Time, flavour and lots of love - Thuy Diem Pham wants us to get to the heart of Vietnamese cooking2nd May 18 | Lifestyle
Welcome to the world of The Little Viet Kitchen. Ella Walker finds out more.
Thuy Diem Pham is a chatterbox and a feeder, of the loveliest order. Attend one of her supper clubs and there might be five dishes on the menu but you’re guaranteed to be served six or seven, the food appearing as she recounts stories of a childhood spent in Vietnam, walking barefoot picking “stinky but delicious” durian fruit, helping on her grandparents’ farm and watching her mother make intricately layered broths.
Thuy (pronounced “Twee”), 36, moved to the UK aged seven, and three years ago quit a career in advertising to open a restaurant – and now has a cookbook to match too. The move into food began with being so inspired by restaurant meals that she’d go home and recreate them, while “pretending I was a chef on TV”, followed by a series of supper clubs (she and her husband and business partner, Dave, would drag their sofa up to their bedroom to make space for guests) and a blog. Things went so well that they eventually launched The Little Viet Kitchen (LVK) in north London.
The plan was to share “dishes from my village, dishes my grandma made that didn’t really exist anywhere else”, and to do it in a way that meant when you walked into the restaurant, you felt you were “being hugged”.
“If you went to a Vietnamese home, my goodness, love is all you would feel,” says Thuy. “In our culture, we don’t cuddle or give kisses, but we do it through food. That’s what brings us together.”
Part of her mission is to get people to taste “the wonderful flavours” she grew up with – “We were not rich in money, but we were so rich in the love through our food,” she recalls – and underpinning her philosophy is the belief that “food really tastes better if you understand it”.
Thuy explains: “In our home cooking, we don’t follow recipes, we follow the flavour and watch the ingredients we have. So if a tomato is a really dark red, it means there’s no need to put in as much sugar and salt, but if it’s green and a bit yellow, then you know it’s harder, it won’t be as sweet, but it’s got a lovely tang to it, which means you need to balance that out – that’s what my mum taught me, and I’ve kept all those tips with me, and I’m using them every day when I cook.”
But if you didn’t grow up among a family of Vietnamese women with exacting standards – Thuy was 33 when her mum finally said her cooking was ‘OK’ (“I went crazy in the kitchen!” she remembers happily. “That’s their way!”) – who cooked food suffused with love, history, tradition and intuitive knowledge, you need a cookbook that’ll show you the way. Hence Thuy’s debut recipe collection, also called The Little Viet Kitchen.
From baked sea bass with lemongrass, chilli and ginger and sticky ribs, to caramelised coconut catfish and Vietnam’s national dish, Pho (pronounced “fuh”), she acknowledges that it features some “really big recipes” – the kind you have to know if you truly want to fathom, and then master, Vietnamese cooking.
“They are time-consuming, but also real,” she says. “We work and then we have 30 minutes to cook dinner, which is a shame, but the truth; save my book for the weekend, when friends and family come over, and actually spend some time in the kitchen.”
You’ll certainly need to set aside a day if you’re to make her Pho, a shimmering broth laden with beef, fortified with oxtail and scattered with aniseedy Thai basil. “I spend too much time in the kitchen making broth,” says Thuy lightly, with a woe-is-me grin, “but it’s my kitchen, I’ll do what I want.”
In fact, she puts endless hours into her food, whether that means testing new recipes on her day off, or getting in at 1am from the restaurant and replying to all her social media comments before bed. “I look at my husband sometimes and I feel so bad – he’s shattered, his life was great before he met me,” she says with a huge laugh. “But it’s so worth it.”
Ask her what’s going through her mind while she cooks, and she says: “I want to cook things that make me happy; when I’m cooking I want to transfer what I’m feeling. You hope that your flavours and your seasoning will have the power to make someone smile.”
Then she adds: “I cook in fear a little bit – I just never want to become complacent. That fear makes me work harder and makes me taste everything 10 times. I stand at my pass and nothing goes out without me seeing that every detail on the plate is correct.
“That fear is because I want it to be perfect,” Thuy concludes. “Cook with love – I know it sounds really corny!”
The Little Viet Kitchen by Thuy Diem Pham, photography by David Loftus, is published by Absolute Press, priced £22. Available now.
© Press Association 2018