This time, we want to spotlight something that is easily overlooked when a perfectly seasoned and cooked-to-order Wagyu steak sits on a plate right in front of you: the importance of sterling service.
Please allow us to introduce to you: Stéphanie. Despite her name, you might have noticed her unmistakably Asian appearance. La Villa French Restaurant’s maître d’hôtel (or, as English speakers say, maître d’) is actually called Mrs. Nguyen Thi Phuc, and she’s the person who subtly, yet masterfully orchestrates your fine-dining experience.
What Is a Maître d’Hôtel?
Literally, maître d’hôtel means ‘master of the house’, and this is pretty much what Stéphanie is: she knows the venue, she knows the team and, ideally, she also knows you. She’s the gastronomic version of a profiler.
When you enter La Villa, she will have made sure everything is perfectly set up for you: the tables are laid, all food is in stock, the team is ready to roll.
“When I come to work I have to focus 100 percent. Even during our breaks, we basically prepare for when we open again.”
She’s among the first to welcome you. While she leads you to your table, she’s already getting to know you: Is it your first time here? Are you new to Vietnam? Did you come for a business dinner or a romantic tête-à-tête?
From there, Stéphanie is your guide through the culinary wonderland of French cuisine, the link between you, the restaurant, the service team and the administration… She’s literally pivotal, the point where all routes meet. Chef Thierry affectionately calls her La Villa’s “control tower”. Her job is to keep an overview nobody else has, and anticipate your every wish. That’s what makes her job an art form.
“As a waiter, you work with your legs and arms. As a maître d’hôtel, you work with your head.”
How did she get to become a maître d’hôtel? Well, her story with hospitality started long before La Villa.
Who Is Stéphanie?
Stéphanie is a very young maître d’hôtel, a sweet 34 years old. But she has yet another job: she’s the mother of two daughters. When asked if she wants more children, she exclaims quick as a shot, “No, it’s really enough!”
She comes from a hard-working family in Binh Thuan Province, and often visits her hometown on Vietnam’s central coast. Her father works as a fisherman, and it seems that this very fact made her a gourmet in the first place.
“We always had the best seafood and fish at home.”
So she became a food lover. As such, she was naturally drawn to hospitality. Her first position was that of a waitress at Princess d’Annam Resort & Spa in the tourist magnet and famed beach paradise Phan Thiet.
You might have come across our About Us section and read this name before – this is the 5-star boutique resort where Thierry and Tina, the owners of La Villa French Restaurant, met.
“It’s very important to me today that I came to be a maître d’hôtel step by step. Like that, I know exactly what’s happening on every level of the hierarchy.”
Under Chef Thierry’s guidance, Stéphanie grew into the position of supervisor. When Thierry and Tina had the idea to open their own restaurant in Saigon, they could not but think of her as a perfect addition to their team. They asked, she agreed, and here they were, in 2010, working to open one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most eminent fine-dining establishments.
“I learned a lot working under Thierry, already in Phan Thiet. That’s why I followed him to Saigon.”
In 2011, Chef Thierry and Tina wanted Stéphanie to experience the real deal – and took her to Thierry’s hometown Avignon in southern France to explore and get acquainted with the country’s culture and cuisine. Living with Thierry’s family, she experienced the French way of dining first-hand.
The Joys of Being a Maître d’Hôtel
In Vietnam, traditionally, you get your food all at the same time, and restaurants are open at pretty much any time of the day. France’s culinary rules, however, are not made to be bent. It’s one course at a time, invariably including an aperitif, starter, main course, cheese, dessert. Period.
All this happens, essentially, for the customers’ own good. La Villa sells more than food. We sell a perfect piece of time, a culinary memory. Perfection, however, is something that requires preparation. Preparation, in return, needs time. There’s a lot of care that goes into first-rate gastronomy.
That’s why, as Stéphanie says, the most memorable moments are when guests shake her hand and appreciate a job well done.
“The other day, there was a couple trying the Discovery Menu and they loved it! They said: ‘This is the best restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City!’ That’s one of the happiest moments, when people tell you how they enjoyed their meal.”
Often, fun is in the air when the Cheese Trolley is out on the floor. Many Asians are not used to any kind of dairy product, and much less to cheese. So imagine Stéphanie presenting an assortment of 20 to 25 top-quality imported French cheeses, from Brière to Goat Cheese, sided with dried and fresh fruits or seasonal jams. The guests’ eyes grow wider while they innocently enquire: “Cheese cake!?”
In order to avoid disappointments at first bite (nothing could be more unsatisfactory than expecting cheese cake while you put a piece of Roquefort in your mouth), this is when she has to share her expertise. Moreover, she’s the exception that proves the rule: not only does she know what cheese is, she actually likes it!
A Francified Taste
When you ask Stéphanie about her favourite dish, you get an unsurprising answer: pho, preferably with a lot of fresh herbs from her home region. You can’t escape your roots, and let’s face it – who doesn’t delight in a good pho?
However, it’s easy to get her excited about French food too.
“Of course, I love the foie gras! And the lobster is so good!”
She gets to try the dishes from the menu, not dining herself (who would dare to serve the maître d’hôtel?) but instead tasting a spoonful while things are prepared in the kitchen. What would she pair with a good French meal? Champagne, in proper style, or Moscato, a fizzy, sweet, Italian white wine.
And if any more proof was needed for Stéphanie’s gradual francisation, ask her how she likes her steak.
“Me, I prefer my steak medium-rare.”
She even claims she could cook a steak to order herself!
Confidence is one of those things she learned at La Villa, and it works well with the qualities she has anyway: Stéphanie is self-disciplined, she leads by example, and she embraces the pressure that never fails to appear in hospitality. You could wake her up at three in the morning and she’d put up a flawless late-night supper in no time.
“When the restaurant is full of people, you really have to concentrate. And it gets even more difficult when there aren’t many guests. This is when you make the most mistakes because you lose tension. So you need all the more to focus.”
It’s this attitude that our restaurant simply loves about her. La Villa French Restaurant could work without Stéphanie, but she is the puzzle piece that turns outstanding food into an unforgettable fine-dining experience.