Britomart People: Nathan Houpapa

Cafe Hanoi’s head chef lets us in on the secret to perfect rice, and his favourite swear word.

Nathan Houpapa, Executive chef, Cafe Hanoi

As executive chef at Cafe Hanoi, Nate Houpapa enjoys turning out simple, fresh, zesty modern Vietnamese meals. He’s been a familiar face around Auckland’s eateries, previously working at the late Stella, Coco’s Cantina, La Zeppa and Vivace. Still, his all-time favourite role is a tough one to beat – working Italian summers at a tiny restaurant in Sardinia. We talked to him about his current favourite things and his passion for Vietnamese food.

Are you from Auckland? I grew up in Mangere, south Auckland, but I also spent a few years living in Christchurch. I’ve lived most of my adult life in the central suburbs and currently live in Newmarket.

How do you feel about the city right now?  Cautiously optimistic. I hope this fuel tax can sort out the dire roads in this city. But Auckland is a great city full of opportunity.

What’s the worst crime against food you’ve ever seen? Supermarket food wastage.

What are you drinking at the moment? A Dutch pilsner I made with my Williams Warn brew keg. Amazing bit of kit.

Tell us how to cook perfect rice. Haha – I have to be honest… Use a rice cooker.

Favourite swearword to use in the kitchen and why? Shit – very ambiguous – can have both positive and negative connotations which is very useful.

Best thing about being a chef? The pressure of a busy service!

Favourite thing to cook at Café Hanoi? Banh Xeo – Crispy Pork and Shrimp Pancake. I think this is my favourite Vietnamese dish. Simple, but so full of flavour and texture.

Worst kitchen injury? Whipped the top off my thumb on a meat slicer many years ago, the blood went everywhere! Looked like a crime scene.

Is yoghurt a dessert?  I definitely prefer yoghurt in a savoury dish.

T-sauce or mayonnaise? Mayo! (Kewpie)

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Pineapple on pizza? Definitely.

Spaghetti on pizza? Hmmmm. No

Meal of the year?  Freshly caught kingfish sashimi while away fishing in the far North over summer – simple but unforgettable.

How would you describe your approach to cooking and food in general? Relaxed, casual and uncomplicated.

What do you like about Vietnamese food? It’s always so fresh and full of flavour. I love the judicious use of fresh herbs and spices and the way food and eating are such an integral part of Vietnamese life. Everyone learns to cook from a young age there and a lot of importance is placed around mealtimes with family and friends.

Where did you learn to cook Vietnamese food? My good friend and colleague Jason Van Dorsten (ex-owner of Café Hanoi) taught me a lot through his own passion for the cuisine. Eating trips to Vietnam have definitely helped, as well as learning from other chefs in our Café Hanoi kitchen.

What ingredients are hard to come by here, if any? Green Papaya. Hard to find at the best of times!

What is the foundation of Vietnamese cooking for you? One word, balance. It’s about finding the perfect balance between sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter.

Photo by Josh Griggs