shoots that you're doing for editorial clients?

TB: That's something that I'm trying to build my reputation towards. I want to be known as the person that will take on really difficult cultural jobs. But I also want other people to play with it, experience it, and take photos of their own. So that was why I created the Ăn Cỗ series, highlighting Vietnamese food arts that you can eat and showcasing regional delicacies that you cannot find here.

JS: Did you work with anyone to practice techniques or were you looking at books?

TB: I've watched a lot of YouTube videos but not on fruit and vegetable carvings – I've watched a lot of wood carving videos to learn because it's actually a very similar concept. I think the thing that you need to learn is how to look at the object in a different dimension - what to keep and what to extract right? The carving is not hard, it’s looking at the object in a different dimension is what’s hard.

JS: What's your toolkit look like?

TB: I mostly used just really sharp vegetable knives. There are other tools very similar to wood carving tools too, but basically all you need is a paring knife and you can do everything. It’s kind of like knitting in a way – I know the final product can look really intimidating but really it’s just a lot of repetitive simple motions.

JS: That's wild. Tell me about some of the different vegetables and fruits you’ve carved. What's very traditional and what have you experimented with that’s available here versus in Vietnam?

TB: I first learned carving on carrots in Vietnam. It's cheap, you can find them everywhere. Everyone does carrots and also tomatoes.

JS: The tomatoes you're carving, are they under ripe almost? A carrot’s quite firm so I can imagine carving a carrot quite easily versus a ripe tomato… that feels like a recipe for disaster, with pulp everywhere.

TB: Exactly, but we also use the skins for making flowers. So when I moved here there were some other ingredients… I used butternut squash and these small radishes that are really cute. For fruit, I’d work with honeydew and melon especially.

JS: Have you tried anything that was just a total failure?

TB: I think anything can be a total failure, but anything can be fixed. It's not about not being able to carve, that’s usually something I can salvage. But the failure comes if the ingredient will dry out faster than you’d like. Working with organic material, you really need to learn how to respect it and you really have to work on its pace, not yours. Sure I can spend 20 hours on a carving, but the ingredient doesn’t have that much time for me.

JS: You can clear your schedule, but even if you have all the time, the fruit doesn't have all the time.

TB: Exactly. I have to work with so many different materials to learn the pacing – this has a longer life cycle, this can stay for days like, this needs to be in the water… Everything has its own pace and that's very interesting.

JS: Do you spray stuff with water or do you have any tricks to keep things looking prime?

TB: I mostly just soak them in water in order to keep them looking fresh, and will also wrap them with moist paper towels to ensure they don’t dry out as quickly.

JS: I suppose it’s kind of like working with certain kinds of dough - you break off a bit to shape it and keep the rest covered with a damp kitchen towel. Do you enjoy other kinds of sculptural cooking? Something that comes to mind is like pasta shapes or some pastry work.

TB: I think I enjoy cooking things that look and taste good. I want to understand the structure and engineering of a dish, and then use that understanding to make it look good. I want to inspire people to do that in their own cooking. My Ăn Cỗ dinners are a bit different from how people historically would serve this food - in Vietnam, you’d have the sculpture and then food sort of flat on the table, so they lay the food flat. I prefer to work with prop stylists to create an environment for it, adding dimension and context, so it’s sort of like this fairy tale experience.

JS: So traditionally there was the sculpture and the food, and they were separate. Whereas with your work, there isn’t such a clear division between what’s to be seen and what’s to be eaten. It’s more playful. Can you tell me what's on the menu for Lunar New Year?

TB: For sure - Nem Cong Cha Phuong is the most well-known dish from the imperial age. I first learned to carve the phoenix and the peacock in Huế, and knew that the display would look perfect in Monsieur Vo. I’ll use these to present fried spring rolls and ham shaped like phoenix tail feathers. I want to open the menu with things that people might find both familiar and different, so I’m doing four appetizers that they can wrap up, dip, and crunch, served with a ginger gin tea for a nice kick.

