“A restaurant was never in the plan. The dream was to travel the world and work on my laptop from the beach. But, when I say the world – it was actually the airport.”
At one point, Thuy Pham’s passport had stamps from different countries all around the world, but she remembers feeling as if she hadn’t ever left London. It was a half-hearted lifestyle that Pham was eager to leave behind.
So, in 2015, after nine years of working in the advertising industry, she decided to give up her career, marry her boyfriend Dave, and together, they opened the Little Viet Kitchen in London’s borough of Islington.
“Now, my hair is always greasy and smells of spring rolls,” she says.
It may sound like a rash decision, but it’s almost as if her whole life was working towards this, without her really realising it.
Pham grew up in Vietnam, selling street food in her local village with her sister. At the time, she didn’t think she was poor. She just noticed that she was always surrounded by delicious food.
Yet, it wasn’t just her obsession for food that pushed her to open a restaurant; it was her mother’s dream to have a restaurant and something Pham had wanted to do so her mother could experience it.
In the middle of February of 2018, Pham recalls a time when one of her cooks called in sick. She found her mother waiting on the front step of her restaurant, ready to help.
“My mum taught me patience. It’s not natural to my personality,” Pham explains – something which is crucial to making a great broth, the base of the traditional Vietnamese dish, pho.
“Maybe it’s the one dish my mom thinks I’ll never perfect,” says Pham. “But I don’t want it to be, as then she wouldn’t be in the kitchen with me, perfecting it.”
More than anything, Pham appreciates her mother because she ensures that the she doesn’t compromise the flavours of authentic Vietnamese food in order to please her customers.
“It’s so hard,” says Pham. She explains that it becomes difficult when customers come into her restaurant with certain expectations.
“I came in saying, ‘I’m not going to tweak any of my dishes.’ But, in the south of Vietnam, their dishes are slightly sweeter. In the northern part of Vietnam, they are saltier. And in the middle, they are spicier. We can’t cook all three versions, but I’ve tweaked it so it’s in the middle. I’m trying to work for all my customers.”
Pham recalls a moment when a stranger asked her: “Isn’t all Asian food the same?”
Although that comment discounted her heritage, her upbringing and her profession, she responded with grace, explaining the difference between Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines. Certain ingredients, such as basil, cinnamon, and lemongrass make her culture’s food sing.
But the mission behind her restaurant is bigger than making her customers happy, or even her mother. It’s to empower a generation of women who didn’t have the opportunities that she had herself.
In her culture, Pham explains, it is the duty of women to be in the kitchen, but she clarifies: “I’m not here because my husband says so, or for my father or my grandfather. I want females to be in the kitchen because they want to.”
She hopes more Asian women become professional chefs, to empower women to create things and to enlighten the world about how unique Vietnamese food is.
“I can’t blame people for not appreciating Vietnamese food; they didn’t grow up learning about it.”
Pham is doing what she can to popularise Vietnamese food with her restaurant, but she hopes that her first cookbook will expose even more people to the basics of Vietnamese food. Already, 5,000 copies have been published in German.
“I wrote this book because it’s my story,” she says.
Pham explains that she approached the project as if it was her only opportunity to write a cookbook. To her, that meant that it had to not only include her favourite recipes, but the inspiration behind them.
Throughout the book, she has included personal stories of her childhood, her family, as well as anecdotes about traditional Vietnamese dishes. Her voice, combined with her authentic recipes, has allowed her to translate her passion for Vietnamese food, not only as a cuisine – but as a way of life.
Her restaurant is just as personal as her cookbook, and in turn, has resonated with her customers.
She recalls one week; she had two separate couples come into her restaurant with awful news: both couples’ IVF treatments had failed. The couples were both native to London, but instead of seeking solace at home, they went to The Little Viet Kitchen.
Pham was touched. For her, all the work she and her husband put into the restaurant is worth it when it has the power to bring people comfort.
It’s in those vulnerable, personal moments that Pham rolls her eyes, recounting all the advice they were given when they first decided to open their restaurant.
She remembers that people warned them “don’t buy cushions because people will sit too long”.
Instead, she bought double the amount of cushions she needed, just so she could replace them when they get dirty. To her, the whole purpose of a restaurant is to create comfort, whether it is with food or the atmosphere.
This being said, she also makes sure her restaurant is authentic to herself, and in doing so, the design of the restaurant is deeply personal.
Pham reveals that each table at her restaurant is dressed with the vases she had at her wedding and even the colour scheme of grey and pink is the same. And instead of going on a honeymoon, they used the money to buy chairs for their restaurant.
“My friends came in and said, ‘Did you just move your wedding into the restaurant?’”
They even dragged in a tree to the restaurant because Dave loves walking in forests.
Yet, the most special detail can be found in the corner of the restaurant: she put up the wallpaper that she had planned to put in her baby’s room.
At age 46, Pham hasn’t ruled out having children, but explains that if she and her husband ever have one, she’ll make sure to love it with her whole heart – the way her mother has loved her.
For now, Pham and her husband have decided that this restaurant is their baby.
“We’ve given it everything. This is our dream that has come true.”
Lucky for them, the dream isn’t over yet. The restaurant’s success has opened doors to other exciting opportunities, like creating a cookbook with complete creative control.
From start to finish, Pham spent two years making the book. From styling photo shoots to perfecting each and every recipe, Pham poured herself completely into the process.
As for the next door to open, that is unknown. Pham explains that she is staying open minded to what her next project will be. For now, she is looking into where she and her husband will go on their well overdue honeymoon – they’re three years married. But no matter what, it is doubtful that they’ll take too long of a holiday.
“I don’t have to be anything. My job is to send out the most genuine best food I can,” she concludes.
Even though her career doesn’t allow her to jet set across the world any longer, Pham couldn’t feel any more free than in her kitchen.
‘The Little Viet Kitchen’ by Thuy Diem Pham is out now. Photography by David Loftus. Published by Absolute Press (£22)
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