SOUP AND A SAND­WICH

#leg­end talks to two chefs that have helped make Viet­namese food as pop­u­lar in Hong Kong as it is around the world

#Legend - - #FOODSTAGRAM -

viet­namese food is what every­body is talk­ing about. Around the world, chefs are adding Viet­namese dishes to the menu and Hong Kong is not im­mune. #leg­end spoke with

Bao La, the man be­hind Le Garçon Saigon and who now leads Le Petit Saigon; and also to Brian Woo, the Three Mon­keys co-founder, who is in charge at Co Thanh.

BAO LA How old were you when you be­gan cook­ing?

I think the age of seven, eight­ish. My parents had a restau­rant in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia. It was ba­si­cally my af­ter-school care and where I kept my­self en­ter­tained as a kid.

When did you dis­cover your love of cook­ing Viet­namese food?

This prob­a­bly didn’t come un­til later on, maybe dur­ing my univer­sity days. I just felt like cook­ing kept me out of trou­ble.

What is your child­hood favourite Viet­namese dish?

Fresh rice pa­per rolls. That was my first job in the kitchen: peel­ing prawns, as­sem­bling and rolling rice pa­per rolls. I would stand on oil cans, be­cause I couldn’t reach the bench, and just roll. When mum still had the restau­rant, she made the rolls to or­der.

Who is your big­gest in­spi­ra­tion when it comes to cook­ing?

My mum and dad, but def­i­nitely more mum be­cause dad would be work­ing front of house and mum was in the kitchen. We would hang out there to­gether, and she made most of the fam­ily meals. What I am do­ing to­day is all be­cause of her.

Tell us about your work ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore join­ing Black Sheep Restau­rants.

When mum and dad re­tired, I lost my job. Luck­ily, I was in touch with Jowett Yu and dan Hong, and they in­vited me to Syd­ney to work with them. I flew out the day af­ter mum and dad closed the restau­rant. I ended up work­ing at dan and Jowett’s Ms G’s restau­rant for two years, and then helped open Mr Wong, a Chi­nese bar­be­cue restau­rant. Af­ter cook­ing a lot of Asian fu­sion food, I wanted to get back in touch with my roots, so I left Syd­ney and trav­elled to Viet­nam. Jowett called me later and con­vinced me to help him open Ho Lee Fook.

Af­ter the suc­cess of Le Garçon Saigon, how did you come up with Le Petit Saigon?

I was re­ally strong on mak­ing Le Garçon Saigon a din­ner spot, but fi­nan­cially it was not vi­able. es­pe­cially in Wan Chai, it’s re­ally tough. We had to do a lunch of­fer­ing but the kitchen was tiny. Then this site came up and we thought we could do some­thing with the front and use the kitchen as a prepa­ra­tion area. Lunches are han­dled at Le Garçon Saigon and Le Petit Saigon spe­cialises in banh mi.

What ex­actly is a banh mi thit and what makes a good one?

It came from the French, but the ac­cent is from Can­tonese, so it is pro­nounced “bun me”. Banh mi means flour cake or flour bun. Thit means meat but when peo­ple say it they usu­ally mean pork. All el­e­ments are im­por­tant to make a good banh mi thit.

For example, the bread needs to look and feel like a baguette but chewy and airy in­side. We have been work­ing on on our bread for four months, just to get ev­ery­thing right. The bread is baked in a stone oven, which gives it an airy kind of heat. For the fill­ing, we use five types of pork: rolled pork belly that’s brined, steamed with skin on for a chewy tex­ture; we add pig’s head ter­rine that’s been stir-fried, rolled and pressed; two types of Viet­namese ham; and pork floss for some salt and umami flavours. We also add chicken liver pâté, chopped onions and sea­son it with brandy. Acidic fresh herbs are added to balance out the rich­ness of the pâté

and the banh mi is fin­ished with Viet­namese chill­ies.

When’s the best time to beat the crowds at Le Petit Saigon?

Noon to 1pm is our busiest time. On Sun­days we have peo­ple queu­ing up at 11.30am to beat the crowds. I think 2pm is the best time to come if you don’t want to queue. We have started mak­ing more to meet de­mand, so there will still be some by 2pm. We might try to do a happy hour deal, so peo­ple can come af­ter work.

BRIAN WOO When did you dis­cover your love of Viet­namese food?

