An Interview with Executive Chef Javier Gomez at Shri Saigon

food - Saigon/HCMC: June 27, 2019

Sitting down to speak with Javier Gomez, the highly talented Executive Chef at Shri Restaurant & Lounge in central Saigon, the passion, curiosity and dedication that have driven his success ring loud and clear. 

These factors have defined Gomez's journey as a chef, starting from his familial roots growing up in Valencia, Spain, all the way through to his current position responsible for producing outstanding Spanish and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine at one of the best restaurants in Saigon (and now also Phu Quoc) and Vietnam.

City Pass Guide: Javier, tell us about where and when your initial love for good food developed.

Javier Gomez: Well, as a child living in Valencia, I used to go with my mother to the local market every day. I would watch her buy beautiful fresh ingredients and then learn how to cook them at home. You know, she used to teach me about selecting the best fish, meat, vegetables, and fruit, so that every meal would be just right. She would say “this is how you test the watermelon” or “that tomato is good and that one not so good”, and that is how I learned.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

For me, this was normal and part of growing up in Valencia, so I didn’t see it as anything special or different at that time. Every neighbourhood had its own market and great family food was central to Mediterranean life. It was all about using the freshest ingredients, not so many spices, some garlic, rosemary, and always olive oil - never butter, of course. My mum was always crazy about never using butter! And those Mediterranean influences have stayed with me throughout my career as a chef.

CPG: When did you make the decision to become a chef and how did you go about that?

JG: When I was 20 years old, I decided to be a chef and I left Valencia to move to San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. Some of the best restaurants in the world are in San Sebastian and it was the best place I could go at that time to train as a chef. It was a real challenge and a huge change in my life, but I felt that if I really wanted to be a chef, I just had to go!

It was definitely a great decision for my career as a chef - gastronomy flows through San Sebastian - a small town but with more than a dozen Michelin stars in its restaurants. And everyone is thinking about food all the time - if you overhear a conversation between two old men, they’re talking about the quality of anchovies or mushrooms in their lunch from the day before. 

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

I learned so many new things about food, because everything was so different from Valencia and the Mediterranean style. The use of butter was totally new for me, and the meat, fish, vegetables were all different - it was like living in another country! I studied in the famous gastronomic school in San Sebastian and worked in really high level restaurants there, which opened my eyes to amazing techniques and methods of cooking. In particular, I discovered the new generation of tapas, combining traditional ideas with modern innovations - what people often refer to now as ‘sexy tapas’.

CPG: What was next for you after San Sebastian?

JG: After three years in San Sebastian, I worked in other parts of Spain, I really wanted to discover the full variety of cuisine in the country. I worked in Madrid, Sevilla, the Canary Islands, back to Valencia also - I really got a wide breadth of knowledge which has stuck with me to this day. I also went to Colombia and opened a Spanish restaurant there in Santa Marta. 

After that, I moved to the UK - I wanted to learn English and also get new culinary perspectives and experience. There, I worked in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and all other areas in Scotland. For one year in Edinburgh, I was at a luxury restaurant owned by a Scottish-Indian celebrity chef, Tony Singh, and there I learned a lot about Indian food, too. In fact, Tony was my connection to come to Vietnam and to work here as executive chef at Shri.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

I have to say that British food doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the rest of Europe, as you probably already know! However, during my time in the UK, I worked with really top chefs, had access to incredibly high quality ingredients and learned a lot about creating international standard food. It was definitely an influential time in my career. 

CPG: It’s clear that you have gained a fantastic range of experience in various countries throughout your time as a chef - we would love to find out more about how you found yourself in Vietnam.

JG: Funnily enough, I never imagined that I would be living in Asia - there’s no particular reason for that, it just didn’t enter my mind! When it happened, it was a really nice surprise! Tony Singh, whom I mentioned I worked for in Edinburgh, introduced me to a contact of his at Shri. He told me that Shri was already one of the best bars and restaurants in Saigon but needed a captain for the kitchen, so of course that was interesting! 

In fact, Shri were looking for an experienced and passionate chef who would not be tainted by previous working in Saigon, which is why Tony recommended me. So I came to Vietnam for one week at the beginning, met the team and started to make tasting menus to see how we could work together. I loved the idea of this job, not just to work with a great venue, but also because I love to travel and it was an amazing chance to explore a new culture and food scene.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

The first time I went to the local markets in Saigon, it was quite an incredible experience, quite nerve-wracking. I was a little surprised by how different some of the ingredients were. For example, the salt wasn’t ‘salty’ as I was used to, or the sugar wasn’t the sugar that I knew. So that definitely presented quite a unique challenge for me and I definitely felt like I was on the other side of the world!

CPG: Apart from the obvious difficulties of moving to a new country, were there any particular obstacles that you had to overcome when you started your work with Shri in Vietnam?

