Anchovy co-owner-chef Thi Le: How to open a hatted restaurant on a tiny budget

Chef Thi Le was worried she lacked experience when she opened Anchovy.
Chef Thi Le was worried she lacked experience when she opened Anchovy.  Photo: Josh Robenstone

Chef Thi Le wanted to own her own restaurant by the time she was 35. She opened the doors to Anchovy, in Melbourne's Richmond, on her 30th birthday, so she's way ahead of schedule.

Much like Lee Ho Fook's Victor Liong, Thi Le grew up in Sydney's western suburbs. "But," she pauses. "I'm probably a bit more ghetto than Victor."

Le grew up in Doonside, a suburb of Blacktown, in Sydney's outer west. At the time, they were the only Vietnamese family in the area, which was mostly populated by Lebanese and Turkish families. In fact, most people thought they ran Eastern Phoenix, the local Chinese restaurant.

Calamari with kohlrabi, rice paddy herb and fermented tomato at Anchovy.
Calamari with kohlrabi, rice paddy herb and fermented tomato at Anchovy. Photo: Josh Robenstone

She describes her childhood as rough, and as a teenager she was a troublemaker. But she didn't exactly have an easy start.

Her mother, a refugee from the Vietnam War, escaped the country by boat to Malaysia with her husband and Le's two older sisters. Le was born in a Malaysian refugee camp, spending her first two years there before migrating to Australia. She has no memory of that time, only photographs.

Their father made his way to Australia first. When he arrived, he met another woman and quietly remarried. "Mum found out when she got over here. She's pretty strong-willed; she was like, 'See you later'."

I'm probably a bit more ghetto than Victor [Liong].

Her mother found another partner, and gave Le another sister. She describes her stepfather as controlling, abusive and strict. He beat the girls so badly, they'd have to lie when they went to the doctor with their injuries, which included cracked skulls. Her older sister tried to run away from home. Eventually, Le's mother left, and ended up raising four girls by herself with little money and no English.

It was a rough childhood, and strictly Catholic on top of that. And the fact that Le was gay didn't help. "[My mother] used to pray to Jesus every day," says Le, who had a girlfriend all through high school. "But she's all for it now, so it's good – she stopped praying.

"I was quite religious when I was young. I was like, if Jesus made us, why did he make people gay? I couldn't understand the actual concept of that. So I read the Bible back to front and nothing says you can't be gay. It just says, 'Don't commit adultery.' And I kind of went 'OK, I'm not going to church ever again'."

Advertisement

She was 17 when she visited Vietnam for the first time and spoke to her uncles about her mother's part in the war. "Going over there really woke me up," she says. "During the Vietnam War she helped a lot of people flee Vietnam, and she was up for execution. [People in] the village where she's from hid her in rice barrels. She was working for the US government as well."

After finishing high school, Le moved into a Redfern share house with no real plans. "All I wanted to do was get as far from Doonside as possible."

She enrolled in design school, met her partner at the time and decided to do some travelling through Europe. "We were going overseas to look at architecture, but that didn't really happen. I was more interested in the old ladies and their little food stories."

Since opening Anchovy restaurant on a shoestring, Thi Le and her partner have doubled the staff and gained a Good Food ...
Since opening Anchovy restaurant on a shoestring, Thi Le and her partner have doubled the staff and gained a Good Food Guide hat. Photo: Josh Robenstone

It was while she was staying with her partner's aunt in Leeds that she started thinking seriously about cooking. When she got back to Sydney, she put herself through TAFE, then went to work for Anthony Redondi at Aqua Dining in Milsons Point, on Sydney's North Shore.

Even as a junior chef Le was hot property. After taking part in a mentor program that Christine Manfield was running, the chef-restaurateur poached Le to work at her celebrated Darlinghurst restaurant, Universal. "It was like a family. We joked around, we hung out after work. When you're surrounded by people who want to be there, [the work] no longer becomes hard."

Le says Manfield mothered her "in a tough love kind of way", but also schooled her in the ingredients she'd pick up on her travels around the world. "She'd get really excited: 'Try this, try this, try this. What do you guys think?' So, there was a lot of input, just talking about how you felt about things. Anthony and Chris both really nurture their chefs and teach you to work collectively rather than individually."

Thi Le considers Christine Manfield a mentor.
Thi Le considers Christine Manfield a mentor. Photo: Anson Smart

She'd been working with Manfield for a couple of years when Andrew McConnell held the Sydney launch of his first book, Cumulus Inc., at Universal in 2011. Meeting him shifted Le's ideas about cooking and food. "There were so many things that went into all Christine's dishes, and here came this guy from Melbourne who did four elements on the plate and it was just as good. I was blown away by his simplicity."

So it was that Le, broken-hearted from a recent separation and in need of a change of scenery, found herself working at Cumulus Inc. in Melbourne, where she met her now girlfriend and business partner, Jia-Yen Lee.

Together, in 2015, they opened Anchovy in Richmond. Having never run her own kitchen, it was unchartered territory. "I said to my partner, 'I'm not ready. I need to go do chef things.' And she said to me, 'You'll spend the rest of your life learning. I don't know what the difference between now and five years is, because as a chef you never stop learning'."

The tiny but mighty modern Asian restaurant was created on the smell of an oily rag. The entire fitout cost less than $100,000, with much of the cooking equipment coming straight from Le's home kitchen. "I have a good friend who said to me at the time, 'Thi, it's your first restaurant. I'm sure there'll be many more to come, so don't let your ego get in the way'. We only had two pots, one pan, a couple of pizza trays. Barely anything."

To date, they've doubled their staff, secured a hat in Good Food Guide, and managed to create a restaurant that even Le's mum likes.

"I find a lot of Asian kids want to take their parents out somewhere nice to eat, and then the parents get there and they get quite upset because the dishes aren't flavourful enough or there's not enough chilli. They always pick at something.

"So I was like 'all right, I'm going to create a restaurant where Mum can sit in there and not say a single word'."

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to '90s R&B. I was listening to Ne-Yo the other day, deboning 140 quails.

After-midnight snack I tend to make a salad or two-minute noodles for my partner.

Kitchen weapon at work Mortar and pestle.

Formative food moment I was about eight years old, and Mum had made beef tartare. I think I ate two plates. It was just so good.

Non-cooking ninja skill I can kill any karaoke song. I'm such a bad singer. I can make the whole room go, "Oh shut up, Thi."