Three years ago I started this business and it was an accident. I was working in the biggest advertising company in the world, I had a very fancy job, a very fancy apartment, my girlfriend was working for the US embassy, so life was pretty incredible.
I used to work part-time in a Mexican restaurant when I was at university, the boss was from Mexico and she usually make these authentic Mexican-style pickled jalapenos, and this was totally new as we don’t have a lot of spicy food in New Zealand. I had my first jalapeno chilli, and my mouth was exploding. It was so hot. But after the first shock, I had another one, and I then got addicted. From then onwards I’d eaten chillies and travelled the world, until one day from a business trip my girlfriend came back from the US and together with her she brought some jalapeno chilliies.
The owner of Saigon's Charlie - Charlie
I started making some authentic Mexican style jalapeno pickles with those, then my friends would come around and say to me that they are incredible and I should sell them. At the time I thought ‘Well yeah, nice idea, but I can’t do it’.
And then the next year, I went to America to meet my girlfriend’s parents, her grandmother made chilli sauce from Hue. I tasted some and thought they were really good – they were different from anything, the Thai, Mexican or American style – they are Vietnamese chilli sauce! I remembered that when I first came to Vietnam in 98 or 99 my friend took me on a motorbike trip in the north in the highway between China and Vietnam, and the people were really poor. But they made their own chilli sauce. And I remembered that. It was so good. It was totally natural and just in general great stuff. Then I tried the stuff from my gf’s mum – same same but different. So I started to use the real ethnic minorities’ style of food with grandma’s Hue-styled sauce.
In the old days people didn’t have refridgerators, so all food has to be fresh, or you have to throw it away. The only way you prevent food from going bad is either pickling them with vinegar, or smoking them with fire. It’s the new-traditional-Vietnamese-chilli-sauce! And the chillies that I use are only Vietnamese chillies.
Back story: Chillies don’t come from Vietnam. They arrived in the country during the colonial period. And as all the tradings had to go through the emperor, Hue was the first place in the country that got chillies. While the chilli plants travelled pretty well all the way from South America to Vietnam, it was in the end only two types of chillies that could grow here. One of them is the very common small birds’ eye chillies (ớt hiểm in Vietnamese). The other one is ớt sừng, which is the Cayenne pepper. So for about 300 years, Vietnam only had two chilllies. And then the French came, and they brought ớt chuông (bell peppers) which really grows well in cooler climates, such as the area around Da Lat. Those are all the chillies I use in my sauce. Other people are using really hot chillies out there grown in greenhouses but most people don’t know them and they haven’t tried them, whereas everyone in Vietnam has had those three types of chillies. Together with them I’ve added garlic, onion, pepper – all these things are in standard Vietnamese sauces.
I am a guy from New Zealand living in a nice apartment making Vietnamese traditional sauce. It’s kind of a strange idea. But my friends said it’s really good. By now i’m 40 years old and I can keep going in the advertising business, but it’s not very nice. You don’t feel happy with yourself. I was selling you toothpaste, shampoo, these things are all bullshit. The advertising is all lies. I wasn’t really enjoying this job, and then I started making chilli sauce full time.
Now it’s 3 years later and I really should be a millionnaire. I should be making it in a factory, having 200 staff, and so on. But I’m still making it myself. This year, maybe I will start a factory because I can’t keep up with the demand. Most of the customers are foreign people because most Vietnamese look at it and say it’s too expensive. But the people who care about health, and the rich Vietnamese, they are buying this because they want what the grandma made and now they don’t have, and also something that does not have any chemicals, colours or additives. About 70% of the customers are foreigners and 30% are locals. But the business idea is export, because this could sell more easily in a foreign country than here. If I didn’ t love Vietnam I wouldn’t be here still after 16 years. In theory I could go anywhere in the world, but I like the weather here, I like the people and the food, so I’d like to stay here, and make something that is world-class, high-quality, good product and sell it from Vietnam to the world.
I got an email from a guy, a 22-year-old guy who bought the sauce. He wrote me an email and said ‘I’m so ashamed of Vietnam, because you’re a foreigner and you’re making our food and doing a better job than we are’. That’s a really nice thing to hear, because he understands that it’s not really who you are, it’s what you’re doing. And if you do it 100% right, you have success.
What’s behind the name Saigon Charlie’s?
When I first started I wanted to call it Charlie’s Chillies. But in America there’s a hotdog restaurant on the beach in Venice, it’s been there for 30-35 years and guess what it’s called – Charlie’s Chillies! So I can’t copyright that, and I had to look at all the names again like a true advertising man to see whether I can copyright it. After a while I realised that we’re in Saigon and I’m Charlie – so I checked and registered.