JG: In the months before I joined three years ago, Shri didn’t have an executive chef, so the kitchen team had become used to not having a leader to teach and inspire them. They were used to serving the same plates for quite a long time, working with the same routine, and following the same habits without question. So for me, this was one reason the job was the biggest test of my career. Another reason was the big responsibility to live up to Shri’s reputation as the best rooftop restaurant in Saigon.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

I also joined at the busiest time of the year, I was new to the whole team and had only one guy who spoke English in the kitchen to help translate. So you can see that it wasn’t at all a walk in the park! However, the support of the owner and my Vietnamese colleagues was so important to me, they really helped me to adapt to a totally new world and environment. 

Once I got to know the team and after making my own changes, I saw a big difference. Getting close to the team, understanding their personalities, and enabling good communication was crucial and we are now like family. I also put into place that every kitchen member has to train on each station in the kitchen and this has helped them to gain new skills and knowledge and cover for each other where necessary.

It was a big help to me that young Vietnamese people are so hungry to learn - I love to see this and I feel proud to see all the new recipes they have learned in my first three years with Shri. I truly feel like I’m a teacher here. Of course, I have also learned from them about the ways of Vietnamese food and culture and I am very grateful for that.

CPG: Tell us about how you created the fantastic menus at Shri. What are you proud of in terms of the dishes that you offer and what food-related challenges have there been?

JG: On a culinary level, the main challenge was creating menus that were suitable to Shri’s wide range of customers. We serve high quality cuisine to businessmen from within and outside of Ho Chi Minh City, well-off Vietnamese people as well as more middle-class Vietnamese who come for a special occasion, plus expat customers in the city looking for excellent food. For me, I want to make everyone happy, which is why we have lots of variety in our menus from Spanish, French, and Italian to Vietnamese, Indian, and other Asian styles.

In particular, I’m very proud of adding the Spanish elements to Shri’s menus - of course I want to represent where I’m from and it’s something I know I’m pretty good at! I’m happy now that people in Saigon know me, especially in the Spanish community - they know I’m from Valencia and they know the quality of the paella and other dishes that I make. Also, the Bar 23 tapas menu that I created has gained a good reputation - it’s traditional food that you can find in a real Spanish bar, but right here in Saigon. That recognition is definitely a big positive for me and tells me I’m doing something right! 

Actually, the idea of introducing a new cuisine to a city, as we are doing with Spanish food in Saigon, is very challenging. Local people are totally used to their own way of preparing rice dishes for example, so when we show them our best paella, it can still be quite difficult for Vietnamese to enjoy it at first. Connecting Vietnamese flavours with traditional Spanish and Mediterranean flavours presented a definite obstacle early on.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

To deal with this, I have had to learn as much as possible about Vietnam and its food culture. I have also tried to educate local people on our cooking methods, on how and why they work. I have made a big effort to go to customer’s tables and have constructive conversations to help this process. Our Vietnamese customers usually really appreciate me coming to speak with them, although occasionally it can be a little intimidating for them! But I feel that, over time, the people of Saigon have come to understand more why we cook the way we do.

Having said that, one thing I really love about cooking in Vietnam is the incredible range of products and ingredients you can buy here. There is so much to find in Vietnamese markets that can replace and even improve upon foreign products that are not easily available and this is a joy for me. 

I love the creativity that Vietnam has inspired in my cooking. Living here has pushed me to combine local flavours with Spanish and Western profiles. In fact, I am launching a new culinary book that is based on 42 recipes we have developed, using only Vietnamese ingredients and plenty of Western techniques, so I’m really excited about that!

CPG: What else is happening now and coming soon with Shri that you can tell us about?

JG: I’m now working on a new menu that combines traditional Spanish elements with tastes that are more familiar here in Vietnam. In contrast to the recipes in my book, this menu will incorporate more products from Spanish and foreign markets, products which suppliers are able to bring over more easily now. I just want to make great food in Saigon, Spanish or otherwise, that is really enjoyable for as many people as possible, whether they are from Spain, Vietnam, or elsewhere - that is my aim.

Shri Saigon - Chef interview

We also have a very exciting new restaurant and beach club in Phu Quoc island, simply called Shri Phu Quoc. The menu style at Shri Phu Quoc is more casual and heavily based on fresh seafood. The location is fantastic, with gorgeous beach and sunset views. I’m loving the experience!

Personally and professionally, I look forward to continue introducing the best Spanish and Western food to the people of Saigon (and Phu Quoc), and to keep on learning about Vietnamese ways and cultures. At Shri Saigon, we have lots of fun events and menus planned in the coming months. In particular, our monthly Spanish parties, combining great Spanish food, drinks, music and a wonderful rooftop atmosphere above Saigon. They have been a huge hit so far!

Image source: Shri Saigon