As the son of Vietnamese refugees, Asian food has always been close to Minh Le’s heart. He grew up around Cabramatta and learned to cook working at one of his friend’s Vietnamese restaurants in the south-western Sydney suburb when he was a teenager. His dad used to take him fishing in the mornings, and the catch would be that night’s dinner. Thanks to this experience, Le prioritises sustainability. “My family came from a coastal village in central Vietnam, so they predominantly ate seafood,” he tells Broadsheet. “I didn’t really eat much meat when I was growing up, it was mostly seafood and plant-based food.”
These influences shine through on the menu at Bonito, the restaurant in the new five-star Hotel Marvell in Byron Bay. Ingredients include wild-caught fish from Nautical Wholesale Seafood, which also supplies acclaimed restaurants like Neil Perry’s Margaret at Double Bay, Pipit at Pottsville and nearby Rae’s Dining Room, as well as meat from Bangalow Sweet Pork, and vegetables from Conscious Ground Organics in Myocum.
It was a two-year stint at the luxury Spicers Peak Lodge in Queensland’s Scenic Rim that led to Le’s passion for farm-to-table dining. “Working at Spicers changed my perception of how I view food,” he says. “Before that it was more about technique, but now I think of it from more of a sustainability aspect, and there’s definitely a lot less ego for me now. Because we were in the middle of nowhere, we had no choice but to use produce from the surrounding farms. It’s important for the future of food. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect food is going to be there.”
Before Spicers, Le had his own 30-seat restaurant, The Foraging Quail, at New Farm in Brisbane. Attracted by the lifestyle – including the opportunity to go for a surf before work – he moved south of the border to take up a position at The Byron at Byron (now Crystalbrook Byron) pre-pandemic, and has also worked at paddock-to-plate pioneer Harvest at Newrybar and popular Asian eatery Bang Bang. He was enticed to the exciting new development by owners Scott Didier and Scott Emery and general manager James Pearce. “Conceptually they gave me free rein,” he says. “It’s almost like owning your own restaurant. I have incorporated a lot of my heritage into the style of food. It’s very Asian, and not very pared back. It’s more in-your-face flavours. That’s just the way you eat food in Asia, and how I grew up eating it.”
Dishes served at the stylish restaurant, which spills out to a laneway draped with hanging vines, include hiramasa raw kingfish with Thai pesto, kaffir lime and coconut; Bangalow Sweet Pork loin with a Chinese barbeque glaze, celeriac and sugar snaps; and banana sponge cake with wattleseed dulce de leche and coconut sorbet.
“Ten years ago, I would never have considered coming to Byron,” 46-year-old Le says. “It was still a small hippie town. But in the past few years it has turned. Having good chefs come here has lifted its profile. It’s a small community and most people support each other, whereas in the city you don’t get that camaraderie.”
A pool sits atop Hotel Marvell, offering a stellar spot to catch the sunset, in or out of the water. A rooftop cocktail bar completes the experience, with a snackier menu from Le joining Marvelltinis and the Siam Delight, a fruity sip with a base of pandan-infused vodka.
4 Marvell Street, Byron Bay