Olive Magazine


Anaïs van Manen and her passion for “brutal” Vietnamese food

- Words HILARY ARMSTRONG Instagram.com/anais.vanmanen

“Idon’t know what makes you a chef,” muses 27-yearold Anaïs van Manen of those who, like herself, do things a little differentl­y. In her opinion, it comes down to a good palate, creativity and not following a convention­al career trajectory. Anaïs herself has what might be described as a portfolio career. Right now she’s research and developmen­t chef for the new branch of Bao in Borough; she’s the opening chef at her friend Freddie Janssen’s forward-thinking Dalston café Snackbar; she’s collaborat­ing with sommelier pal Honey Spencer on her Bastarda project; she’s consulting for social enterprise Kitchenett­e Karts, a street-food concept that trains ex-offenders; and somehow she finds time for her own Vietnamese supper clubs, her pottery and her band (she has an EP out later this year).

“I don’t like routine. It scares me,” she admits. “Working in a restaurant full-time stressed me out so much, I stopped and went freelance. Maybe I

don’t want to settle in my own place, maybe I just want to consult my whole life and leave pieces of me everywhere.

“I don’t have any ambition at the moment to open a restaurant – at the moment – but I do have an ambition to show people Vietnamese food the way I grew up eating it. If I had to open a restaurant now, I would have to think, what are my costs? What if people don’t like this flavour? That’s how you end up changing your food because you need to make money out of it.”

At Anaïs’s events, guests get her powerful, pungent flavours undiluted. “I’m building their palate. I’m letting them know I’m never going to make the same food you find in Dalston Kingsland [a corner of London well known for its low-budget Vietnamese eateries]. It’s not what I grew up with.”

Anaïs moved with her family from Paris to Ho Chi Minh City when she was three. “Growing up I loved to eat on the street in Vietnam. My mum didn’t like it. She’d say it’s not very clean, but I would be, like, I don’t care, I just want to eat it.” She recalls lots of seafood, scallops, oysters, squid and sea snails, and lots of noodles, too.

“In Vietnam, because the portions are really small, you’re basically constantly eating. If you’re hungry, you just go sit down on the street and eat. That’s how I remember the food.” She left after school to study graphic design in Singapore and has moved her way around ever since. At 20, she returned to Paris spending a year at cookery school before working at Bones, CAM Import Export, and Auberge de Chassignol­les in the Auvergne. In London, she worked at Antidote Wine Bar, Trullo and Nuala, with a break in the middle to help a friend launch a place in Bogotá.

Since the start of the year, Anaïs has been working closely with Erchen Chang, co-founder of Taiwanese bun specialist Bao, on the third branch – Bao’s “grittier sister”, as Anaïs puts it. The concept is a little different, with some influences from Japan’s yakitori-ya and karaoke bars. It’s a “big learning opportunit­y” for Anaïs, for whom Taiwanese food is new. The big hits so far include chicken nugget bao and spiced beef butter scallops from the grill.

Snackbar in Dalston, meanwhile, is “very much Freddie’s”, a café model for the future, with hydroponic farm, mushroom stand, polytunnel and a trio of chickens. The food draws on pop-American and cult Japanese snackage.

Anaïs’s own “brutal Vietnamese food”, served at her supper clubs, includes such dishes as lamb wrapped in betel leaves with fermented chillies and fresh peanuts (which beat any number of bricks-and-mortar restaurant­s to win the Best in Taste award at last year’s Taste of London). Then there’s her ban dap, a two-ply rice paper roll, one grilled, one soft, with brown crab and watercress. When possible she sources fresh herbs from Ryewater Nursery in Dorset where Luke Farrell grows something like 200 varieties of Southeast Asian plants.

One of her new dishes involves liver sauce, a traditiona­l dipping sauce from the Imperial Cities, made with shallots, lemongrass, minced pork, liver and peanut butter, with grilled vegetables. “The Vietnamese part is the sauce, the rest isn’t at all,” she says.

She stays true to the ethos of Vietnamese food: using what is fresh and local. “I want to bring Vietnamese food in a new direction. I don’t want to be particular­ly innovative. It has to be accessible. You shouldn’t feel inferior because you don’t know what something means.”

As she gets used to being under the spotlight, the next step for Anaïs is surely her own place. She’s unsure. “I want to be a chef, I want to cook. It doesn’t mean I want to have a restaurant.” What she does know is that her own place, if it happens, will have “a social aspect”.

“It’s the only way I could open anything, because if I were to open a restaurant without that, I think I would feel guilty. As chefs we take a lot, we take from nature, we take, but what do we give back?

“To help other people create their dream, for me it’s an honour, but when am I going to do my own? That’s the question.” It may just be a matter of time.

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