Interview: Chef Danyi Gao Brings Hanoi Street Food Staples to Shanghai

By Cristina Ng, May 3, 2019

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Danyi Gao’s culinary path has been far from conventional. Told by the Culinary Institute of America that she needed six months of kitchen experience, Gao found an internship placement at Jing An Shangri-La working as commis chef instead. Later, she honed her craft by running a private kitchen and went on to win first place in the Chinese cooking show, Chef Nic. When planning to open Shake, Gao was looking for a head chef when she and her business partner decided she was the best person to carry out the vision. Spoiler alert: Shake was a success, and Gao’s newest project Bun Cha Cha comes from a desire to reinterpret her favorite Vietnamese dish for Shanghai. We met up with her to discuss her research trips and learn all about bun cha.

Where did the idea for Bun Cha Cha come from? 
I got this idea in late 2017, when I traveled to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. After I ate bun cha for the first time, I thought the idea of a healthy Vietnamese concept would work well for Shanghai, and I would like to show people that there’s so much more to Vietnamese food than pho and spring rolls. For people who haven’t been to Vietnam, they can come [to my restaurant] and try this dish. 

“When I really like a dish, the memory of the flavors sticks in my head”

Do you think that the flavors will resonate with people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese food
The good thing about Vietnamese food is that it comes with a bit of sweetness balanced with sourness, which works for the Shanghainese palate. The difficulty is that some locals expect something hot that comes with broth. At first, I refused to sell pho, because I wanted to focus on bun cha, but we added it on the menu later. When guests come and order pho, my staff would recommend the bun cha instead. When the dish arrives, and they see that it’s served cold with a dipping sauce instead of a hot broth and are not happy about it, we offer to give the dish to them for free and suggest they try it anyway [and they generally like it].

How should bun cha be eaten?
It comes with a dipping sauce made from fish sauce, sugar and water, and there are two ways to eat it. The first way is to make a wrap with the meat and lettuce like in Korean barbecue, which is messier. My preferred method is to eat it like cold noodles. I put some of the rice noodles into the dipping sauce bowl along with a mix of the pork (ground patty and thin slices) plus pickles, lime juice and lots of the herbs. You need to put a bit of everything in one bite, so you get all the flavors. 

Image courtesy of Bun Cha Cha

How did you develop your bun cha recipe?
In Hanoi, I was actually only impressed by one bun cha restaurant; others that I tried were way too sweet. That was the version I was trying to match. When I really like a dish, the memory of the flavors sticks in my head, and I just keep trying to make it until I get it right. I also went on YouTube to watch videos of Vietnamese locals making the dish on the streets.

How long did it take you to perfect it?
I probably made it two times at home before I got it right. Vietnamese food isn’t that complicated, but you have to use very fresh ingredients.

What else do you want to bring to Shanghai?
Recently, I went to Penang with chefs Austin Hu and Brian Tan, and we ate 10 meals a day. Penang is one of my favorite food cities, and nobody is currently making Nyonya [a mix of Chinese and Malay] cuisine here. Hopefully, in the future, I can. 

[Cover image courtesy of Bun Cha Cha]

See listing for Bun Cha Cha here.

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