A brief wondrous history of Geoffrey Deetz upon his opening of The Temple Club in Oakland, what will become one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in America
What shapes us? Who makes us who we become? Our environment? Our parents. Those we’ve loved. Those who don’t love us back? The favorite mistakes we’ve made and would make again, though with less pain. The weather. That Jenny Lewis song made you buy that ticket (you’d never admit this). You do what your friends do. It’s funny, how you ended up with the friends you have. You get a feeling, it’s almost a word — just call it a feeling. Words are not always the answer.
I am 13, at a Vietnamese restobar called Dragonfly Tea House, on Telegraph and Parker street. We’re all surveying the menu — my mom, my aunt, my uncle. I run back and forth through my mind over Suzy, who said she liked me but was just seen making out with my friend Alan at Ohlone park. We’re celebrating my middle school graduation from Willard. I’m going to Berkeley High. My uncle will convince me to go to UC Berkeley. I will take my first trip to Việt Nam in 2001. I will move to Việt Nam in 2006. I will live there for a decade. Suzy. “Yeah, we’re Vietnamese,” I say to the Hawaiian-shirted Geoffrey Deetz, not knowing what that meant exactly. He’s our waiter but actually the chef-owner of Dragonfly. It’s what Geoffrey says, that graduates me.
1984 won’t be like ‘1984’
Geoffrey’s obsession with Việt Nam all started in 1984 — at the height of Reaganomics, before Đổi Mới (the ‘86 economic reforms) — when, for the first time, Geoffrey has a bite of a sandwich.
Geoffrey was the chef at the Gulf Coast Oyster Bar in Oakland, amongst Asian co-workers. To him, they were just Asian, not knowing where they were actually from. One day, he eats a bánh mì gà (chicken). Like an antenna adjusted, the whole kitchen turned to color — all his co-workers were Vietnamese. Geoffrey knew stuff about Chinese food, Thai food — it’s the sous chef at the Gulf Coast Oyster Bar, Mr. Bá Võ, who would properly induct Geoffrey. Mr. Bá Võ had just opened the beloved Phở 84 in Oakland. During their afternoon breaks, Mr. Bá Võ would take Geoffrey farther down the rabbit hole, dishes waiting behind unlocked doors — bánh xèo and curry, xào lăn and phở, different fish sauces — teaching Geoffrey about textural detail, how to eat each dish, why it’s prepared the way it is, what makes it special. Geoffrey would teach Mr. Bá Võ about how to make beer and fried chicken, spaghetti — American things. R.I.P. Ông Bá Võ.
In 1994, Bill Clinton becomes the most popular U.S. president amongst Vietnamese people as he lifts the Việt Nam trade embargo. Locked out of the world economy for decades since the end of the war (1975), Việt Nam can now officially trade with other countries, opening up to tourism twenty years later, in 1995.
Before opening Dragonfly, Geoffrey visited Việt Nam and loved it. After closing Dragonfly, Geoffrey was trying to come up with excuses to visit the country once again.
“I’m going to go look for bottles.”
Geoffrey wasn’t the only one onto something. The savvy know high-quality labor and materials are cheap in Việt Nam — it’s a great place to start a business. Geoffrey had an idea, “Hard Iced Tea” — one of the first “functional alcohols” to market, the sweetener: all pure cane sugar. He found a business partner. They could sell it at sporting events, then start bottling, they just needed the perfect marketing springboards. They had them too.
Mandy Moore was in. A product placement in the film, “3000 Miles to Graceland” starring Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner as Elvis impersonating crooks was guaranteed (I’ll let Geoffrey tell you this story). All things were a go for Geoffrey, it was Geoffrey’s business partner who was the bottleneck. The business partner passed on the celebrity endorsements. The pour-profit wasn’t right to the business partner, so to lower costs, he pushed using malt instead cane sugar, making the tea heavy and filling — using malt would also get a lower brewing tax. Geoffrey was against all of this. And, Mike’s Hard Lemonade sued for the name. The “Hard Iced Tea” deal *ahem* went soft.
Regardless, Geoffrey moved to Việt Nam indefinitely, when bicycles ruled the streets, to understand not only Việt Nam and Vietnamese people, he moved there to understand Vietnamese food and the Vietnamese palette, putting in his time on plastic stools in the maze-like hẻms, one bowl of alleyway cà ri dê at a time. It wasn’t just about the recipes, Geoffrey wanted to know why Vietnamese eat the way they do — in their families, with their friends, in their environment, where they live. Why do Vietnamese eat the way they eat?
“Once you learn the taste, and the playful banter and fun Vietnamese people put into their food, then you start understanding what you can, and can’t do with it, because there are rules to Vietnamese cooking.”
Anointed by CNN as one of the top restaurants to eat in the world (his innovations with bánh mì using chả cá and cua lột), Blackcat was Geoffrey’s first restaurant in Việt Nam — it still stands in Sài Gòn (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) today (now owned by the Blackcat manager-turned-owner Phương). For me and many, it will forever live as the nursery for every expat’s weekend hangover, as we ate properly made cubanos, downing them with hair of the dog-Cannonballs to progress our weekend binges, peeling our foreheads off the square tables, like every twenty-something who uses their youth wisely. To Geoffrey, Blackcat was about more than the food — Blackcat was his statement to other expats opening businesses in Việt Nam.
