For Khanh Nguyen, there is one question dominating his thoughts these days: What am I going to wrap next?
Like a frenzied culinary Christo, the head chef of Melbourne's Sunda has, for the past three weeks, been draping food in shortcrust pastry. His Instagram feed is littered with images of his Southeast Asian mash-ups of the French classic pâté en croûte. One features the flavours of Vietnam's bánh mì thịt, another pad Thai. Then, a whole mud crab and a whole chicken, encased entirely in a pastry crust. All are beautifully, painstakingly, decorated in pastry flowers and leaves, circles and swirls.
Not bad for a chef who decided to play around with pastry this month – Melbourne's second lockdown has given him the luxury of time. "Once I get obsessed with something, I'm in," says Nguyen.
Pâté en croûte comes from the hallowed halls of classic French cookery. It translates to "pâté in a crust" and is essentially a hybrid of jelly-topped pâté, pork terrine and pie. And the super-hybrid that is the bánh mì pâté en croûte had been on Nguyen's mind for a while. He's long harboured a fascination for terrines, having had experience making giò thủ, a Vietnamese terrine of jellied pig's head. Some years ago, on a visit to Vietnam, he had his first taste of patê sô, a French colonial-inspired puff pastry filled with pork. "That opened my mind to the idea: what if I put a whole bánh mì into a pastry?"
The bánh mì pâté en croûte is an epic undertaking. It takes up to four hours to create, though the process is usually staggered over a few days. The shortcrust pastry – spiked with soy sauce and Maggi seasoning – is laminated to an even thickness and placed in a rectangular-prism mould. The filling comprises several parts: chicken and pork liver pâté, emulsified with butter and mayonnaise; a pork mince mixture, adapted from Nguyen's mum's recipe for bún chả (Hanoi-style pork patties) with hand-chopped pork shoulder, lemongrass, eschallots, pepper and wood-ear mushrooms; chả lụa, the Devon-like pork cold-cut commonly found in bánh mì thịt, and braised pork cheek.
It's topped with a pastry lid, then baked and cooled. Jelly (made from the stock in which the pork cheek is braised) is poured through a "chimney" in the lid, then it's left to set in the fridge before it's unmoulded, sliced and served with pickled daikon and carrots. The finished log measures 50 centimetres long, weighs a whopping 2.8 kilograms and serves 18 people.
Unbelievably – masochistically, even – Nguyen takes the behemoth to the next level by decorating the lot in an intricate pastry tapestry of floral motifs. He stumbled upon a set of pastry cutters in the Hotel Windsor kitchen, where the Sunda team is based currently, and was inspired by the pastry handiwork of Calum Franklin, executive chef at London's Holborn Dining Room and author of The Pie Room.
"I think I got a bit carried away, and just kept going," says Nguyen. Ergo, the whole mud crab and whole chicken, encased and baked in their pastry shells.
(A video of Nguyen cracking the crust of his chicken en croûte is satisfying viewing. The bonus is the awed reaction of his colleague John Rivera, dropped tongs and all.)
Fiddly? Yes. But it's a whole lot of fun too. "Back when Sunda was open [before Covid-19], I'd be working six or seven days a week. I didn't get much free time," says Nguyen. Like many restaurants, Sunda has had to recalibrate at breakneck speed to the new world order. Now Sunda Exp – its meals-at-home service – is established, he's looking to creative projects that will lift the spirits of his hard-working team, many of whom are on the Jobkeeper scheme and reduced work hours.
"It keeps them motivated," says Nguyen. "At the restaurant, I'm really hard on my team [but] that doesn't give them the chance to see my imperfections." His first pâté en croûte was made under the guidance of Lekker's Rob Kabboord. An impatient Nguyen – "It took me ages to learn how to make sourdough because I never let it prove enough" – decided to unmould the dish before it had set in the fridge, resulting in a mess of warm crushed pastry. Diving head first into his pâté en croûte project, crumbs and all, was a way of revealing his fallible human side.
Plus, the results speak for themselves. The bánh mì pâté en croûte was offered as a pre-ordered special on Sunda Exp. It sold out, though Nguyen "might" have plans to bring it back. "It's too good not to share with everybody."
Likewise, the pastry-crusted animals of the land and sea could find their way onto the menu when Sunda returns to dine-in mode. He is, however, keeping tight-lipped on the next creature to receive the crusty treatment. "I can't tell you, but it's going to be pretty cool." (His social media accounts, however, betray that a coral trout en croûte, done in the style of chả cá lã vọng [Hanoi-style grilled fish with turmeric and dill], is on the cards.)
In the meantime, the crab and chicken en croûte are for staff meals, continuing Sunda's reputation as the place of employ for hospitality workers seeking next-level "staffies". The problem is, after all his efforts, often Nguyen is left with just… crumbs.
"I'm practising intermittent fasting so I can't eat till 2pm. So everything I make, my chefs eat, and I can taste some afterwards if there's any left," he says. "And, usually there isn't."
Follow Khanh Nguyen's pastry adventures on Instagram @genghiskhanh