HOW I MAKE IT WORK...
HER RESTAURANT CHAIN, MISSCHU, WENT INTO VOLUNTARY ADMINISTRATION IN 2014. NOW, THE FORMER REFUGEE IS REBUILDING HER REPUTATION AND REVEALS WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE A COMEBACK
Catering queen Nahji Chu on coping with failure.
I’m only 46, but I feel like I’ve had four lives already. I left Laos at the age of five when my family was kicked out by the communist regime. I then spent a few years in refugee camps before coming to Australia. By the time I was 12, the need for me to tell my story was growing strong.
As a young adult I tried to get work in the creative fields – as a journalist and as an actor – because I needed to say to Australia, “I’m Vietnamese, but I’m just like you.” I failed at all the jobs I applied for and ended up opening a pho shop.
Misschu was pretty much the first of its kind to do high-end fast food. You could only really order online from Pizza Hut before we opened our first tuckshop in 2009. So what went wrong? Some people say the business grew too fast. I think it grew according to demand, which was huge, but I didn’t have the infrastructure for that growth. I feel Iike I got penalised for being successful, but I can’t blame anyone else for the failure.
I had such a public falling. I was humiliated. I could have just taken a full-time job and not had the stress, but it’s important to me to be a role model to women from disadvantaged backgrounds and to represent refugees in Australia. That’s what kept me going.
I’ve also been able to employ an enormous number of people, so if I took another job, I don’t think I’d sleep at night having let that go. My business also gives me an opportunity to do charitable work. We work with I-manifest, an NGO which helps disadvantaged youths get into the creative industries. Many of these kids also came to Australia as refugees and I want to give them a leg up if I can.
Over a year ago an investor came up to me in a car park and said, “How about it? Are you going to take up my offer?” He said he couldn’t find a better person to invest in now that I’d had a proper fall. But after every great fall, there has to be
a great uprising. My new restaurant is a contemporary yum cha hall. I’m tapping into my grandfather’s Chinese heritage, but in a modern context. Anyone who is Chinese who walks in, will feel proud.
Some people have said, “Welcome to the big boys’ club,” because it’s a larger restaurant. I just say, “Yeah, and guess what? I’m gonna represent. Watch what a little Vietnamese woman can do!”