World chefs: Vietnamese street meets high finance

Posted at 10/27/2011 7:20 AM

LONDON, England - Making and selling Vietnamese street food may seem a world away from dealing in World Bank debt, but Anh Vu does both, and says that working a stall in East London markets sharpens the skills needed to thrive in investment banking.

Vu combines a job as a trader of supra-national debt for HSBC with running a market stall named Banh Mi 11, with her business partner, best friend and housemate Van Tran, who recently left a similar job at JPMorgan to focus on a growing business.

Vu and Tran sell banh mi, French-influenced baguette sandwiches that are found on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

They offer traditional fillings like pate, pork and coriander, but also draw inspiration from elsewhere in Vietnamese cuisine to concoct sandwiches such as grilled turmeric catfish, tossed with dill and spring onion.

Here they talk authenticity, multi-tasking and why they are expanding into pop-up restaurants.

Q: Why did you start the stall, you had plenty to keep you occupied with jobs in investment banks?

A: We missed really good banh mi. In some way we were naive, we just love food. Banh mi, is one of the things you can't really make at home, it's one of the things you have to go on the street to get.

When we lived in New York, we used to go from Queens to China Town to get a banh mi. And in Paris there are a few shops in the Vietnamese districts like Belleville. But you didn't get that here in London.

Q: What are the influences behind your Vietnamese sandwiches?

A: What we tried to do with Banh Mi 11 is capture the creativity of what the Vietnamese did with the French baguette and putting in roast pork, the pate and pickle, and making it something new. That meeting of cultural influences.

Q: There are currently plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in London, what makes what you so different?

A: Often you get a very watered down version of what things are (in London Vietnamese restaurants). We started with a purist perspective. We make everything from scratch. We want to know where all the ingredients come from. There are no additives.

Q: Anh, doesn't working as a market stall trader distract from working in an investment bank?

A: It helps me at my job, it's very real. It's dealing with real people, money and time, to deliver products that people tell you if it's good or not straight away.

Working at a bank, sometimes you don't get that honest, immediate feedback. It's the psychology of people, and that's what the market is ultimately, the psychology of people.

Q: You have branched out into pop-up restaurants, hosting three evenings, complete with an installation in an art gallery this month. Why are you diversifying?

A: We enjoy the fast pace, energy and speed of the street market. But there's so much more about Vietnamese food that's so creative, and it needs to be exposed to people in a more considered and structured way.

(We offered) a six to eight course meal so people get exposed to different things through the course of the meal. We try to take stock of what's original, and play with it a bit, and there's a lot of experimenting with food.

Q: What does the future hold for Banh Mi 11?

A: We weren't sure about the border between doing it as a hobby and as a job. But now we want to build a business that lasts a long time and it's sustainable. We want to do it right. We all feel like we're working toward something.