We’re big fans of Bahn Mi sandwiches: a delicious Vietnamese baguette featuring a delicate meat, pickled carrots, cucumber, coriander and pate, and no-one makes them better in Berlin than Maison Han! We caught up with restaurant-entrepreneur owner Ngoc Duc Nguyen who is also behind successful ventures Royals & Rice, Han Coffee Roasters, Sons Of Mana and other businesses to find out more about the place.
For those who aren’t aware, what makes a Bahn Mi different from most sandwiches?
Well for a start, the bread is always an old traditional French style baguette. It’s full and fluffy with air! The homemade Pate was also created by the French, but with a Vietnamese twist using Vietnamese Pepper!
In addition to the Banh Mi sandwiches, Maison Han is also a great place to find fantastic Pho soups and other Vietnamese favourites – yet, it really feels more like a cafe than a restaurant. Was this fusion of coffee shop and restaurant always your intention, or did one aspect come first?
Kind of. We started out as a coffee roastery.
Yet, when we travelled in Vietnam with our German friends, we always enjoyed eating Vietnamese breakfasts together, and even after they had come back to Germany they could not stop talking about the breakfasts they experienced there.
So, having seen how popular it could be here in Berlin, I decided to do Vietnamese Breakfast in Neukölln!
Tell us how a Vietnamese drip-coffee differs to Western style coffee?
It’s quite different!
Besides the use of sweet condensed milk, the flat wall of the filter is actually designed to give the coffee a fuller richness and more body!
And of course, you have the enjoyment of watching it slowly drip into the glass whilst on your table
What’s the secret to a great Banh Mi ?
It is the balance of the ingredients.
Because individually the pate, meat, pickled carrots and coriander are quite full of flavour, you need to manage the quantities correctly. And ensure your baguette is nicely fluffy too!
To our knowledge, the majority of Vietnamese coffee beans are sold to big corporations who turn it into low grade instant coffee. How hard is it to find high-quality growers in Vietnam?
That’s correct, although it is becoming easier and easier to find speciality coffee in Vietnam nowadays, mostly because there is a larger demand for this now and so more people are interested.
Essentially, the speciality coffee scene is progressing, and this is more positive for Vietnam to improve their coffee quality too.
Every year we have the chance to try new varieties in Vietnam like red bourbon, yellow bourbon and also different kinds of honey-processed coffee. Also the Robusta beans are taking on more nice chocolatey notes and generally improving over time.
When I first started out, I needed to travel to El Salvador to learn all about coffee, in order to then share that knowledge here. And after that, we also worked on the farm to get a hands-on feel. In turn, those farmers have started working with us as well now, which is really great.
We also work with the university in Dalat and travel with Minh Duc Le, who is a German-Vietnamese scientist. He is very useful in helping to analyste the soil, which is of course very important.
How do you feel the coffee scene in Berlin is at the moment?
Looking at the coffee industry from various perspectives, it is clear that people started putting way more attention into quality, origins, pure taste and notes.
As a result, coffee places had to enhance the quality control and get back to the roots – to focus on the coffee itself, instead of fancy, hipster design, branding and advertising.
The Berlin coffee scene is still up and coming: customers are very open and curious, they travel a lot and try different things and this city is perfect to introduce them to novelties and find the customers who would appreciate and spread the word.
I really appreciate the possibility to be working in the Berlin coffee scene, as it has so much potential!
And one of your other businesses, Han Coffee Roasters, is also based at Maison Han. Tell us about that?
I was always passionate about coffee and wanted to create a community that wants to explore Vietnamese coffee and enlarge their knowledge about it.
Han Coffee stands for sustainability, transparency and quality – it perfectly matches with our Maison Han identity. Delicious, fresh and homemade food paired with unforgettable Vietnamese coffee, freshly roasted in the same place.
I am lucky to work with extremely professional, hardworking and passionate people that share the same values, philosophy and approach. We truly believe in making a change in society by supporting the local coffee farmers and empowering them to develop and learn with joy.
