When the Vietnamese-American chef Peter Cuong Franklin was 12, he was helicoptered out of Saigon to an American aircraft carrier on one of the last Hueys to escape the victorious North Vietnamese Army as it marched into the city on April 30, 1975. Seven years ago, facing the catastrophic collapse of both his business and his personal life, he returned—this time, on a commercial jetliner.
Two bad breakups—a split with the financial backers of his previous restaurant, Hong Kong’s popular Chôm Chôm, along with a divorce from his wife of nearly two decades, a professor at Hong Kong’s Chinese University—had left him emotionally devastated, and all but broke. The circumstances of his departure from Hong Kong, which he declines to discuss, have marked him for life—literally. Franklin has been undergoing laser treatments to remove the large tattoo of Chôm Chôm’s logo that still decorates his right inner forearm.
“When I left Hong Kong, I essentially lost everything,” Franklin recalled one recent evening in Ho Chi Minh City, sipping a glass of sparkling water at the third-floor bar of his latest venture, Ănăn Saigon, which has been called one of the best restaurants in Asia. Ănăn (“Eat, eat” in Vietnamese) serves between 100 and 150 meals a night at small tables packed together cheek by jowl, and occupies a narrow six-story building, a classic Saigon “tube house” located inside a teeming wet market.
“I came back here basically with nothing,” he said. “I had to rebuild everything from scratch.”
Franklin did just that and then some. This summer, he’s a judge on Top Chef Vietnam. And on June 6, during The Michelin Guide’s first-ever awards ceremony in Vietnam, Ănăn Saigon received a coveted Michelin star, the sole restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City and one of only four restaurants in a nation of nearly 100 million people to be given this honor for culinary excellence.
The Michelin judges lauded Franklin’s application of “modern cooking techniques to authentic street food recipes,” and declared that “Every dish is a masterclass of well-balanced flavors and textures.”
“Fuckin’ nice,” Franklin, who sprinkles f-bombs into his everyday conversation, told me a few minutes after accepting the accolade. “People like us understand history, and this is pretty historic. We are the only ones doing truly modern Vietnamese food anywhere in the world that has a star,” he said. “I stuck to my guns, and it hasn’t been an easy path.”
“We Definitely Weren’t V.I.P.’s”
The 60-year-old Franklin’s biography is the stuff of a Hollywood epic, spanning a wartime childhood in a tiny village outside Da Lat, in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where he and his younger brother grew up with a single mother in a cramped house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing; then a refugee camp in Guam; teenage years in the gilded New York suburb of Weston, Connecticut, where he attended a posh private Jesuit high school in nearby Fairfield; and ultimately Yale University and Morgan Stanley, before he gave up a lucrative investment-banking career to spend a year at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok learning the secrets of French cooking.
Born Nguyen Hung Cuong in the village of Cau Dat, Franklin and his brother Mark (also a Yale graduate and now a lawyer in San Francisco) were adopted, after fleeing Vietnam, by Robert Franklin, a former navy chaplain and Catholic pastor of Weston’s St. Francis of Assisi church.
Franklin’s cousin Tom Nguyen, who was among the 13 children who were spirited out of the country thanks to Nguyen’s mother, Mykha, a U.S. Embassy employee (and later a celebrated Chicago restaurateur), recalls the terrifying chaos of that day in April 1975.
“My mom went to Peter’s mom and said, ‘The country’s falling. We need to leave.’ She didn’t want to go, but she gave up Peter and Mark, who came along with us on our journey,” says Nguyen. After being herded onto a truck for the trip to Saigon, “we first went to the embassy but were turned away. We ended up on the airport grounds [of Tan Son Nhut Air Base]. We ultimately were rounded up and picked up kind of randomly by one of the helicopters in a group of 50 people. We definitely weren’t V.I.P.’s.”
The war left Franklin traumatized. The sound of gunfire in the night, the sight of dead bodies, including the occasional North Vietnamese soldier displayed in the village as a grisly trophy—and even worse memories he prefers not to discuss—still give him nightmares.
“It can fuck you up a lot if you think about it too much,” he told me. “So what I learned is how to adapt, which means how to forget. The mind has its own ability to shove stuff in the back that’s painful.”
