CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | THI LE
By Jo Rittey
Thi Le is my favourite chef. Her way with flavour is astounding. Eating at her restaurant, Anchovy, is like embarking on a voyage of discovery where every dish that arrives on your table is your new favourite. Thi is also co-founder of The Dinner Project, an Australian not-for-profit venture, raising money for charities through dinners created by a range of passionate chefs from across the city.
Where did the cooking come from?
My family has always been food oriented. But I started cooking professionally; started my apprenticeship in 2009. Prior to that I was just in kitchens paying off school. I didn’t every think I’d become a chef. I was studying Interior Design then I went traveling, backpacking and it progressed from there.
You’ve cooked with big name chefs. What have you taken from them and how have you made it your own?
The first chef I ever worked for was Anthony Redondi at an Italian restaurant on the harbour in Sydney. From there I learned the simplicity of produce and the simplicity of doing something as simple as a tagliatelle pasta with a bit of crab and some cherry tomatoes and that was it. I also learned the importance of the staff meal from him. I find a lot of places forget about this these days because they are so busy. Regardless of how busy you were, Anthony made us sit down. There was always bread, coffee, tea, salad or vegetables and a protein. It was a meal. Which is nice and brought the team together. I took that from him. He was a placid chef as well, which was good.
Out of all the chefs I’ve worked for, Christine (Manfield) was probably the greatest mentor. Universal was ahead of its time back in the day. The use of spices, the fusion. Everything was about the layering of flavours and textures. If there was something sharp, there would always be something spicy. I learned how to use my palate there. She taught me a lot about balancing flavours and foods. There I learned that you don’t have to start chefing at 16 and have 15 or 20 years under your belt to be good. She was in her second or third career. She opened a restaurant site quickly and she just pursued it and you see a woman now in her sixties and she has done it all. You think, if she can do it, I want to do it.
While I was working there I met Andrew. He was doing his book launch for Cumulus Inc. At Universal, everything has twenty ingredients and then you meet Andrew whose food is so elegant and simple and restrained. There are five ingredients. It’s as good as twenty. It was all about produce. I did a trial at Cutler and a trial at Cumulus and Cumulus was more in line with what I wanted to do. I stayed with Andrew for a while, then moved on to the Town Mouse for a bit then opened my own place.
Why Anchovy as a name?
We wanted a name that screamed Asia but wasn’t too literal. The foundation of Southeast Asian cookery is fish sauce. Fish sauce is made from anchovies and so it was a subtle way of introducing that.
When people come to Anchovy, what’s the experience you would like them to have?
I think we allow people to experience the food in their own way. But what I would like them to know about Anchovy is that it’s about nourishing; it’s about the abundance of food. We try to keep it as simple as possible but still have all the flavours behind it. I want people to feel how I felt with my mum, my family, my friends.
A lot of people ask about all the different cultures in my food. If people knew me and knew how I grew up it would make more sense but when you just look at the menu, there’s a lot of things going on. I really think I need to explain this. Where I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, it was so diverse. We were the only Vietnamese family in the area, growing up in Australia and having friends who were Turkish, Lebanese, Filipino, Tongan, Samoan, Italian and Greek. Everyone shared food and wandered around in places like Granville where it was just so diverse. You’ve got delis, Asian bakeries, Turkish grills, Chinese. It is how I see Modern Australian. That’s why my food has those elements.
What made you embark on The Dinner Project?
At that time I was working at Universal and we were all having discussions about how food should be accessible to everyone regardless of how much money you have. I find it hard to understand why good food costs so much more than…well, bad, or poor quality, food. We also talked about how if you’re not out in the cheffy scene, you become isolated. The kitchen is all you know, unless you go out after work to hospitality hubs. It’s hard to get to know other chefs. I don’t have a network because I started later and was older than all the other apprentices I went through with. So it was about how do we could do something that gives back to the community, enabled us to meet new people and do the thing we love; creating good food. And that’s how it came about.
338 Bridge Road, Richmond