You yourself are quite busy with the other food ventures you run. Sons Of Mana is your latest – tell us about that?
Sons of Mana serves fresh poké bowls at Bikini Berlin’s open terrace food market Kantini. I have teamed up with the food entrepreneurs Duy Quang Ngo, Huy Tran and Hieu Nguyen and we want to show social responsibility on the Berlin gastronomy scene.
We want to stand for the highest quality in food and we also analyse the customer experience to make sure we can satisfy all the needs and make poke dreams come true.
We also have quite an “instagrammable” interior with a Hockney-esque pastel palette and a fantastic view of the Zoo’s aviaries, which makes for an unforgettable food experience.
Since the response to our concept has been so good and people love our poke bowls, we are in the progress of opening one more restaurant in Mitte too.
How did you first get into gastronomy?
I’ve always been passionate about food, travelling, design, architecture, fashion and creativity at once. All of it aims to bring people together for different and at the same time similar reasons: to share moments and knowledge and create experiences.
Gastronomy consists of all these different angles too and gives me the possibility to integrate multiple skills, aspirations and inspirations I have.
When running multiple gastronomy businesses, what are the biggest challenges to keep them all running smoothly together?
Gastronomy is one of the oldest industries and I believe the challenges were always the same: to find a professional, passionate and loyal team; leadership and motivation; ever changing customer preferences and trends.
I would never follow the trends factor, however, big cities are very focused on innovations, novelties and creativity. As a result, gastronomy requires creativity and an anticipation of what’s “the next big thing”.
It’s quite a challenge to stay ultimately unique and find the pure identity within your business, but with the right people every mission is possible.
And what would you say is the most important part of the business?
Everything starts with the idea and its development, pureness and adoptability. It’s a lot about seeing the idea from the customer perspective and forgetting your subjective discourse.
A combination of the idea, a professional and passionate team, experience, skills and drive builds the basis. Therefore, I would emphasise the quality factor as well as the communication and connection with the customers.
Berlin is a big city, but also a very local city at the same time. As a result, the businesses are very localised and regular customers become their brand ambassadors. It is very important to start every day as if it was the first day: with the passion, precise quality control and a drive to make everything perfect.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own cafe or restaurant?
Be absolutely sure about your idea and also the tools you will have to use.
Don’t doubt yourself – go your own way and surround yourself with people you can trust completely.
There is no business which is a one man show, it is all about a common sense, belief in the idea & business model and a general hardworking attitude. Once you combine it all – the success comes.
We hear you’ve got some ambitious plans for the future – tell us what we can expect from you in the next year or so?
I feel absolutely confident with my team, so it’s time to follow a few different inspirations we were gathering together for a while.
I’ve been travelling to Japan a lot to get a genuine and local knowledge about how to make a perfect Ramen soup and soon we will open a Ramen place in Berlin.
Sons of Mana is also growing and as I mentioned before, we will be opening a second location in Mitte soon.
We are also proud to introduce a revolution in the ice cream scene and cannot wait to share it with the Berlin community soon.
There are more ideas and projects in the making, but I can’t give you any more details about them just yet
Where do you yourself like to eat and drink in Berlin?
Berlin has so many great places to offer and I love exploring and supporting new spots in town. It gives me inspiration to develop my own business ideas, as well as broaden my horizon in general.
I usually explore places with my family in Mitte, but we also do cook a lot a home as well.
I love Marthalle Neun, especially on Streetfood Thursdays or Sunday Breakfast.
BRLO Brewhouse is an amazing spot to explore craft beer and relax on the sunny terrace.
In the summer time I am always on hunt for the ice cream novelties and so far my personal ice champions are California Pops!
Complete the following sentence “ For me, Berlin is…:
A place which stimulates and is ultimately always open for innovations & creativity, whilst also caring about social responsibility.