Outside the Nordic communities in Ho Chi Minh City few people noticed when five years ago two Danes opened a restaurant with the crazy name “MAD House”. Today, five years later, nobody dares call the name crazy and its reputation has spread far beyond the expat community and entrenched itself in the domestic Vietnamese restaurant circles. This spring, the couple expanded with a new wine bar.
“We have been fully booked since day one,” says Camilla Bailey, owner and chef at MAD House. Casper is busy running the restaurant, while Camilla is talking to me.
Camilla Bailey and Casper Gustafsen came to Saigon, as they affectionately call Ho Chi Minh City, in 2012 due to a business proposition for Casper as an Executive Chef at a luxurious skybar , Chili Skybar, in the heart of Saigon.
Before they made their decision to work on the other side of the Earth, Casper and Camilla worked together at the restaurant Henne Kirkeby Kro in the west of Denmark, where they first met each other when Camilla was a trainee and Casper was a Sous Chef. The couple became well-versed in the Danish restaurant, – gourmet and Michelin environment. Casper was the captain on the Danish national team of chefs, while Camilla has won The Best Chef’s Trainee in the North.
When the couple’s contracts were nearing their expirations date Casper and Camilla began to wonder what they should do. They had lived together for a few years and loved each other dearly.
“We wanted to try something new,” says Camilla.
“But we thought it would be in Denmark,” adds Camilla with a laugh.
From West Jutland to South Vietnam
But fate had a different plan for the Danish couple. Casper got a message on Facebook from a Danish-Vietnamese man who planned to open a skybar restaurant in Saigon, Vietnam. The Vietnamese man expressed his interest in Casper becoming the Executive Chef of the Chili Skybar. Meanwhile, Camilla had just found a new job in Denmark when the interesting offer ticked in on Casper’s phone.
“If I stayed in Denmark and Casper travelled to Vietnam, we would almost never see each other. So, we decided that I would travel to Vietnam too. We hoped that we could also travel around a bit,” says Camilla and explains that mutual free-time was already sparse.
The chef couple agreed to sign one-year contracts to get a feel of Vietnam and what the country could offer in opportunities. The owner of Chili Skybar had initially only hired Casper as the prospect of having two chefs in a romantic relationship wasn’t appealing to him, so Camilla had found a job at a competing restaurant. But when the owner realized that Camilla was extremely skilled and not just a random chef, he wanted to sign her too.
“We ended up working at the Skybar for almost three and a half years,” says Camilla.
During their employment at the skybar, Casper and Camilla played a part in opening several successful restaurants that opened many doors and gave them many connections. But despite the success, they weren’t happy.
They didn’t have a single mutual day off together for three years – even less than they did when they were in Denmark. They also never got to travel and go on the adventures, they had hoped and planned for. But most of all, the customers at the skybar didn’t appreciate the food.
“At the skybar, the clienteles were very wealthy Vietnamese people. The only thing they cared about was how fancy a dish was. They didn’t appreciate the taste or the handcraft behind it, which didn’t feel right for us,” says Camilla.
“It was difficult to get past the customers indifference because our careers in Denmark have been defined by appreciation for taste and handcraft,” emphasizes Camilla.
Despite being unhappy at the skybar, the couple couldn’t envision themselves returning to Denmark. The relaxed and easygoing lifestyle appealed to Casper and Camilla. The couple agreed that the limited free-time and lack of appreciation shouldn’t be the foundation for their careers.
“As soon as we decided, that we would stay in Vietnam for a long time, we wanted to become our own bosses. Earn money for us and not on behalf of someone else while making food that we actually like to make and that our customers appreciate,” says Camilla. I can hear the clink of glasses and happy voices in the background, the wine-bar fully booked and busy.
“We had little to no money saved up, so it took a lot of courage to take the leap of faith and just do it,” adds Camilla.
So, in [MONTH AND YEAR] the journey to open their own restaurant began by choosing the right location, making the menu, finding staff and making their vision for the restaurant come to life. Casper and Camilla chose to locate their first restaurant, MAD House, in District 2, that in 2015 wasn’t a popular district – only amongst expats.
The Danish restaurant industry places boundless value on great craftsmanship, good and local resources; things Casper and Camilla were used to and wanted to be reflected in their restaurant.
“We wanted our brand to be simple food made with our Danish handcraft and nice produce,” says Camilla.
“Our vision for MAD House was definitely based on inclusiveness; we wanted to cater to every type of customer. We wanted MAD House to be a place where people come to chill with their friends, families could bring their kids, couples on dates or singles. It was and is important that we serve food for every occasion and every preference – but with our own signature,” explains Camilla.
An expensive lesson learned
After 1,5 successful years with MAD House being booked and busy, Camilla and Casper decided to open a second restaurant in a giant hotel; 300 plates for breakfast every day and all room service. But something about the grand scale of the hotel and restaurant didn’t sit right with the couple.
“Suddenly, we were working for other people again. And we didn’t like that,”
The couple felt that they were only vessels to make sure food was delivered. The hotel payed for the ingredients and made sure the food was delivered. No customer contact. Casper and Camilla didn’t have their heart and soul in it.
“We didn’t end our partnership with the hotel on a good note. We lost a lot of money,” says Camilla.
“It was a valuable lesson. An expensive one, but valuable none the less,” adds Camilla with a laugh.
With their lesson learned and determined in their resolve to be their own bosses, the couple focused on their restaurant that was totally and wholly their own. Working several hours (up to 14 hours) every day, numerous days a week for months on end with little free time. Spending countless hours perfecting their craft even when the restaurant gained momentum and the customers kept coming and coming. Joining competitions such as Saigon Burger Festival where MAD House won four out of four prizes and winning ‘Best Burger in Saigon’ four years in a row. Then finally, expanding to more locations and up-scaling MAD House from 18 employees and 80 seats to 50 employees and 250 seats.
“We don’t mind working 12-14 hours a day because we really love our restaurants, our craft and what we do… And now, we have been open for five years. That’s basically a lifetime in Vietnamese standards,” laughs Camilla.
But despite running several successful MAD House restaurants, Casper and Camilla haven’t settled down – not even to have kids. Their tempo is still quick and nimble with the world a head of them.
“We won’t fall into the sense of comfort of knowing that our restaurants are successful. We will continue to work hard to better ourselves and our restaurants, so MAD House can be the best possible restaurant,” says Camilla with the dinner crowd almost cheering her on in the background, despite the female chef sitting in a closed off room.
“We have to live the rest of our lives off the money we earn through our restaurants, so it’s important to us that we are constantly evolving and learning,” adds Camilla.
Casper and Camilla’s vision for the future of MAD House is a product of ambition and a determined mindset to be the best.
“More restaurants and wine-bars will be opened. No doubt,” says Camilla, without a moment of hesitation.
On a more personal scale, Casper and Camilla, that has been together for 10 years as of 2020, hope to slowly put more and more responsibility on their employees when they feel MAD House is solidly established, so the couple can work more “behind the scenes”.
“While we don’t mind working 12-14 hours because we love our restaurants, we just also dream of travelling and getting some further education within the culinary world,” says Camilla.
“But MAD House will last a long time, no matter what,” adds Camilla after a few seconds before she announces she must go as the restaurant is getting really busy.