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Thuy Pham’s Little Viet Kitchen

Thuy Pham’s Little Viet Kitchen

by Tom Shingler 22 June 2017

Chef Thuy Pham is on a mission – to prove that Vietnamese food can be just as refined and beautiful as any other cuisine. She talks to Tom Shingler about the work she put into opening her own restaurant, the importance of herbs and how social media helped kickstart her success.


‘The one dish I would have to make anyone who hadn’t had Vietnamese cuisine before is pho,’ Thuy Pham tells me as we sit down to talk in her Islington restaurant, The Little Viet Kitchen. ‘The technique is ever so simple, but when you give someone this clear broth that looks a bit like water and they taste that first spoonful, you can see the amazement in their eyes. All those flavours all coming out at the same time, perfectly balanced so you can’t single them out – it’s something I love.’

I think most people will remember the first time they tasted pho – I certainly do. The intense, deep, aromatic flavour from something that looks pretty ordinary is one of the reasons the noodle soup is so popular. Nowadays there are restaurants all across the UK serving Vietnam’s national dish, made with beef, chicken or pork at a surprisingly low cost. Perhaps that’s why Vietnamese cuisine has gained a reputation for being cheap and cheerful; you get a lot of flavour for your money. But Thuy isn’t just knocking out the same old broth as anyone else – she’s taking the intense, fresh flavours and vibrant colours of her childhood and using them to prove just how good Vietnamese can be.

Thuy moved to London from southern Vietnam when she was just eight, but her parents were adamant she didn’t lose her roots. ‘My father always had a rule – in the house, we would always speak Vietnamese and eat Vietnamese food,’ she says. ‘It was so frustrating – surely I should be learning English so I can do things like talk to my teacher? But no, every Saturday Dad would spend three hours teaching us Vietnamese and every month we’d write a long letter to our grandparents back home. I just didn’t understand why; I could see kids playing outside but we were stuck in the house learning. But it’s only now that I understand why he did this, and I’m so thankful for it.’

Those weekends spent learning about Vietnamese culture certainly proved themselves useful when Thuy decided to give up her day job and start a restaurant with her husband Dave Kelly. But having a dream and making it a reality are two very different things. The Little Viet Kitchen opened in 2015, but only after some serious sacrifices and plenty of hard work. ‘Me and Dave had nice safe jobs in advertising, a mortgage – everything was sorted. But then I wanted to open a restaurant and all that went away. We were homeless for seven months, living in my mum and dad’s shed without any running water, and when the restaurant opened it was so hard to find staff that Dave ended up being the kitchen porter, a waiter a barman, even a plumber when the toilet flooded. I’ve worked about 120 hours a week for the past two years, and it’s only now I can get out of the kitchen and focus more on spreading awareness about the restaurant while our new head chef Ben looks after the cooking.’

It’s strange to think Thuy and Dave had to sacrifice so much to get The Little Viet Kitchen up and running – especially when I find out Thuy had a big following on Instagram and hosted incredibly popular supperclubs for about a year before it opened. ‘The first three hours our booking lines were open we got 600 reservations. It was amazing, but such hard work.’

The power of herbs

Thuy has never had any formal training as a chef, but it’s clear why her dishes are such a hit on Instagram – they’re beautiful to look at. Vietnamese food is known for packing a punch flavour-wise, but sometimes the presentation is lacking. ‘I remember when I first started taking photos of my cooking, and I knew something tasted nice but it didn’t look that good,’ she says. ‘From that point on my aim was to make Vietnamese food look pretty.’ Being born in the south of Vietnam means many of Thuy’s recipes are bursting with herbs and flavoured with coconut, which is a little different to north Vietnam (which is saltier) and central Vietnam (where dishes contain much more chilli). She used this to her advantage.

‘I really wanted to get people in the UK to see herbs as an integral part of a dish instead of just a garnish. Every herb we choose for a dish is there for a reason, but it’s usually served on the side. In our first few months we were throwing away so many because people just weren’t eating them – it was only when I started to actually explain they should be combined with the main dish that people realised how important they are. Preparing the bouquet of herbs, thinking about how it looks and how it will taste, is something I love doing more than anything.’

It’s clear that Thuy’s dishes look stunning, but if the flavour doesn’t live up to expectations, then the customers will soon stop coming. ‘Social media can be harsh – it got us to where we are now, but it can take it all away again too,’ she says. ‘When people come here I want them to look at the food and be wowed, take a picture, start eating it and be even more impressed. I just want to spread the word about proper Vietnamese cooking and show that it can be so much more than the quick, cheap and tasty stuff that’s in many other restaurants.’

After discovering how The Little Viet Kitchen came about, I realise it’s pretty much the perfect example of a modern restaurant. Thuy used social media and informal supperclubs to generate a following before opening – then, she took a cuisine she knew inside out that was already loved in the UK and did something new with it. Over the years since opening, she realised how important it was to ensure there were plenty of vegan and gluten-free dishes on the menu and has always used organic meat – purely because it tastes better, despite the expense. With a huge following and a successful restaurant, those months living in a shed with only an hour or two sleep each night appear to have paid off. But she says there’s still more work to be done.

‘I want more people to eat homely Vietnamese food that’s made without cutting corners. By taking the best of Vietnam and the best of London, I’m trying to create something that proves Vietnamese ingredients and food deserve to be just as respected and well regarded as any other cuisine. I never set out to make money doing this, and I think that’s obvious in the fact we use the finest organic ingredients and make everything to order from scratch. I feel like I’m representing my country with my restaurant, and the pressure to get it right and for fellow Vietnamese to trust my cooking is huge.’ But after looking round the restaurant (which Thuy designed herself – she credits a youth spent making things from Blue Peter as the reason for her creativity), looking at and tasting her incredible interpretation of southern Vietnamese cuisine, it’s pretty safe to say she’s got no reason to worry.

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