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Vietnamese-Australian chef Thi Le and the women that changed her life - mother, mentor and an ex-partner's auntie

What are your childhood memories of food? "It was good and bad. I grew up eating really good food. It was bad because I'd want to go out and play and my mum would make me help her roll spring rolls and prep. I grew up in Blacktown, one hour west of Sydney, and we were the only Southeast Asian family there. My mum would pickle vegetables and my friends would come over and ask, 'What is that?' Now I'm a chef, I realise my mum was way ahead of her time with fermenting stuff.

We would go to Cabramatta, which has a Vietnam town, and Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. We ate a lot of Laotian food - it's like Thai but more herbaceous and spicy, and funky from the shrimp paste. I would eat at my Filipino friend's house, and at school my class­mates were Turkish and Lebanese so we'd swap lunches. I was 10 years old when I tried tabbouleh - cracked wheat with parsley, tomatoes and sumac - and it blew me away. I fell in love with sumac."

When did you know you wanted to be a chef? "I wanted to design bars and restaurants. I studied interior design and did hospitality for fun. My instructor said I should think about becoming a chef and I said, 'No, my mum [a former Vietnamese refugee] would kill me.'

"In 2007, I did a gap year and travelled to Asia and Europe. I loved China because I had studied ancient history. There is so much history behind the cuisine. In Chongqing, in the morning, they have street vendors making noodles and dumplings to order and the soy milk is so fresh."

"I went back to Sydney and thought about it, and then went there. He left soon afterwards and I learned very quickly how to run a kitchen on my own. I ended up cooking stuff from my childhood. The first Saturday night cooking by myself was the worst Saturday night ever. I cried for like five hours. My partner at the time drove four hours from Sydney to be with me and told me to buckle up. I realised I needed proper training and went to culinary school for a year."

What did you learn from your mentor, Australian chef Christine Manfield? "I was in an apprenticeship programme called Tasting Success, where students are matched with a chef mentor. I was paired up with Christine, who owned Universal [in Sydney; it closed in 2013]. My mum wondered what I was doing, saying I shouldn't be in the kitchen, getting scars, and that it's a hard life being a cook. One day, Christine invited mum for dinner and mum was blown away [...] from then onwards my mum was hands off.

"I learned a lot from Christine, parti­cularly about understanding the com­plexity of flavours as well as balance. She made me make nam jim jaew, a Thai dipping sauce that includes garlic, fresh coriander, chilli, palm sugar, lime, and fish sauce. The ingredients' taste can change daily so how do you adjust it? It was stressful making it everyday."

The interior of Le's restaurant Anchovy, in Melbourne, Australia. Picture: Anchovy restaurant

What did you learn from chef Andrew McConnell? "He had a cookbook launch at Universal. I went to work for him at Cumulus Inc, in Melbourne, and it was a shock moving from 120 covers to 600 to 800 covers and standards were still high."

When did you open your own place? "After 2½ years there, I was feeling burned out and talked with my partner, Jia-yen, and thought I should open an Asian chicken shop. I started looking into suppliers; a fresh chicken would cost A$30, so, by the time you sell it, it would cost A$90. So then we started talking about Anchovy."

What did your mum think? "She said, 'It's good, you're working for yourself.' Then we started taking her to modern Asian restaurants for research and she hated them because the portions were so tiny, or she would like the decor but say the food had no soul. I would get into arguments with her. She said that if you're going to cook something you have to do it justice. She said contemporary doesn't mean it has no soul. So I made it a point to have a restaurant where my mum couldn't say anything."

Pork liver, chives and bean sprouts, a dish served at Ancovy. Picture: Anchovy restaurant

That was three years ago, how do you feel about the restaurant now? "Now other Asian chefs are bringing their parents to our restaurant. One of our suppliers brought his mother and I was so worried because she has eaten in some of the best places. But she loved it because it feels like mum's cooking but doesn't look like it."

What do you do when you're not working? "Eat. And walk my dogs. I love eating out, I love going to the markets, it's so exciting. Bao Le [chef at Le Garcon Saigon] took me to the wet markets in Wan Chai and I could visualise myself being here. I love seafood, too. I might be back - you never know."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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