Thi Le is standing over a bench in the kitchen of her award-winning Richmond restaurant, Anchovy. She’s getting organised for a Friday lunch service: filling containers, sorting mise en place and letting me interview her; a generous thing for a chef to do on their busiest day of the week.
Since opening her modern Vietnamese diner on Bridge Road 18 months ago, she’s been heralded as a game-changer. One who meticulously bridges the gap between heritage and environment, taking foundation from a culinary culture and placing it intelligently into a contemporary context.
What excites her is “balance”. “When you eat something there needs to be acidity and heat, back tones of spices,” she says. “You don’t want a low tone or a high tone, it needs a mid-tone and when you’ve got all those elements complete in one mouthful, it’s a flavour bomb.”
Le moved to Melbourne from Sydney about five years ago. She’d worked for Christine Manfield at Universal in Sydney and had toyed with the idea of moving to Melbourne. Then, “I split up with my partner and I realised the chance to move to Melbourne was there”.
Her first job here was with Andrew McConnell at Cumulus Inc. She remembers her first meeting with McConnell at Universal when he was in Sydney to launch his book, Cumulus Inc.
“I was blown away by Andrew’s food,” she says. “In Christine’s kitchen, each dish would have 20 ingredients, no less and Andrew’s dishes had four ingredients. It’s the complete opposite but just as good in a different way.”
She was impressed with his approach to simplicity – “three or four ingredients has to be perfect,” she says – and when she moved to Melbourne she was impressed with his and his staff’s attention to detail. “A lettuce leaf tastes like a lettuce leaf. He [McConnell] treats it [food] with justice and doesn’t stuff around too much with the ingredients.”
She also worked at McConnell’s Supernormal and moved to Carlton’s The Town Mouse before opening Anchovy. Restaurant ownership is not easy but it’s working for her. “I am the hardest critic on myself, I want to do so much better all the time,” she says.
Le was studying interior design when she decided to become a chef, “I thought I wanted to own a cafe,” she says, laughing. “And it would be good to understand it all properly so I decided I’d become a chef.” She sought a restaurant away from Asian flavours, “If you’re an Asian kid you want to be a white kid,” she smiles, “Is that okay to say?”
Her family moved to Australia when she was two years old and she remembers, “watching TV and it was like all these brands were there that we never ate, like Old El Paso.” Le shares one of her “packet dishes” that she thought was pretty outstanding: “I’d get macaroni cheese in a packet, add a tin of tomato, mayo, canned tuna, mix it, bake it and I thought it was the best thing ever.”
She learned Italian cooking under chef Anthony Redondi at Aqua Dining in Sydney’s Milson’s Point.
“I was older than most (24) when I started my apprenticeship, and when I met with Anthony he was different to other chefs. It wasn’t ‘I’m your boss’ but more ‘if you want to cook I’ll teach you.’ He was more of a mentor.”
Redondi also taught Le the importance of the staff meal. “There was fresh bread made for the staff and desserts, always a salad on the table. Everyone had to sit down regardless of what you had to do,” she says, “and he would say that we all need to eat and someone will help you if you’re behind.”
Le does the same with her staff saying that in the 18 months they’ve been open, staff meal was missing on just two nights.
The staff of seven is a solid unit. The team is made up of all women and Le says, “Boys don’t last in this kitchen, they’re surrounded by chicks telling them what to do.” Do men still struggle to take direction from women in the workplace? “I feel that way about it,” she says.
On the constant drought of good staff in the industry I ask what might get a good chef applying for a job? “Tasty doesn’t draw chefs anymore,” she says.
“Instagram,” she sighs.
“If I put a pic of a Nordic-looking food up with five filters and … I’m going to get a lot of young chefs applying.”
For Le, her frustration with the obsession of image and social media followings in the industry is only equal to her awareness of mental health issues of those who work in it.
“Our industry is so anti-social,” she says, “I’ve seen a few chefs where they’ve hit a point in the kitchen and their work is amazing but outside, their life is falling apart. They’re out drinking, their marriage is failing and the boys just push on and say, ‘don’t worry’.”
She believes the head chef needs to step-in and feels she’s now in a role where she can keep an eye on her staff and support them. Although, she admits life as a restaurant owner can be lonely. “Everyone assumes you’re okay and well, but it’s different now, there’s no time for family or friends,” she says. “As an owner there’s 10 times more pressure than before. There needs to be support.”
Le was recently a contributing chef for a dining event called Food for Thought, which was about raising funds and awareness for mental health in the hospitality industry. I ask if this, and other events like it, are the way forward to create public awareness of the difficulties in the industry.
“No,” she says. “The work-life balance of the chef will come down to the consumer. When consumers are ready to pay what it actually takes to put good food on the plate, then we can start focusing on balance in work and in life for chefs. But until that day, it’s never going to happen.”