Chef Joe Finds Culinary Inspiration in Vietnam

by Joe Ritchie, Executive Sous Chef


Chef Joe and his traveling entourage!

Halibut season here in the Pacific Northwest is a welcome sign of spring for most Seattleites and in particular for Seattle chefs. Halibut is one of the most widely appreciated food fish of our region. Halibut’s dense, sweet meat lends itself to a wide variety of cooking methods; while it’s lean, protein-rich qualities make it a healthy spring ingredient as we wait for the fatty, rich salmon runs to gain momentum. Many chefs see halibut as something of a culinary blank canvas; it has a decidedly neutral flavor and assimilates to a myriad of cuisine styles.


Vietnamese fisherman

As chefs, we look to our culture, history, and personal experiences for inspiration when creating menus and individual dishes. When the first halibut arrived at the butchers table in Ray’s prep kitchen a few weeks ago, I resolved to create a dish for our Boathouse diners that would represent both the amazing quality of our northern Pacific bounty and also allow me to share a personal dining experience I was fortunate enough to enjoy on a recent culinary adventure to Vietnam.


Chef crushing lemongrass for pesto

In the middle of our two-week trip, my travel companions and I spent three days in the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. Throughout the trip our preferred method of deciding what and where to eat was to find the stalls, restaurants or booths packed with locals, wander in and eat whatever local specialty we discovered. We had previously researched the indiscreet venue for this inspiring meal and arrived several hours before the restaurant opened. As we paused nearby we were welcomed by the gregarious yet polite owner/chef. She brought us into the kitchen, sent an assistant for ingredients at the local market and then prepared a five course meal rivaling the best I’ve ever experienced.

Skinned flatfish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot coals

Skinned flatfish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot coals

The fourth of the five courses featured a small, flatfish cousin of our halibut. To be quite honest I’m not sure exactly what the fish we ate was but I’m guessing it was an Indian Spiny Turbot. It was delicious!  These types of fish are increasingly rare and expensive in that region but a local fisherman had caught one and our host had the presence of mind to snap it up that morning. She first prepared a coarse pesto by crushing lemongrass with mortar and pestle and then combined it with tamarind, garlic, ginger, lime, and fish sauce. The pesto was finished with unique betel leaves and spread upon the skinned flatfish which was then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot coals.

As she brought the completed dish to the table and removed the lop leaves, the sweet, tangy, garlicky aroma urged us to immediately dig in with our chopsticks. She served this fantastic fish course with a simple bowl of rice which was grown behind the restaurant and harvested by her husband. Without question it was the best rice and best piece of flatfish I’ve ever enjoyed!


Chef Joe’s Broiled Alaskan Halibut, inspired by his trip to Vietnam

It was with this stimulating meal fresh in my mind that I recently added “Broiled Alaskan Halibut” to the Boathouse menu. You will find it prepared with a crust of lemongrass-garlic-ginger pesto and served with locally cultivated mushrooms, pea shoots and spring peas. These components are so assembled to acknowledge both  halibut season and springtime while offering a nod of tribute to new-found culinary inspiration and of course, warmer climates.

(all photos courtesy of Joe Ritchie)

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