We’ve tasted fantastic pies, tiramisùs, and crème brûlées, but only the che (pronounced “jay”) at Saigon Sisters—a warm custard made with butternut squash and coconut milk—left us with a lasting impression. Chef Matt Everson tells us more about the seasonal treat, which we hope will make a return year after year, and also dishes about the defining quality of Vietnamese cuisine.
How did you get into Vietnamese food?
I have always enjoyed cooking with Asian flavors and I love the style of Asian food and philosophy behind Vietnamese food, but I had never really gotten into it until I was approached by the owners [of Saigon Sisters]. They told me the concept, and I spent every waking moment going to Arygle Street up north. The day before my big first interview, I went out and spent $200 on Vietnamese cookbooks so that I could understand what makes Vietnamese, Vietnamese.
And what is that?
The overwhelming characteristic to me is balance.
As opposed to other cuisines?
Oftentimes you see people associate Thai food, for instance, with spice. That’s a characteristic they think of when you think of Thai food. It isn’t that other cuisines don’t strive for that [balance], but for me [the trait] is the hallmark of Vietnamese cooking. Altogether, it’s all in harmony, all in balance.
We loved the che. Did you come up with this version?
My sous chef John [Boisse], came up with this dish. [Owner] Mary [Nguyen Aregoni]’s mom—we call her Mama Sue—she is like 76 years old. She works every single day at the French Market stand; probably works 76 hours a week. She’s always wiling to show off her food and bring it in for us. She brought in her version of che. It was sticky rice, roasted pumpkin, and coconut milk. John tried it and immediately asked, “How can we do this differently? How can we make this ours?” When John and I, we worked together at May Street Market, we had done a dessert there that was sweet potato in that kind of custard form. John just said, “Let’s do squash and coconut milk, and the other elements just fell into place.” It has salty, sweet, and savory—going for that harmony.
The consistency is so perfect. How do you make it?
Without giving away too much of how we do it, the butternut squash is simmered in the coconut milk, and then we have a very precise ratio of gelatin to set it, but after that, it is our little secret. It goes into a hotel pan—a deep cookie-sheet pan.
Are you going to keep this che on the menu?
We’re working on our spring menu. It has to change—it’s made with butternut squash, which is on its way out. But it’s coming for sure; we will have to reinvent it a little.
Photograph: Anna Knott