When ScandAsia first met Camilla Bailey and Casper Gustafsen it was back in 2020. This was before COVID-19 had truly taken its toll and many things were different back then. The venue was different. The goals were different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean, that things have changed for the worse for the Danish ‘chef’ couple in Ho Chi Minh City – on the contrary.
Back then the couple’s main venue was Madhouse, while Mad Wine Bar & Eatery was just a 70 square-meter space with an outdoor deck. As the successful owners of Madhouse, in the renowned expat area of District 2, Camilla and her husband Casper, had a vision of creating a unique Wine and dining experience in an area that was rapidly developing. With a Scandinavian touch, they initially focused on wine and tapas, which quickly became a hit among both locals and expats.
They are the “Mad Wine Bar” brand
Camilla and Casper have never shied away from exploring new opportunities. They have ventured into other establishments, including a thriving wine bar located in a vibrant Japanese-inspired area. But as tourists decreased during COVID, the once bustling Japanese area lost its vibrancy.
The couple also opened a restaurant in District 7, expanding their footprint across the city. However, this venture served as an eye-opener. They realized that their strength was in their personal touch and the unique experience they bring to their guests.
“That’s how we found out that it’s us personally and what we do that makes up the brand. We are what our customers want and what they expect to get.”
Today they are therefor down to one establishment: Mad Wine Bar & Eatery.
Running restaurants in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Before realizing the importance of their presence for their brand, the couple has endured several trials the last couple of years. Including the hardships brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After nine years with Madhouse, the couple had to close down the place in early June, due to a sudden raise of the rent by a 100%.
“The owners of the property decided to raise our rent, so it went from $6,000 to $12,000 a month. We didn’t want to pay that,” Camilla explains with a sentimental hint in her voice.
Back in December last year, the couple also faced challenges due to the multiple lockdowns that severely affected many businesses. One of those businesses was the landlord of Mad Wine Bar. As the place gained popularity, Camilla and Casper didn’t see any other option than to seize the opportunity, and take over the entire space. Thereby expanding the small Wine Bar into a 1,000 square meter restaurant.
They invested in renovating and redesigning the place, creating a cozy and inviting atmosphere in a Nordic-French bistro style.
“I designed the whole place myself,” Camilla says.
“I’ve deliberately tried to make it a bit Scandinavian with the green and the lights. In the evening the place is super cozy with lights all over. People always say it’s so cozy and I tell them it’s “hyggeligt”, she adds and laughs with an enviable energy.
Where at first, the place consisted of this small corner bar with a tiny kitchen in the back, they now have the whole courtyard, decorated with wooden furniture’s, greeneries and light bulbs that creates the illusion of a star-studded sky, along with a new open kitchen area.
“After we closed Madhouse, we agreed that I needed a kitchen,” Camilla shares.
Back in Denmark, Camilla used to be the trainee at the kitchen where Casper worked as a sous chef. Today she is the master of the kitchen, while he is the wine expert.
“I’m a bit more exuberant and creative, where Casper is really good at structure. So, it was only natural that he should be the one to run the winery and I would be in charge of the kitchen.”
The Culinary Experience
Mad Wine Bar & Eatery’s menu is a fusion of Nordic and French cuisines, with a focus on classic dishes prepared with a Scandinavian twist. Their fixed menu and weekly specials keep customers coming back for more. With Theme-days like “roasted pork” Wednesdays and “charcuterie plates” on Thursdays being a favorite among the clientele.
Every week Camilla offers a unique experience called “Chef’s Table,” where the ten seats around the open kitchen area are reserved. The menu is never revealed beforehand, but still the guests trust chef Camilla’s choice for a memorable dining experience. Every week, those ten seats are sold out.
“People trust us and know what we stand for. They don’t ask questions when we do something new. The Chef’s Table is a five-course menu with wine. People haven’t seen the menu, but it’s still sold out.”
“This morning I had catering for 12 people. The customer called me and said: Camilla, I have these guests, can you arrange some dinner to be delivered at 6pm? She told me how many children and how many adults, but then she trust me to come up with the menu by myself,” Camilla shares proudly with a rare but refreshing confidence.
Sunday is brunch-day
I got to experience Camilla’s skills in the kitchen myself, as I came back to Mad Wine Bar & Eatery for a Sunday brunch with friends. As soon as I stepped into the open courtyard, I noticed her in her bright green trousers, with a matching shirt. The curly, blonde hair was in the usual bun on the top of her head, and she was smiling warmly as she greeted me.
“We have a huge group of guys coming in for a birthday brunch,” she says. “But I’ll find you a table of course,” she reassured me.
As my friends arrived, we agreed on a table in the couch-area out in the courtyard, next to the birthday-boys. Their lively mood was a great reflection of the friendly vibe of the place, and only added to the dining experience. We all agreed that the Eggs Benedict, with a green Scandinavian twist was impeccable, and the more than two hours we spent there flew by.
Building Strong Connections
One of the keys to the couple’s success is their strong network and ability to create connections. As I met Camilla for an interview, she emphasized the importance of social events and networking, especially in a competitive market like Ho Chi Minh City.
“I have built a large network here in District 2 over the years. We have been in the city for 12 years now, so around here people know us. It has taken many years and a lot of networking to build this. But once you have a relationship in some way, they come as guests as well.”
Camilla continues to explain how building connections within your field is different in Vietnam from back in Denmark.
“We all have a really great relationship in the restaurant industry. We are all good friends and we all go out together. Our suppliers are also our personal friends. This is not the case in Denmark. In Denmark there is too much competition and we have this thing called “janteloven”. There is no such thing as janteloven in Vietnam. I really like that.”
The many men at the birthday-brunch are a testament to Camilla’s networking skills and to the great relationship between the restaurateurs in Ho Chi Minh City.
“It’s my best friend’s birthday brunch,” she explains and sends a smile to the guy at the end of the long table. All the men around the table are people she knows from the industry. She thereby demonstrates, how they have managed to build a loyal customer base and how their commitment to providing quality food and wine in a welcoming atmosphere has made them a cherished destination for both locals and expats in Ho Chi Minh City.