Last weekend I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Al Fresco’s chef, Mario. He gave us juicy tidbits on what it’s like to work in one of Vietnam’s prominent restaurants.
Chef Mario is from the Philippines and has worked with the Al Fresco’s Group (AFG) for 25 years. Yes, 25 years. He’s not one to brag but he started with the group in 1992 when it was still operating in Hong Kong. After 4 years, he moved back to his home country, only to be called again to work in the AFG’s newly established restaurant in Hanoi. He moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2003 when AFG opened their first Al Fresco’s in Dong Du in District 1.
Chef Mario had a hand in creating the Al Fresco’s dishes we enjoy today. Juggling family life with his 3 kids and working with the AFG is no easy feat but sitting down with Chef Mario and listening to his kitchen stories, you hear how passionate he is with his work and how loyal he is to the company.
What is the focus of Al Fresco’s menu?
Al Fresco’s owner is Australian so it has Australian roots but definitely has its own take on Western cuisine, including Mexican dishes. We serve a variety of dishes.
Where do you source your ingredients?
We source our ingredients locally and internationally. We get steaks from New Zealand/Australia but we support local produce as well.
How do you come up with dishes? How often do you change the menu?
We have regulars, specials, salads, breakfast, and kids’ menu. We usually review our regular menu every 6 months and for the specials, we change it up every 2 weeks. Also, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh group collaborate to refine the dishes.
We take comments from customers seriously so we do audits regularly and do our best to review the dishes to meet our diners’ expectations.
How has your being a Filipino influence your cooking?
I do try to incorporate our own flavors and sometimes I oblige Filipino diners request to serve some native Filipino dishes — ordered in advance of course, like the calamari and crispy pata (deep-fried pig totters).
How do you train the chefs?
As one of the head chefs, we do our best to inspire, challenge, and motivate our chefs by immersing them in kitchen work. We also have a training program for our chefs, and since AFG is such a big group — (currently, AFG has several restaurants including Jaspas, Jacksons Steakhouse, Pepperoni, Hot & Tasty), we don’t only move our chefs in the different Al Fresco’s restaurants, we let them try their hand in the other AFG restaurants as well.
What do you like most about staying in AFG?
The owner of AFG is one of the kindest people I know — generously sharing not only resources but know-how as well on how to be in the business. In fact, they opened to senior employees who are purely loyal and dedicated in AFG if they want to invest in the company and I did. I am now working with AFG in our new venture in Thao Dien.
AFG genuinely cares about their employees and I am just one out of 20 some people who had stayed on working for AFG all these years.
What do you think is the secret to being in this business so long?
Patience. It’s not easy working in a kitchen with the crew speaking a different language from yours but patience will get you through anything. Today may have not been a good day, but tomorrow is another day.
Indeed patience is one of the ingredients for success in the restaurant business coupled with hard work. As I watched him bake my wood-burnt pizza order, Chef Mario expressed his desire to still continue working in the kitchen even after 25 years! Tasting the pizza — proof positive that he should continue on.