“You really need to live among the Vietnamese on a daily basis for years and years to start learning a little bit,” said Geoffrey Deetz, the Oakland chef who moved to Vietnam in 2000, after decades of working in the East Bay’s food scene. He returned to Oakland in 2015 and in September, opened a Vietnamese restaurant called The Temple Club, where the focus is central and northern Vietnamese cuisine.
Before he left, Deetz was well-known in the food community. He was best known for his Italian restaurant Spettro in Oakland, but he also spent time in the kitchens of Gulf Coast Oyster Bar in Old Oakland and Dragonfly Teahouse in Berkeley. His first encounter with Vietnamese food was in the ‘80s, when the owner of Oakland’s Pho 84 was working day shifts as a sous chef under Deetz at Gulf Coast Oyster Bar.
“He took me under his wing, and he showed me the cuisine and the culture,” said Deetz. “I became dear friends with the family, and I just engulfed myself with their food.”
While in Vietnam, Deetz opened more than 20 different restaurants, including a restaurant called The Black Cat, which he started as a cafe for expats.
“I started baking bread, making bagels… I had Peet’s Coffee,” said Deetz. “I had a lady come in and cry in my store because she was having Peet’s Coffee and a bagel in Vietnam, you know?
But he also started experimenting, incorporating Vietnamese ingredients into his food. “I started making different sandwiches with the Hanoi fish cake, with the dill and the green onions and fish in the sandwich,” said Deetz. ”I started innovating a couple different things that I saw in the markets, in the restaurants, to put them in sandwiches; and then I got a nice writeup from CNN, so that inspired me to play with Vietnamese food.”
Now, back in the Bay Area, though, he sees the other side of being an expat. “There’s nothing there for [an expat’s] taste, just like here, there’s a lot of Vietnamese that miss their food. And it’s not here.”
This perspective has informed Deetz to offer regional dishes you don’t often find outside of Vietnam at The Temple Club. “In some ways, I’ve come back to Oakland to do Black Cat again, but from a Vietnamese perspective,” he said.
Nosh spoke with Deetz to ask him to explain what he’s offering at The Temple Club.
NOSH: The Temple Club serves food from central and northern Vietnam. What’s the difference between the food from these regions?
Geoffrey Deetz: There are two patterns that you see in Vietnam in the cuisine. One is herbs. In the north you see far less fresh herbs. It’s their colder weather; they tend to do more stews and soups and that’s really where they eat pho, primarily in the streets, or bun cha that Obama ate. It’s a hot food that they eat in a cold environment. And in the north they’re influenced, of course, by the Chinese a lot, so you see a lot of MSG in the food, and they like things salty and spicy and a bit more bland.
When you go down to the central [part of Vietnam], you see a culture that’s about the old kingdom and the royal cuisine and the elegant food. The small dumplings and the handmade things wrapped in banana leaves, and banh nam (flat steamed rice dumplings). And it’s smaller portions; they eat little bits of food. Very intense with micro-greens and micro-herbs that find their way in the food. That is the hotbed for traditional, authentic Vietnamese cuisine that hasn’t had a lot of influence from the metropolis of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
In the north, you see a little bit of cilantro and green onion. I would say if you wanted to name one herb or vegetable about the north, it’s green onion. So I would say it’s a green onion MSG area. In the center you see more mint foods; mint in the sandwiches and the banh mi, there’s mint on top of the pho, there’s mint all over the place. So it’s more of a mint and bright-flavored cuisine that’s elegant and small and not driven by broth. All their soups are very dry, a lot of them. Very little liquid. They’re almost like a dry noodle where they season it and toss it with the baby herbs and the baby greens and eat these dishes, and a lot of times the soup will be on the side.
NOSH: You’ve talked about not wanting to do pho at The Temple Club.
G.D.: I’m not focusing on pho. Every [restaurant] is called “Pho…” They use the word “pho” [in the name] to attract people. They have massive menus. To create a menu with 120 items means that you’re going to boil a chicken breast, and you’re going to shred it, and you’re going to use it in five different dishes. Which means you’re going to have a very bland curry, because you’re going to use a base curry to make a vegetarian … you can make a pork, you could make a chicken, you could make a beef … They’re not taking chicken legs and bones and stewing it in that broth and making the coconut milk to make the curry. That’s what’s happening.
I want to focus on skin and bones and fat and [make it] exactly the way they eat [pho in Vietnam]. When I do pho, I want to do it in a way that I can teach people the regional differences from eating the soup.
NOSH: Why did you choose to open The Temple Club in East Oakland?
G.D.: I love this area because the Vietnamese community is coming down. All the shops, you know, the cheesecake shop is Vietnamese-owned, the furniture store is Vietnamese-owned — the Vietnamese are buying homes all up through here … So there’s actually a really good day Vietnamese community for a lunch business. So I know I could start a lunch gig. And go for the workers and bring the simple food that they look for.
When I walked in here, it was just like, wow, this building is perfect. And then the owner of the building was Vietnamese. So I talked to him, and I almost said, “Are you crying?” because I was talking about the food that he ate as a child in the streets in the Chinatown of Saigon. And we hit it off right away, and I just said, “You know what? I feel like this is the right spot.” I feel home, I feel like I’m in Vietnam, I walk outside and the Vietnamese community center is right here, and all the old ladies come out with their conical hats and smoke cigarettes and we talk in Vietnamese.
In a lot of ways, I didn’t leave. So I was able to come back and stitch Vietnamese around me, but be able to use 16 years of what I learned there, back in Oakland which is where I was years ago, doing restaurants, and I had all my customers and friends and family here. So there was a dual sense of being in the right place.
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