It wouldn't be Tet without the rolled sticky rice cake (aka Banh Tet Ngu Sac) and braised pork belly, both lucky dishes made from humble ingredients. It's a very comforting dish that I grew up eating, but we wanted a wow version, so we’re using four flavors of sticky rice – green pandan, white coconut, red gac fruit, and purple ube – to "royalify" this common dish. Instead of serving just sliced pork belly, we roll ours up to mix the fat and the meat, serving it with a pour over rather than swimming in broth, finished with a marinated egg yolk. I’m pairing it with a coconut pandan calamansi rum to help round out the flavors in the sticky rice cake.

Goi Bo Tien Vua is a returning hit from my Ăn Cỗ pop-up series. The name means "ready for the king,” and it’s meant to evoke Vietnamese Spring, namely that moment of cool weather when the hills take on a floral scent from all the flowering fruits and trees. I want to show people how grilled beef and tropical fruits can work together and wow them with the presentation. The dish has star fruits, cucumbers, pickled onions, pineapples, guava, lime leaves, and so much more. I grew up with a beautiful starfruit tree outside my window that would fruit a few times a year, but I rarely saw it used in savory dishes. Because it’s kind of a flavor bomb, I’m serving it with a hibiscus chrysanthemum soju to cleanse the palate.

We're also making Com Sen Cung Dinh. Even in the imperial period, some "peasant" cuisine was way too good to pass up. Royal chefs were tasked with making these simple dishes ready for the court, so we are paying homage to these chefs with a "citadel fried rice" wrapped in a lotus leaf. It gives off a nice fragrance when opened and is packed with lots of lucky ingredients like lotus seeds, lap xuong sausage, thin egg floss, and abalone. Jimmy's fried rice at Monsieur Vo is such a hit, so we knew we had to include it, and adding the egg floss was so genius since it soaks up the sauce. Because it's the year of the dragon, we’ll form the lotus leaf into a money bag tied up with string so people can open it, then pouring in the "gold" of the salted egg yolk shavings. To warm everyone up with a final cocktail before the cold dessert, we’re serving a warm winter melon sake whose earthy tones beautifully match the lotus leaf fragrance.

The final dish is Che Long Nhan Hat Sen. I grew up eating cold, sweet and salty desserts and always felt it was such a lovely way to end a meal. After four rich courses, this imperial style lucky dessert (which is usually hot) will serve as a smooth finish and promote good digestion. It has longan stuffed with lotus seed – two symbols of prosperity for their white color – lucky red goji berry, jujube, lotus root, and my special shredded coconut jelly, all served in a sweet and salty coconut pandan syrup.

JS: Have you done the other dinners around holidays?

TB: It’s been based in part on the ingredients available during that time of year. Last time I brought diners to the mountains to highlight the highland cuisine of Vietnam. The next one I want to do will explore seafood, showcasing coastal cooking.

JS: How do you approach sourcing? I imagine some of these ingredients are really difficult to find.

TB: For dinners in the past I would source some ingredients directly from Vietnam. I have suppliers for things I cannot find here and I just work with them to fly things here. To be frank, so far this has been a total passion project. I make zero money out of it, but I really want to promote these foods and traditions.

JS: I'm sure you've looked into this stuff, but I feel like there are probably some cultural heritage organizations that would be interested in offering grants for work like this. You have talked about this cooking as this sort of dying art, would you ever teach it?

TB: Yeah, I'm really interested in teaching. Right now I'm just trying to put my voice forward on a lot of platforms, and so far the reaction is very overwhelming! People want me to teach them and I would love to do that, but I think first and foremost I need to show proof of concept.

JS: It may be a passion project, but it sounds like you’re approaching it very rationally.

TB: So let's put it this way. I don’t approach it with the financial plan top of mind. I just want to keep this going as long as I can and raise the most awareness. I hope in the long term money will come but for now I just don't want to put it first.

Presented by Thu Buser and Monsieur Vo

Food and Beverage: Thu Buser and Monsieur Vo

Photography by Alex Huang

Special Thanks to Jimmy Ly, Yen Vo, Taylor Buser and the whole Monsieur Vo team