The one time Bourdain was wrong
Living on and off in Hà Nội for 6 years, the one place I remember more than I’d like to admit, is Bobby Chinn’s red-silk draped restaurant, when it was on the corner of Tràng Thi and Bà Triệu, at the tail of Hoàn Kiếm lake. The only time I went there was because it was one of the few places in Hà Nội that had shisha — I didn’t know jack about food then. Apparently, Bobby Chinn didn’t either. Anthony Bourdain was infamously quoted as saying “what Bobby doesn’t know about Asian food is not worth knowing.” Considering Bobby’s skills, the comment has gone down as a monumental slap across every chef’s face in Asia. If you ask anyone in Việt Nam’s restaurant industry, you’ll know the real side of good ‘ole Bobby. Mr. Chinn, camera-ready, shocking elderly saleswomen with brash Northern Vietnamese utterances as they descended shop ladders. Mr. Chinn, flip-flopping like a sociopath during food prep, sauntering in late for staff appointments. Mr. Chinn, micro-torturing his staff, kicking them in the shin when they didn’t bring the right coffee during interviews (Google this one). Mr. Chinn, pairing salmon with wasabi mashed potatoes.
Note: when Bourdain said what he said about Bobby, he was starstruck by Việt Nam (we all were), hysterical to be outta Les Halles, getting paid to learn his TV self during his miserable Cook’s Tour years. Bourdain gets a pass. And Bobby, well, he got the shit kicked out of him in front of his own restaurant because of the way he treated people. All is well.
There was that Swedish (sojourner of Vietnamese descent) Việt Kiều guy too, when Geoffrey started Zombie BBQ (“Ribs to die for”). One would think the name is Geoffrey’s callback to his association with the film Beetlejuice (really real, Beetlejuice is based on his family, the Deetz). Cleverly positioned on the road of district two’s international school in Sài Gòn, the name was more to draw in the students (“Zombie”), which drew in the parents, like a Pixar film. But as business is done in Việt Nam — no red tape, no real contract — that Swede Việt Kiều guy screwed Geoffrey out of the lease, asking if he could keep the signage ever so politely (using the same sign is vital in famously superstitious Vietnamese culture). With a British bloke installed in the coup d’état, Zombie BBQ *ahem* died.
There’s a saying in Việt Nam amongst expats: Your first year living in Việt Nam, you are in lust. Your second year living in Việt Nam, you can’t stand it, you think about leaving. If you make it past the third year, you stay forever. Not dissimilar to marriage.
From personal experience and observation — no matter how far we travel in the world, no matter who we’ve become or how long we’ve been away— we always come full circle, we always return home. “It ain’t where you’re at, it’s where you’re from.”
It used to be that you only go to East Oakland when you crave Laotian food from Champa Garden, a Taco Sinaloa, a bowl of Ao Sen phở. Where there be immigrants and refugees, there be good eatin’. And it’s about to get better. Nite Yun, the Cambodian American noodle hawker of Nyum Bai, is doing what Southeast Asians do best: taking the abandoned space (of the former Half Orange at Fruitvale Bart), and flipping it into something gracefully her own.
Formerly Sea Blue Cafe, a Vietnamese joint with an identity crisis, 2307 International Boulevard then turned into Bakeshop Oakland serving cheesecake pops. Now, this is Geoffrey’s home away from home — the Temple Club, a time capsule of Geoffrey’s time in Việt Nam, a convivial East Oakland nod to Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in Portland.
This isn’t your traditional Vietnamese American menu — these are Vietnamese dishes not typically seen in Vietnamese restaurants in America.
These are dishes typically eaten in modern-day Việt Nam. For a country projected to consume 4 billion litres of beer in 2017, it’s nhậu food — dishes portioned to sustain your drinking. Particular portions are emphasized at the Temple Club: there’s the true (sensible) Vietnamese-size bowl, and the familiar (insensible) American-size bowl. While vegetarian and vegan friendly, not that he’s insensitive — ethnic food is not built for dietary preferences. The Temple Club is not Chipotle. The menu is authentically meaty. Ingredients matter to Geoffrey — every ingredient serves a purpose.
There’s Nấm nướng cuốn (roasted portabella mushrooms with tumeric-infused rice noodles and greens), Gỏi vịt Hà Nội (shredded duck salad with mixed cabbage and herbs), the infamous chicken impersonator, Chân ếch xào sốt me (frog legs sautéed with tamarind), and Geoffrey’s boldest entrée here, his (fuck it-shameless) Food Network winning dish, Phở bò chua (phở with sliced corned beef brisket grilled with water celery and onions in a sour beef broth). There’s a story behind the latter dish (I’ll let him tell you this one).
He’s going to release his cơm tấm soon — I’ve never heard someone this passionate about the state of Bay Area mở hành [fatty onion oil, #bayareamohanh]). I’ve also never heard of someone this adamant about the lack of accord given to Vietnamese restaurants (“Thai food is priced higher than Vietnamese food, and it’s got the same ingredients!”).
