Chance Change and Opportunity with Thi Le
Thi Le’s life has been punctuated by ‘sliding door’ moments.
Born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Le came to Australia with her Vietnamese mother as a young child and grew up in Doonside in Sydney’s west.
“Yeah, I’m an Asian kid in Australia, so I didn’t really fit in with the kids there and then going to relatives’ houses in Cabramatta, I didn’t really fit in with the Viet kids either, because I was different – a little bit odd,” she laughs
Co-owner and chef of Richmond’s highly regarded Anchovy restaurant, Le’s aspirations didn’t always lie in the kitchen.
Explore Best Australian Wines
“I was studying interior design and I decided to take a year off and go to Europe. But I started off in Asia and just loved going to the markets and hearing people’s stories,” Le says. “Talking about food with the locals, they’d just open up.”
Le spent three months in Vietnam and three in China learning about the heritage of dishes and techniques.But it was a fortuitous meeting in the UK that saw her change direction, when her former partner’s aunt told her to look her up if she ever wanted a job in a restaurant back home. Thinking it could be interesting, Le took up the offer on her return in 2008.
A rocky start
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, however. Le arrived at the Hunter Valley café to find the head chef had gone to rehab and the sous chef was about to leave.
“All of a sudden I was by myself with two kitchen porters. The first Saturday night was a complete disaster – I cried from the moment service was over until four in the morning when my partner drove in. I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again, what was I thinking?’”
Her then-partner talked Le into giving it another go and so she began fast tracking her culinary knowledge, devouring cookbooks and practising technique. Three months later she left the café and moved back to Sydney for a more traditional training year at Ultimo TAFE.
“When I finished, I applied for all these jobs at hatted venues, but no-one would hire me and I didn’t understand why – I had my piece of paper, my qualification. Then the then head chef of Ormeggio said to me: ‘Look, you’re old and you don’t have the skills. Why would we hire you over an apprentice?’ He told me most of his cooks go through a four-year apprenticeship. So, I decided to start again, that way.”
Having ‘re-branded’ as an apprentice, Le landed a job at Aqua Dining followed two years later by 18 months at Christine Manfield’s Universal. Le then moved to Melbourne, honing her skills further at Cumulus, Luxembourg and Town Mouse. She also met her partner, Jia Yen Lee and in 2015, the couple decided to open a venue together.
“A charcoal chicken shop – you know, nice chickens from a farm, cooked over fire with all Asian condiments,” Le says. “We had a really tight budget and I was on eBay trying to bid for this rotisserie. I got outbid, and I don’t know whether it was through anger or something, but I impulsively bought this combi oven for two grand instead and I was like, ‘Okay, what am I going to do with that?’”
The couple had just signed the lease for the Bridge Road space and realised that rent was probably too high for their charcoal chicken concept and they were going to have to turn it into a restaurant.
Le and Lee’s revised vision was for cheap, fast and hip Asian food where all the young kids would go. Their vision might have changed, but their budget hadn’t and Le says the fit-out consisted of painting everything white and putting in concrete communal tables and stools.
“But the majority of people who started coming to Anchovy were like 50-plus and no-one could actually sit on the stools. It was a disaster,” Le says.
The coup de grâce came one night when a potential diner stood at the door yelling abuse about the lack of seats.
“I think that’s when we realised that we had to renovate and actually turn it into a restaurant space.”
Le’s deft, creative cooking quickly caught the attention of critics, with Anchovy collecting a coveted chef’s hat the year after opening.
Melbourne’s long lockdown put a temporary halt to dining in, but the couple weathered the Covid storm with a highly successful takeaway menu, potentially introducing Anchovy to a new audience.
They rounded off 2020 with a collaboration with Sutton Grange Winery in Bendigo, putting on sell-out weekend lunches. The uptake blew Le away. It also gave her a chance to return to her culinary roots, something she’s hoping to continue once Anchovy re-opens.
“The last six months, I’ve been talking to my mum on a daily basis – I’ve never been this close to her. It’s nice as a chef, focussing on my roots. While in the past, I’ve done Viet, Laotian, Philippine – all over the place, I think I’d like to showcase Vietnamese a bit more.”
It’s not the only possible change to Anchovy. Le is also considering changing the restaurant’s a la carte menu to a set one after successfully modelling it at Sutton Grange, both for efficiency and to better showcase the menu. She’s also considering implementing the pre-paid system they’ve been using at Sutton Grange.
“I think it’s time for a re-set and diners will be okay with it – people are more appreciative about restaurants because it’s a luxury to eat out,” Le says. “We’ll just be taking it week by week, but I feel so energetic and excited about life.”
For Thi Le recipes and more, subscribe to the Selector Magazine.
You might also like