From refugee to Michelin-starred restaurateur, chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s road to success has been anything but linear. Franklin fled Saigon in 1975 at the age of 12, and his culinary journey has been intertwined with his repatriation to Vietnam. It’s this unique perspective—American and Vietnamese—that is directly translated to Franklin’s irreverent, global approach to food at Anan Saigon.
Born Nguyễn Hùng Cường in a small village outside of Da Lat, in the Central Highlands, Franklin was airlifted out of Saigon (in what is now also known as Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, and subsequently lost contact with his birth family in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Adopted by an American naval family, he grew up in Connecticut, going on to graduate from Yale and work in finance in New York, London and, eventually, Hong Kong. In 1995, after a childhood friend located his birth mother, Franklin flew back to Vietnam for the first time in decades to reunite with her.
Still, Franklin knew something else was missing from his life. Walking away from his finance career, he enrolled at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2008, then spent time training in world-renowned kitchens like Chicago’s Alinea and Bangkok’s Nahm. In 2013, he opened Chôm Chôm, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong.
Four years later, following a split from his partners at Chom Chom, and a divorce from his wife of nearly two decades, Franklin decided it was time for another change. “I felt that mother Vietnam called me back, for some reason that I was not sure of at the time,” Franklin told Observer. “I felt like a lost prodigal son.” In 2017, he moved back to Vietnam, and after five months of planning, debuted Anan (which translates to “eat, eat”) in a five-story tube house within a wet market on Tôn Thất Đạm Street.
Franklin dubbed the freewheeling style of food at Anan as “Cuisine Mói” or “new Vietnamese,” in a nod to similar contemporary culinary movements like “new American” and “new Scandinavian,” in which the traditional flavors of the cuisine are interpreted with the best available local ingredients and global techniques.
At Anan, Franklin combines his American upbringing and Vietnamese background to thoughtfully reimagine Vietnamese classics like turmeric pancakes, or banh xeo, which are presented as tacos. Banh trang nuong, an open-faced Vietnamese grilled rice paper dish from Da Lat, is dressed as pizza with a range of toppings like smoked chorizo and mozzarella cheese. Meanwhile, the humble everyman marinated pork chop is treated like the finest of steaks—the thick cut is cooked sous vide before it’s finished on the grill.
“The hybridity of different cultures forces you to challenge or change something,” Franklin said, pointing out that Vietnam’s most iconic dishes, like pho and banh mi, originated as local adaptations to French and Chinese colonial influences. “But you need a deep understanding of the cultures, not just in a superficial way. To do our pork chop, you need to know the satisfaction of eating a [perfectly cooked] piece of steak”
That’s not to say Franklin has abandoned his Vietnamese roots. His childhood in Vietnam inspires his cooking in more ways than one, as he believes his innate passion for food comes from memories of his mother running a small noodle soup stand out of the family’s home in Da Lat.
“When you grow up in a family of cooks, it’s deeply ingrained in your DNA,” Franklin said. “Every morning, customers would come at 11:30 am. My mom would wake up early to buy ingredients and start preparing. After they ate, we’d clean, rest and prepare again. There’s a kind of rhythm and process you know if you work in a restaurant.”
Today, Franklin frequently returns to Da Lat to visit his mother and relatives—and to source ingredients. Situated among temperate, pine-covered mountains, the former French colonial town is known for producing goods not found elsewhere in Vietnam, like strawberries, artichokes and tomatoes, all of which have appeared on Anan’s menu. Chorizo and other pork products come from a local producer, Dalat Deli.
“Having high-quality western ingredients grown locally allows us to do more with Vietnamese cuisine without relying on imports,” Franklin explained. “We’re able to take a more intentional, multicultural approach to our flavor profiles.”
Six years after Anan opened, the restaurant received a top accolade in the industry—a coveted Michelin star. The Michelin Guide unveiled its first-ever Vietnam guide in 2013, and of the four stars awarded to the best culinary standouts in the country, Anan was the only winner in Saigon. At the ceremony in Hanoi, Franklin took to the stage to declare, “Mom, this one’s for you!”
The inaugural Vietnam Michelin Guide spotlighted 103 restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and Franklin is optimistic about a new chapter for food in Vietnam; one in which the country is recognized not only for its quintessential street foods, but also for its growing crop of fine dining and craft cocktail bars. In 2019, Franklin opened Nhau Nhau (which translates to “drink, drink”) in the same building as Anan, serving inventive drinks like a Phojito (a mojito made with pho spices like star anise and cinnamon).
While there is no shortage of culinary talent in Vietnam, the local restaurant industry is still lacking in quantity and diversity. To this end, Franklin hopes Anan can be a destination for young talent looking for mentorship. Anan currently employs a team of 30 young Vietnamese cooks and front-of-house staff, and is actively looking to hire more women in the kitchen. “I want to be a mentor for the new generation of chefs and bartenders in Vietnam,” Franklin said.
Seeking to inject more variety into the Vietnamese food scene, the 60-year-old chef is also opening another dining concept. In September 2023, he’ll unveil Pot Au Phở, a 16-seat banh mi and noodle soup counter with French and Japanese influences, to the public. At the petite eatery, which is located on the third floor of the same building as Anan and Nhau Nhau, guests will be able to see Anan’s chefs in action through the open kitchen. The restaurant’s namesake dish is inspired by legendary chef Paul Bocuse’s famed black truffle soup.
“I’m excited to have a space to focus on pho and banh mi,” Franklin said. “In the beginning, I never focused on it because I wanted to show people that there was more to Vietnamese food than just those dishes. But they’ve been the elephant in the room—you can’t ignore these dishes. Now, I’m ready to take more risks.”