My little trademarked logo is a buddhist monk. It’s a farmer but it’s a monk. In Hue I buy chillies from various buddhist families. The chillies are all grown on part of the land where they also build temples for the ancestors. I buy chillies from them at a higher price than market price, providing that they don’t use any sprays or pesticides. The family who I buy from, they have been on their land for hundreds of years. They used to supply the chillies to the emperor back in the days. They think I’m crazy about smoking the chillies.
Tell us a bit about your sauces?
Vietnam has a very strong regional culture. There’s a north and a south and a central and a west and so on. It’s all very different. I originally wanted to make one sauce. But then I realised I couldn’t make one and get all the flavours correct. And there’s not enough people to buy it. So I decided to have it north – central – south.
So in the south – this wasn’t Vietnam. At least until the French came. It was cambodia. It was the Khmer’s. And they like sweet food. They use sugar on everything. Hủ tíu has a lot of sugar in it. So the flavour here is very sweet. I don’t want to use sugar, so I put in honey. Honey has a really nice flavour, and it’s natural.
Hue in the centre, they just like things hot. Hot hot hot. And the north like the Chinese and French flavours. Chinese food is very oily, and Sichuan has influenced the northern Vietnamese a lot with their peppery flavours, which is why the Hanoi sauce has a lot of pepper in it.
The sauce is also all vegetarian so there is no animals harmed. I’m a flexitarian, so I’ll eat whatever when I’m hungry, but I learn that vegetables are good. Eating vegetarian makes me happy, and making a vegetarian sauce makes me happy.
"Eating vegetarian makes me happy, and making a vegetarian sauce makes me happy"
Do you usually have a recipe that you work with? Or do you just taste as you go and vary the amounts?
I do have a recipe, but as with every chef, you have to taste, as the produce vary throughout the year. Now is the dry season, but its not hot yet. The chillies at the moment are medium in thickness and a lot of orange in colour, not red yet. In about three months they will get really red. Onions are usually the same all year round, they also come from a lot of places. When it’s different, sometimes I have to add more chillies to get the spices. In 2-3 months the chillies will be more red and more spicy. In the wet season, the chillies are not so spicy.
So you’re still bottling them yourself?
The bottles I buy second-hand, they are either recycled Kikkoman soy sauce bottles, or recycled vodka bottles. When the bottles come I have to clean them and sterilise them. Everything is done the traditional way, it’s all real fruit, there’s no powder chillies or things like that. The preservative here is vinegar, there’s no artificial colours. I also don’t use any chemicals to clean the bottles, I boil them to sterilise.
To stop the bacteria from coming into the bottle, I hot bottle them. The sauce is boiled for about 40 minutes, and cools overnight, and I grind it, and I grind it again, and I bring it back up to 85 degrees which is pasteurisation. That kills bacteria, and at the same time the bottles are boiling. So I take the bottles which are boiling at 100 degrees, put in the sauce that is boiling at 85 degrees, and then the whole thing gets an airtight cap going on the top. As the sauce cools, the volume of it decreases inside the bottle, creating the vacuum that pulls the cap in and finishes the seal of the bottle. It’s a naturally sealed bottle, containing the natural chilli sauce. I learned all of this in the last two years, I didn’t know anything about making jams or pickles or anything.
I also did the design myself. One day I was sitting at a bar and scribbling away, so my first designs were on napkins. And then I had to learn Photoshop to be able to make the labels. The labels are pretty expensive as they have the gold stamp, and they are stuck onto the bottle using keo sữa, which is PVA. It is a good choice because it is non-toxic. All of this is done by hand, we also tie the cap at the top by hand.
How many people do you have?
Just me and my maid. I think a lot of people start with too much, or too many people. This is lean. I’ve bought only the things that I need. If I bought a $5000 machine, I would have been able to speed up a lot, but I’ve never been sure which is the right direction. So at the moment I’ve only got things that I need, so if people don’t like it, I can just give up or walk away.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since the beginning?
The biggest challenge is keeping up with demand. I can’t make enough at the moment so it’s time to think about this challenge and think about the solution. I don’t have a solution yet, so it’s time to really think about it, because if you can’t make enough for people, they’re going to buy something else.
You also have to stay positive. That’s the second biggest challenge. I work seven days a week. When every day is the same, it’s a challenge. You wake up in the morning and you see the same thing as yesterday, and you go ‘really?’. Everyone has this challenge. To overcome it, you go to parties, you drink beer, and you meet people. Meeting people is what makes me happy.
What Vietnamese dish would you recommend to have with the sauces?
Everything. The best thing is scrambled eggs with chilli sauce and mayonaise mix together. You can mix the sauce with some soy sauce and honey and baste on barbecue fish or meat and it’s also good. Don’t put it on ice cream though.
Picture: SoNice and Saigon Charlie Facebook
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