Nahji Chu has seen some turbulent times. Before she was eight her family had fled the Pathet Lao regime, eked out a living in Thai refugee camps, and finally moved to Australia where she grew up facing racism. She’s been a seamstress, a waitress and a sought after caterer. But nothing could be busier or more turbulent than life since she opened misschu – the tuckshop and Vietnamese dumpling haven for busy city workers in Sydney’s Darlinghurst – in 2009.
“When I first opened up in Bourke Street, I took that site on because it was really cheap rent,” she recalls, I was a caterer and I needed a kitchen…the only thing I could find was that shop and no one would take it because it was a really well known prostitution corner.” There’s a pause. “Now I call myself a tuckshop by day and a fuckshop by night,” she giggles.
We’re sitting in the front room of her Potts Point terrace headquarters. Abstract art dominates the walls, pot plants cast a green glow and Chu’s stocky, grey staffy, George, thumps his tail happily from a worn leather chair in the corner – the setting couldn’t be further from her refugee childhood.
In just two years, she’s expanded from the tiny Bourke Street outlet to open at the Opera House’s Opera Kitchen development, launch a sister tuckshop in her adopted hometown of Melbourne, while her new Bondi store is set to satisfy beachgoers this summer. She also harbours plans to open a Sydney CBD store and second Melbourne store from early next year, with international outlets to follow. She’s nothing if not busy.
The diminutive Chu hums with a focused energy, determination and a joke and smile if you’re willing to share them. Her ascendancy to the rice paper roll throne may seem to have been swift, but it’s the outcome of years of creative ideas and endeavours, which still bubble over given half a chance.
“I’d been catering for other people for a long time. When I left school I didn’t get enough marks to study what I wanted, so I got into environmental science at Melbourne Uni,” she recalls. “But I was much more interested in fashion and film, so I deferred and I ended up working for independent fashion designers on Chapel Street, without pay, just to learn. I discovered that I was really good with my hands…so I ended up being a seamstress.”
A downturn in independent fashion threw her into waitressing and eventually catering. “All the caterers served really stodgy 80s stuff, but they did serve rice paper rolls. I just looked at them and thought, ‘That ain’t how you do rice paper rolls honey’.” She breaks into a cheeky grin. “We used to call them condom rolls amongst ourselves. So I started to make them for the caterers, with proper, fresh ingredients and not over soaked.” And the early idea for her tuckshop took root.
Chu’s unique gift is having the drive and determination to turn her ideas into a popular reality. “Anyone can have ideas,” she muses. “Go to a dinner party anywhere, have a few drinks and we’re all full of ideas, but not many people realise that’s actually the fun and easy bit. The hard bit is the execution. Everyone’s a director, but how many of us are producers?”
And Chu is certainly a producer, of her own visions. But despite a busy schedule, she managed to find time earlier this year for an inspirational trip back to her birthplace, Luang Prahbang, Laos.
“I went back this year for the first time and I felt galvanised. It opened up a part of me that was missing. I felt proud, sad and lost, but more than anything, lucky that I had all these things and experiences to draw on. You can’t buy those experiences, not that you’d want to,” she says of her early ears in refugee camps. “But the fact that I had gone through them and survived gave me this incredible edge in life. It’s a driving part of me and it’s made me very good at seeing perspective.”
She credits these life experiences with giving her the will to grasp opportunities as they present themselves. “I started with nothing. So losing everything tomorrow wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
So what’s the Queen of Rice Paper Rolls favourite dumpling? “Bánh cu?n,” she says without hesitation. “A steamed Vietnamese rice crepe… It’s a traditional Vietnamese dumpling as a roll. My grandmother used to sell this as a street vendor. She’d squat in the middle of the street with her travelling stove and make the crepes, only one type, the minced pork.”
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