“Health & happiness for our guests: it’s our mission”. Giovanni Parrella’s deep-rooted passion for cooking, dedication to hard work and wealth of experience have earned the Napoli-born chef not only his executive role but also the title as one of the most talented Italian chefs in Saigon.
With his cooking career beginning at the tender age of 13, Giovanni’s journey to Executive Chef of The Reverie Saigon has been one of hard work, dedication and devotion. His commitment to food has seen him work all over the world from family-style eateries to Michelin rated restaurants.
Before taking on the mammoth – yet incredibly rewarding – role of Executive Chef at one of the city’s most luxurious 5-star hotels, Giovanni worked in Istanbul, Mumbai and Beijing, exposing himself to some of the world’s most exciting cuisines.
Giovanni’s embodiment of Italian warmth and passion can be sensed in his approach to hospitality and at The Reverie Saigon guests always come first, whatever the cost. Caring deeply about the health and happiness of his customers, Giovanni’s food uses only the finest ingredients sourced from local markets, imported from Europe or grown in The Reverie Saigon’s District 7 farm.
Behind this great chef is a loving and supportive family, a team with a shared vision and the motto “never give up.”
Before talking about The Reverie Saigon Restaurants, I would like to learn more about you. How did your interest in cooking begin?
I was born and raised in a traditional family in Napoli, South Italy. I used to wake up to the smell of coffee and slowly simmering Neapolitan ragù prepared by my mother with love. That is where I started to become passionate about cooking.
What about your training and professional background before becoming Executive Chef of The Reverie Saigon?
I started my schooling in 1991, and I was very, very young, not even 13, and I passed the first year of culinary college with the highest awards. Before that, I was not so good in school, which explains how when you do something you love, you excel.
The culinary school I attended was in Cicciano, Napoli and I studied there for three years before completing my master’s degree.
The morning was for studying, and the afternoon was for practicing. The school was only open in the winter time, and so from June to September we would leave the region and work on resort sites and do real work in the kitchen. During my first year, I was just 13 years old, working in a very famous 5-star hotel in Santa Maria Di Castellabate, Salerno. This is where I started.
Through the years, I have worked for many family-style restaurants, and a range of Michelin rated restaurants and hotels worldwide. At the age of 23, I left home and started my journey in England, where I stayed for one year before returning home to learn English and work in a Michelin restaurant for two years. Through the years, I worked in different parts of Italy, from North to South.
The big change in my career happened when I left the country and began working in Istanbul. It was the end of September 2001, and I told my family that I would be back in five days, but I returned after two years, and while I was there, I opened a brand new restaurant concept.
Does Vietnamese cuisine influence your cooking, and if so, how?
We do have Vietnamese and Asian corners in our menus, not in the Romeo and Juliet, but in Café Cardinal and The Long @ Times Square. We offer Vietnamese specialities and a selection of Vietnamese comfort food, but we try to make it as grandma would make it.
What is your favourite Vietnamese dish?
Pho, it was the first dish that I tried, and I fell in love with it.
What does sustainability and healthy eating mean to you?
A lot of restaurants here make the national dish, Pho, with MSG but we never use this as it is against our policy and my own culinary view. We make the broth as grandma used to make the broth.
We care about the health of our guests, and all of the produce we use is organic. The only thing that is non-organic is our hydroponic ingredients which we grow at our own beautiful farm in D7. This farm helps us use ingredients that are not available in Vietnam, such as friarielli broccoli which features on one of the pizzas at The Long @ Times Square and a dish in Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to try and see if we could grow it in Vietnam, so I brought some seeds over from Napoli, and now it is a product that nobody has but us. We also grow our own basil, arugula, chioggia, zucchinis and many other vegetables and fruits.
As the Executive Chef of the most famous Hotel in Vietnam, what challenges do you face?
I had an event for 290 people, and at 4 pm, I got a call, and they said: “We have a situation; you have 100 more guests attending.” It was a 7-course gala dinner menu, so this is where you have to prove yourself and say “yes, no problem.” Business is business, we made it happen. I always have something; I study the situation and make our guests our first priority, at any cost. We don’t care about how much things cost. We have to make guests happy; it’s our mission. Chefs have to find the solution, and you have to be a big brother, papa and master, you have to be everything for your team.
Your team is very fragile, especially here as The Reverie Saigon’s reputation means that people have a choice; if you come from here, it is easy to find another job, but I don’t think there are many hotels that compare…
What kind of experiences can your guests live in Romeo & Juliet, Café Cardinal and The Long @ Times Square?
The Long @ Times Square is located on the ground floor and at over 50m, it is very famous for being the longest bar in the city. It features live music and open-air dining and is known for serving authentic, European comfort foods. One of the signature dishes is the pizza, and since I am from Napoli, there is a lot of love involved in this dish. A lot of our ingredients – flour, mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, cold cuts, burrata, San Marzano tomatoes – are imported fresh from Europe to offer a unique dining experience. The menu also offers 32 different flavours of gelato, which are homemade on a daily basis. Being Italian, gelato is something close to our hearts, and so we are very particular about it. We also offer a large and extensive cocktail and mocktail selection, as well as a big range of wines and spirits.
After the opening of The Long @ Times Square, we opened Romeo and Juliet, and from the name, you can expect a romantic experience. We decided to make it the hotel’s speciality Italian restaurant where guests can enjoy Italian cuisine, which is very regional and traditional. We try to not only offer food, but also an experience, and therefore the presentation and service are very important. At Romeo and Juliet, we have a restaurant manager to ensure that the right pairing of wine is made with the food and all service is very personalised. As per The Long @ Times Square, we also import a lot of special ingredients, and if you were to come right now, you would have beautiful Alba white truffles from Italy. Café Cardinal is our all-day-dining restaurant, but in the evening it turns into an authentic French fine dining venue. The breakfast there is very special, and we offer 12 different freshly squeezed juices from organically grown fruits, homemade yoghurts , a range of honey, imported milk and a selection of cold cuts. Our French pastry chef prepares over 12 different types of pastries, including classics like the croissant and pain au chocolat. We even offer a glass of champagne for breakfast, and our signature dish is the posh steak with truffle, white asparagus and foie gras. We try to stay away from foie gras as much as we can, but in such an environment, it is still the king of food.
What has been the key to your success?
Hard work, dedication, love and passion. I never think of leaving this world; it has never even come into my mind.
My wife and children also make my job easier because they are very supportive. Some chefs say that it is “the family or the job” but I am the lucky one because I have both.
What advice would you give to young chefs?
Work in a hotel environment with a lot of pressure. Learn as much as you can but remember that the heart must be involved in what you are doing. Knowledge is power and our motto is “never give up.” But cooking is not for everyone; in fact, 70% give up. My class where I started had 35 of us, but now only three of us are chefs.