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Ones to watch: Anaïs van Manen

Ones to watch: Anaïs van Manen

by Pete Dreyer 01 May 2019

Anaïs van Manen doesn’t have her own restaurant, but between her own supperclubs, collaborative projects and development work for Bao, she’s making a serious mark on the London food scene.


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Born in Paris to a Vietnamese-Dutch family, Anaïs van Manen is a thoroughly well-travelled chef. She moved with her family to Vietnam at the age of three and lived there for fifteen years, absorbing the sights and smells of Ho Chi Minh City’s incredible street food scene before moving again to Singapore, then back to Paris, then to London, then to Bogota, and finally back to London, where I find her sitting in the window of her favourite café in Borough Market.

Right next door, a big team are hard at work putting the finishing touches on what will soon become Bao Borough. It’s the fourth permanent site for the all-conquering Taiwanese street food restaurant – fifth if you include stylish Soho offshoot Xu – and Anaïs has had a big hand in the opening, helping founder Erchen Chang with research and dish development. ‘Most of the time when we put a new dish on the menu, it’s the result of a really long discussion about how to bring this Taiwanese dish into Bao – how to modernise the flavour and adapt it for a different audience,’ she explains.

Bao Borough (affectionately nicknamed ‘BB’ by Anaïs) is taking a slightly different tack to previous sites. There will of course be baos aplenty – the BB menu includes a new chicken nugget bao alongside the usual selection, and there’s a grab-and-go hatch for takeaways – but there’s also a considerable yakitori section and a twelve-person karaoke room in the basement. ‘The vibe is based on late-night drinking bars,’ says Anaïs. ‘It feels like a Hong Kong canteen to me – it’s warm and comfortable, and we’re going towards more home-style cooking with the food.

‘We’ve been testing the karaoke,’ she grins. ‘There’s some Taylor Swift, and some Britney Spears, which is more my style! It's going to be fun and wild – that’s the idea behind BB.’

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Aside from her full-time development work at Bao, Anaïs also works on a multitude of other projects and supperclubs
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A pork crackling snack opens proceedings at Anaïs latest supperclub

One senses that BB is Anaïs’ baby. She and Erchen have been working closely on the menu since the beginning of the year and, with the launch just a week away, Anaïs is full steam ahead to get the restaurant ready on time. Handling research, development and new restaurant openings for one of London’s most successful food businesses would be more than enough for most chefs to get on with, but it’s just one of many plates that Anaïs is spinning at any one time. Bao presents ‘an opportunity to learn about other peoples’ food culture’, she says, but she’s just as interested in her own.

‘My Vietnamese upbringing influences me in all the other projects that I do,’ she explains. ‘I think that’s why I’m cooking it now, because it’s the food I miss the most.’ Vietnamese food in the UK ‘just isn’t the same’, she says, and whilst restaurants here often don’t do the food justice, Anaïs’ food is Vietnamese through and through, bursting with flavour and aroma from piles of beautiful herbs, pungent fish sauce and aromatics. ‘It’s also a question about sustainability,’ she adds. ‘Vietnamese food is as much about the ethos as it is about what’s on the plate – you don’t have to import all this produce. I try to get all my herbs from Luke Farrell at Ryewater Nursery in Dorset – he grows mainly Southeast Asian herbs and they’re all incredible!’

As well as running regular supperclubs of her own, Anaïs lends her considerable expertise to a number of other projects. One great example is Kitchenette Karts – a social enterprise street food truck that mentors young ex-offenders and shows them how to run their own self-sufficient food business. ‘We collaborated and put together a Vietnamese street food truck,’ says Anaïs. ‘I love anything where I can contribute my own food to create something positive.’

Then there’s Snackbar – an upcoming project from pickle guru and Lyle’s marketing manager Freddie Janssen. Inspired by the snack bars of her home in Maastricht, she has joined forces with Anaïs to create new café for a new world, with snacks like smoked eel onigiri, lamb satay, rice cake and cucumber acar (a type of pickle), and Vietnamese coffee ice cream with miso chocolate cookie that draw on the pair’s brash, in-your-face flavour palate. Once again, it’s not just about flavour but about philosophy; Snackbar is firmly aimed at being a café for the future, complete with an on-site hydroponic farm, a mushroom stand and a polytunnel at the back. ‘Freddie is one of my best friends here,’ says Anaïs. ‘We’ve been working together a lot – I want to help her create her vision of a café. Being able to be part of a project that is so much more interesting than just being a restaurant is amazing.’

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Banh Dap – crushed rice pancake with anchovy and peanut
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Clams, tomato jelly and hot mint

Anaïs spent the first few years of her career in restaurants – she started at Bones in Paris with James Henry, then spent time at Auberge de Chassignole before moving to London to work with Michael Hazlewood at Antidote and then at Trullo. ‘Bones was my first kitchen,’ she says. ‘I think those were my best days – there were just five of us and we were always in the shit. James Henry really had an impact on me – he has a very poetic way of handling food. Your first teacher is always the most memorable one, right?’ Her time with Michael Hazlewood was also fruitful, but eventually she found that restaurants just weren’t satisfying her on a creative level. ‘I feel like I have so much more to learn,’ she explains. ‘By having all these different projects I’m learning so much. For example, if you wanted to cook French food, you’d go and learn it from good French restaurants and work towards that. But living in London and wanting to do aboriginous Vietnamese food, where do I go? This way, I have the time to think and read about the philosophy and anthropology behind food – restaurants were restraining my creativity.’

Perhaps most importantly of all, Anaïs’ approach allows her to be a chef on her own terms. ‘I hate this idea that because you’re a chef you have to work in a restaurant doing double shifts and being shouted at,’ she says. ‘Food is just food at the end of the day – the idea that it belongs to an esoteric group is bullshit. I feel like chefs sometimes look down at people who don't understand their food. It's all too much; food should just be about eating together and enjoying each other’s company.’

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Cuttefish marinated in annatto and spices with grilled lime
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Charred purple broccoli in liver sauce

On top of supperclubs and her roles with Kitchenette Karts, Snack Bar, Bao and others, Anaïs devotes time to herself too. She throws her own pots. She loves art and design and films. ‘I also sing, for techno,’ she grins. ‘I have an EP coming out with a friend – we’re releasing something at the end of the year! I’ve been trying to make music recently, but it’s a complete fail when you have a restaurant opening and a café opening; you have no time to make music!’

There isn’t much in the way of free time in the horizon either – Anaïs heads out to Lisbon in July to cook ‘dirty Vietnamese food’ for sommelier Honey Spencer’s Bastarda project, and has various other things in the pipeline, including Feisty Feast in north London and an intriguing design-led venture exploring artificial flavours with food designer Alexandra Genis. ‘Basically I help loads of people, but it’s their work,’ she says in closing. ‘I’m just helping because I believe in them. Without them and the support of my friends, I wouldn’t be able to do any of the stuff I love doing.’

She may not have a restaurant of her own, but Anaïs is making her mark on food in London nonetheless, and having a pretty good time doing it too.

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Ones to watch: Anaïs van Manen

 
 

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