He and his younger brother grew up with a single mother in a cramped house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing.
Franklin’s diminutive mother, Nguyen Thi Nhu Thia, was typical among “the women in our family who are very strong, very independent, and very creative,” he said. “There are certain icons in Vietnamese culture—these tiny little women who are very powerful. You don’t mess with them.”
As a boy, Franklin watched his mother cook on a small charcoal-fired stove in the family’s living space and inhaled the intoxicating smells as hungry customers lined up for her dishes. “The true inspiration for my cooking comes from my mother, who was famed for her mì Quảng pork-and-turmeric-noodle soup, chả lụa steamed-pork sausage in banana leaf, and nem nướng, grilled pork sausage with a pork-and-peanut dipping sauce,” he recalled. Her cooking, and Franklin’s relationship to it, is the subject of Mom’s Kitchen, a moving documentary made for Vietnamese television.
Both Franklin’s mother and biological father were originally from Quảng Nam, on Vietnam’s south-central coast. “My mother told me that she met my birth father because he got hungry while traveling through the village of Cau Dat and fell in love with her mì Quảng noodle. That is how I came about in the world.”
Franklin remembers his biological father, faintly, as a park ranger whom he met only twice in hurried visits with the man’s other wife and children (polygamy being common in Vietnam at the time).
When Franklin left home, at age 12, amid the exodus of hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese boat people fleeing an uncertain future, he had no expectation that he would ever see his mother again; indeed, he didn’t know if she was alive or, more likely, dead during their enforced separation, when Vietnam was largely closed off to the West in the aftermath of a war that killed more than three million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, destroyed the national infrastructure, and left the countryside dotted with land mines and poisoned by Agent Orange.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Franklin busied himself with attaining the American version of success: quickly learning English at various navy bases from Florida to Illinois, playing soccer at Fairfield Prep, majoring in psychology at Yale after realizing that pre-med wasn’t for him, gravitating to Wall Street, moving up the ranks at Morgan Stanley in Asia, marrying a fellow Yalie, a New Englander from Maine, and starting a family. (Franklin and his ex-wife have a daughter and a son who are now in their early 20s.)
Franklin, who had little appetite for office politics, was fired twice from Morgan Stanley after finding himself on the wrong side of management changes. Willful, impatient, and graced by a touch of arrogance, he realized he wasn’t made to be a cog in the corporate machine. By 2008, after the second time he was fired from the bank, he was ready to give in to a nagging suspicion that he was meant for something else—something to do with watching his mother cook.
“I decided I was just going to take a year off and go to cooking school,” he recalled. “There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t interested in food. It was inside of me already.”
Before opening Chôm Chôm—a modern-Vietnamese-cuisine precursor to Ănăn Saigon—Franklin toiled for a few years to learn the business of fine dining as a trainee in several of the planet’s best Michelin-starred establishments, including Bangkok’s Nahm, Hong Kong’s Caprice, and Chicago’s Alinea, where pride didn’t prevent him from washing dishes.
After the second time he was fired from the bank, he was ready to give in to a nagging suspicion that he was meant for something else—something to do with watching his mother cook.
At the Michelin ceremony, Franklin paid tribute to his mother, who survived the war’s aftermath and today resides in an assisted-living facility in Da Lat, where, until recently, she continued to cook her signature dishes. “Mom, this one’s for you!” he declared during his acceptance speech as he held up the prize.
After two decades of not knowing her fate, Franklin had sent a friend to search for her, and mother and son re-united in the mid-1990s, when Vietnam began to reopen its borders to the outside world. Although her precise age is uncertain, two years ago she received a certificate from the Vietnamese government congratulating her on reaching 100.
“My mom is weak and frail now and no longer can cook, but she has always been my inspiration as a chef and a person,” Franklin told me. “Her hearing and legs are weak, but her mind is alert and strong as ever. She was very happy to hear the news [of the Michelin star] and proud of her Da Lat boy who did good. I also told her I am very busy now in Saigon since our restaurant is full every night, but I will visit soon and give her a big hug.”
Lloyd Grove is a France-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and the Daily Beast, among other publications