There’s a time for you to be somewhere. You’ll know it because you’ll feel it. Your thoughts will turn into announcements. Your announcements will turn into actions. Decisions turn into coordinates, maps crumple in bags — this is life. Electricity. Discovery. Risk, calculated. Only the clothes that make you feel sure. Enough stashed cash to bail you out an emergency. You’re nodding farewell to the city, on the train, to the plane. From where you’re looking, the world is small. You’re light. In what has seemed like an eternity, you notice your breathing. You’re becoming whole.
When I lived in Cambodia, supermarkets arranged their products in a particular way not dissimilar from western supermarkets. The tiered position at which a product is placed signifies status — top shelf indicates “highest quality,” etc. On the top shelf of say, the yogurt section, you had the brands from America or France, the middle shelf held products from Thailand, the bottom shelf had Vinamilk from, you’re correct, Việt Nam. I always thought every time Cambodians would rail on Vietnamese people, that it was all just urban legend-churning, fictional historical bitterness between the two countries unfound, bickering like siblings on Christmas. The Khmer grocers are right. Geoffrey was onto something.
The Facebook group titled “Vietnam Food Security” is now live on Facebook. Remember that whole story about Chinese food manufacturers putting “crap” in their meat? Those companies (from China and Taiwan) got the bright idea to open up shop in Việt Nam too. In business-fashion, other local companies decided this is a great way to do business too, desecrating the food supply chain in Việt Nam, potentially for generations to come. The saying goes, “we don’t inherit the Earth, we borrow it from our children.” All this (food fuckery) is a point-blank heist, as our future chows down on carcinogenic unknowns, one bowl at a time. Geoffrey wants nothing to do with this proverbial larceny, being that he has family, being that he loves Việt Nam.
There are the connected, rich, study-abroad Vietnamese kids too. They’ve become (incorporated) food groups with a lot of money, elbowing out all of the little people, buying up all the real estate, flying in Michelin starred chefs like ringers for V-League teams (Việt Nam’s professional football league), moving typical food consumption away from the street, towards the mall model. Being we’re in a Ken Burns mood, I won’t be using any war chest metaphors.
The irony doesn’t escape me: Geoffrey left Việt Nam because of food.
“Who the fuck puts capers in rau muống?!”
To Geoffrey, the innovation that’s happening in modern Vietnamese cuisine is amiss: American chefs don’t know where to go with it. Cases in point — John Nguyễn of Hanoi House puts capers in his rau muống (“No Vietnamese person in their right mind would eat something sour in rau muống. Otherwise, it’s no longer rau muống. It’s the wrong taste.”). Tyler Akin spent 6 weeks in Southeast Asia, and then, not only opened up a Southeast Asian restaurant in Philly, he also taught everyone how to eat phở. Michael Gulotta puts egg bucatini noodles in his bún bò Huế — cute. Geoffrey doesn’t have much competition in the authentic (Vietnamese-food-cooked-as-it’s-cooked-in-modern-day-Việt Nam) Vietnamese food space right now (Little Sister in DTLA gets a shout-out). Frankly, there’s a lack of American chefs that actually spent the time in that golden age of Việt Nam from 2000 ’til 2015, when the country “got outta the crap” and became relevant again — when the food became relevant again.
“I was there at the right time, and the right place, and the right amount of time.”
Blackcat, Zombie BBQ, a seafood restaurant, a burrito shop (“Vietnamese and Mexicans share so many similar ingredients”) — all restaurants Geoffrey operated with Vietnamese chefs to understand what worked and didn’t work for them.
Just as his second night of opening was slowing down, I asked Geoffrey how he felt. He was just getting started. “Good, got to see where the holes were. Figure out how to make things better, faster, so we don’t have to go to so many places to do one thing. Do one thing in one place. Refine. Get better. Move things around. Try new things, not reinvent the wheel, focus on refinements. Get better tomorrow.” Hanging around Geoffrey, there’s always momentum — kaizen — most like a cha cha cha, steps backward to go forward — this being the most important when it comes to Vietnamese food, to Việt Nam, to being Vietnamese, to being American, to being Vietnamese American: you can only move forward if you are grounded in the past. He, like I, found Việt Nam in America — moved to Việt Nam to find Việt Nam, where he found love and his children, where his mother spent her last months on this beautiful lonely planet.
Anybody can cook, anybody can follow a recipe — to be a chef on the other hand, requires not only the muscle memory, the breadth of knowledge from exposure and experience — to be a chef requires time — time in environment, time in the kitchen, most importantly, time with people. After more than 16 years of living in Việt Nam, 2307 International Boulevard in Oakland is where Geoffrey Deetz finds himself calling home again. The Temple Club, where Geoffrey finally comes full circle.
The Temple Club is currently open Tuesdays to Thursdays for lunch from 11:30am–4pm, dinner from 5pm–9:30pm for now and Fridays and Saturdays from 11am–10pm. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Sundays to be added to focus on Việt breakfast specials. The Temple Club @ Open Table.
Special thanks to Hồn Du Mục, Cyrus Chen