Downtown Melbourne is a fantastic place, full of life, colour and interesting sights. But for the thousands who work there it must be much like any other big city. Sure the weather is nicer than most and it's a bit more laid back than many but come lunchtime thousands of city workers escape their desks and computers looking for a bit of fresh air and a decent lunch before they have to get back to work, just like they do in London, New York or Paris.
For many with limited time and budget it’s the ubiquitous burger, fried chicken or pizza options you will see in any city. But if you’re in Melbourne you’re lucky as there’s a fast food chain with a difference where quality and commitment to real food prepared freshly with minimum processing aren’t slogans but just the way they do things, because they believe this is the way things should be done.
And as well as a great product at Ba’get, they have a great back story. I had the chance to meet Duy Huynh the CEO behind Bag’et and hear about their remarkable story in one of his smart restaurants in the bustling business district.
“My grandmother was widowed as a young women and my father had to help her raise the family. Living in French occupied Vietnam he earned a little money by collecting fresh bread from the baker and delivering it to the French households in the area. Before long grandmother wondered if there would be a little more money if she filled the baguettes herself”
“She knew the French missed a lot of the things they ate regularly at home so she used her skills as a cook and knowledge of Vietnamese ingredients to create recipes that would appeal to them. There was no dairy produce and they missed butter so she devised a spread using eggs and oil, like aioli, as a substitute. She made pates and smoked meats that they loved and combined them with traditional Vietnamese food. It was like the original fusion food and they were a great success.” He explained.
But as the years went by things became very hard in Vietnam. Duy’s father married and had his own family and they decided they had to try to find a better life. They joined the exodus and became part of the Vietnamese boat people that were the humanitarian tragedy that filled our news broadcasts in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Duy told me that having been at sea on a tiny boat they finally “washed up on the Malaysian shore…literally”.
Duy describes themselves as “lucky” as all of his family were still together and as they had relatives in Australia they had the chance to settle there, after 18 months living in refugee camps. His Mother and Father both had two factory jobs when they first arrived but also started to sell baguettes in the suburbs using Grandmother’s original recipes.
“I won a scholarship to study in Hong Kong and my Mother was terrified that if something happened to me they wouldn't have the money to get me home or help out , so selling baguettes was a way of raising some money in case it was needed,” he told me.
His Grandmother’s recipes were such a hit that Duy, who has a successful career in business, has turned them into a new brand that is satisfying the hungry office workers who throng the Melbourne Central Business District. But he insists, “We keep faithful to Grandma’s recipes. We make our own smoked meats and hams as well as our own pickles. Everything we use is fresh, with no preservatives.”
This commitment to freshness and high quality is clearly important to Duy. He is on a mission to bring healthy food to people as an alternative to the highly processed fast food many chains offer. “We have our own production plant so have control over what we use”.
Duy made me one of his signature sandwiches. On a freshly baked baguette he spread a little aioli which is still made to his grandmother’s recipe. On top of that was a layer of the pate she created, then three types of ham. Then he piled on some pickled carrot and a few stems of spring onion before rounding it off with a few tiny pieces of chilli. It was absolutely gorgeous. The different ingredients provided layers of contrasting flavours and textures that complemented each other perfectly. It was probably the freshest and tastiest lunchtime sandwich I have ever eaten.
I had heard Duy had a passion for whisky as well as food, so asked if he had ever paired Vietnamese food with a good malt. He smiled as he told me about one of his recent experiments serving salmon with a barley risotto cooked with whisky. “Some of the sweeter whiskies that have matured in sherry casks can be very good with traditional Vietnamese flavours” he added.
Duy compared the way whisky is made, using simple ingredients to a recipe handed down through generations to his approach to food. ‘It's the wisdom of the ages” he explained. “In the recent past we looked for faster, cheaper food which has become over processed. My passion is get back to more traditional, authentic ways of serving food.”
In one of Duy’s restaurants there is a proverb on the wall that reads;
“Half-truths are never true and true love never comes in halves”
Duy sees this as a motto for his life, never doing things by half and putting his heart, soul and considerable talent into building a healthy fast food enterprise that owes everything to its traditional roots.
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