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Sofitel Saigon Plaza conjuring up culinary magic

(No.5, Vol.6,Jul-Aug 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine,Advertorial)



Chef Marko Rankel








Photos: Sofitel Saigon Plaza


That great cathedral dedicated to French hospitality and taste that sits on leafy Le Duan Street in HCMC, ‘The Sofitel Saigon Plaza’, has recently acquired a new highly experienced master chef, Marko Rankel, who won the 1 st place by the Accor-Azubi Award of the Cooks in Germany 450 Hotels four times in succession, and cooked for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US 67th Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton. He also received the ‘Silver Bernache Award for Innovation’ from the Accor Group in 2007. Lucky me and our dear editor-in-chief Madame Le Thanh Hai were invited the other day to enjoy the company of Chef Marko Rankel over the dinner table at the hotel's famed French restaurant ‘L'Olivier’. The overwhelming thing we learned is that Marko has taken to his new situation like a duck to water.
What really marks out the Mediterranean table for me is a double cruet of olive oil and vinegar. Whilst the decor of ‘L'Olivier’ is tasteful but simple and the atmosphere not too formal, without a doubt this is fine dining. Here the condiments came in a paintbox-like container with the palettes filled with a tomato puree, an olive puree, olives, and extra virgin olive oil. To enjoy these flavours, the breads in shades of white, grey and brown appeared along with Perrier water. This bounty was in contrast to the daily French stick with which the Good Lord normally provides me.
Marko told us the story of his life. He grew up in the historic city of Hannover in Northern Germany. The family's greatest pursuit was to go sailing in the North Sea and he initially dreamed of being a ship’s captain. But close to school-leaving age, he realised his calling was to be a chef despite the fact that nobody in his family had ever tried this. The long hours and gruelling work of the apprenticeship almost made him give up, but with a stern lecture from his mother he persevered, eventually even earning his culinary master's degree.
That was one story he told. The other was how he came to Asia and his experience here. Almost as in a fairy tale, Marko had impressed an influential mentor in Germany so much that he granted him a wish. At the time, he said he was quite happy and needed nothing. However, a little later on, Marko felt the wanderlust and asked the mentor to help him obtain his first post in Asia. He has to date worked in Beijing, Manila and Cambodia. He has learned to adapt to the Asian workplace. ‘In Germany, it is work before family but in Asia, quite the opposite,’ he affirms. He has learned also to be less directly demanding of his teams in Asia, adopting a softer approach. He loves Saigon where he finds the people very friendly and he has made a few friends from his daily early morning exercise in the Zoological Gardens.
On to the dishes which we were served. First came the exquisite marinated scallop and crab, decorated with colourful squiggles of sauce and balsamic reduction. It was accompanied by a glassful of gazpacho the size of which you would serve a noggin of spirits in. Having only ever had this soup in its native land of Southern Iberia where they serve it freezing cold with shaved ice, I was surprised to have it here fairly warm but the intensive flavours of tomato and herbs were just as refreshing and delicious.
The next extravaganza was more filling — the tagliatelle with crab and cheese. I have to admit to feeling strange eating noodles with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks but of course this made no difference to the enjoyment of this piece of culinary mastery.
Then came the piece de resistance — the roast Barbary duck breast. Like many of the ingredients here, the duck is flown in from Paris. Served with purees of pumpkin and potato, the duck had the appearance of a slice of the tenderest beef. It was truly melt-in-your-mouth, dipped as it was in morel sauce with its layers of crispy skin and juicy duck fat. There were a couple of honeycomb-shaped objects accompanying it that looked like blackberries. They certainly did not taste like blackberries. As Marko explained, these were morel mushrooms — very sought after by connoisseurs and very expensive. I can tell they are pure heaven. If you have not already tried this, make sure you put it on your ‘to taste before you die’ list!
Finally, of course, something which is a novelty to those of us who lead a Vietnamese life — the dessert. We had tiramisu cake with ice cream. Ah, the tiramisu, so ubiquitous these days as it never fails to astound the taste buds and amazing to think it was only invented in the 1970s.
Marko is a name which hitherto I had associated with magicians. This Marko, of course, whips up his magic for you to enjoy in the kitchen. Should you visit the Sofitel Saigon Plaza for a meal, you will not enjoy the warmth of Marko as a dinner companion as I did, but in all probability, you may find yourself calling him over to your table to present him with your compliments having being spellbound by his culinary tricks.

Sofitel Saigon Plaza
17 Le Duan St, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3824-1555
www.sofitel.com


By Pip de Rouvray
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