I have al­ways en­joyed Viet­namese food but didn’t re­ally know too much about it un­til I vis­ited Viet­nam in 2013. At that time I only knew about pho and banh mi, which are typ­i­cal break­fast dishes. The Viet­namese start their day early, so be­ing on hol­i­day and all, by the time I got up, all the break­fast places were closed. I was trav­el­ling around Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, won­der­ing the whole time where all the pho was. I saw all these signs fea­tur­ing Viet­namese dishes I had never had be­fore. They were ev­ery­where and more com­mon than pho.

Tell us about the Lunch Lady, the orig­i­nal Co Thanh.

Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing these new Viet­namese dishes, I started re­search­ing where I could find the best of each dish; where I could go for bun cha and bun bo Hué. The Lunch Lady, Co Thanh, kept on pop­ping up on my search. I vis­ited her street­side stall, where she would do a dif­fer­ent soup base ev­ery day for lunch. I had to try ev­ery­thing.

How do you pro­nounce Co Thanh?

You don’t pro­nounce the “H” sound, so it’s “co tan”. Co means miss or madam and Thanh is the Lunch Lady’s name.

What in­spired you to open Co Thanh in May?

When I opened Co Thanh, I wanted to pay homage to the Lunch Lady and bring her recipes to Hong Kong. If it wasn’t for her, this wouldn’t have hap­pened. I asked for her bless­ing and if I could name the restau­rant af­ter her. She said she felt hon­oured.

How did you con­vince the lunch lady to teach you?

I started eat­ing there ev­ery day and asked her if she taught peo­ple. She said no. I found an­other woman that was will­ing to teach me. She made two dif­fer­ent soup bases ev­ery day, so I learned how to make that through the help of a trans­la­tor. I would then take my soup to the Lunch Lady for feed­back. We started talk­ing, and af­ter see­ing how se­ri­ous and ded­i­cated

I was, she started telling me what to do. I would fol­low her rec­om­men­da­tions, make ad­just­ments and bring it back the next day for her to try. Finally she said, “You know what? I’m pretty much teach­ing you al­ready. You’re very per­sis­tent. You seem like you have some tal­ent. Why don’t I just teach you?”

Had you had any culi­nary train­ing be­fore?

No, but I have al­ways had an in­ter­est in cook­ing and food.

Both my grand­par­ents and my parents like to cook. When Three Mon­keys opened, I played a more man­age­rial role. My part­ners and I hired the chefs and bar­tenders. It wasn’t as hands-on as this.

What was it like work­ing for the Lunch Lady? Any mem­o­rable mo­ments?

We sched­uled for me to go back the fol­low­ing month and that’s when I started work­ing for her, on and off for three years. We went to the mar­ket ev­ery morn­ing at 5am, looking for fresh in­gre­di­ents. Some were for­eign to me and I learnt how to choose them. Take fer­mented fish. What makes it good? What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween three months of age­ing and more? We would cook and prep un­til ser­vice. Af­ter­wards, she would save some of the in­gre­di­ents for me and I would take them home in the af­ter­noon to prac­tise mak­ing the soup broths. I would peel shrimp for her, watch her cook. Then I grad­u­ated to serv­ing lunch. One of my most mem­o­rable mo­ments was her giv­ing me one of her soup la­dles: “Here is your gift, and now it is your turn to serve.”

What would you say makes Co Thanh stand out from other Viet­namese restau­rants?

We don’t serve pho. I want our din­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence what I ex­pe­ri­enced in Viet­nam. If pho was avail­able, I prob­a­bly would’ve just eaten that. I want peo­ple to step out of their com­fort zone and try some­thing else. One of the philoso­phies I have is that we don’t cut cor­ners on anything. We use the best and fresh­est in­gre­di­ents. Our seafood is fresh from the mar­ket ev­ery day. I learned in Viet­nam that good food is all about fresh­ness and qual­ity. We also fly in 70 per cent of our in­gre­di­ents from Viet­nam, as I don’t think there are sub­sti­tutes for ar­ti­sanal in­gre­di­ents like Viet­namese fish paste and fer­mented shrimps. We make our bread in-house and we use a spe­cial flour with a lower pro­tein con­tent that makes our baguettes more airy.

What is your aim for Co Thanh?

We have been in­vited to open in New York. The Lunch Lady is al­ready quite fa­mous – ever since she was fea­tured on An­thony Bour­dain’s No Reser­va­tions.

Bour­dain is open­ing up Bour­dain Mar­ket in 2019, so their team has in­vited us to open there as a per­ma­nent ven­dor, along with 30 oth­ers. A lot of peo­ple have also gra­ciously reached out to us about open­ing in Tokyo, Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sia.

Top: The Lunch Lady, Madam Thanh, with Brian Woo

Right: Bao La

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