A restless talent, she’s the creative force behind Anchovy, a restaurant that did things with Vietnamese food seen neither in Australia nor anywhere else in the world, and wood-fired banh mi success story Ca Com. Most recently, she brought us Jeow, Anchovy’s ground-breaking Laotian successor, which just celebrated its first birthday; here’s how she reflects on her truly singular restaurant, one year on.
My business, Jeow, is best known for flavour and spice. Customers often say it’s unique as dishes with this much flavour are hard to come by in Melbourne.
How did Jeow first come to be? I wanted to take a break from Anchovy and wanted to open a venue that did not revolve around either of us, which guests dining at Anchovy had come to expect. I also wanted to cook food that I loved eating while I was growing up.
How has Jeow as a business grown since then? There is increased confidence in the food we serve – it will not always be what customers want or expect (deep-fried, boneless things for example). Instead, we look at how we can showcase Victorian producers in the best light while serving classic Laotian dishes that we think best reflect the cuisine on a small menu.
I celebrated Jeow’s one-year anniversary by talking about closing it down and reopening Anchovy.
My favourite dish is the mawk gai, which is cockerel (by Chooks at the Rooke) broken down with bones still in, and wrapped inside banana leaves with chestnuts, mushrooms and herbs that typify northern Laotian cuisine. It’s a seasonal dish that highlights the produce; it’s so fragrant and light, and it represents the essence of the cuisine. It’s served on the bone, and we know that that’s where flavour lies, though things on a bone seem to be an oddly hard sell.
Some challenges I’ve faced have been staffing and staff motivation, which has turned out to be a lesson in mental-health preservation. As I mature with the food and beverage industry, I find myself teaching my team not just to be chefs but also to be adults, how to hold themselves, how to get through their day to day.
My greatest supporters have been repeat customers who have ended up being mentors and sounding boards through life and business. They consistently remind me to keep focused on the end goal, regardless of what may rear its head along the way.
An unexpected new skill I’ve learnt is venue demolition and restoration.
The ingredient I never knew I’d need is padaek. Lao padaek is more rounded and adds more depth than even fish sauce. There’s more body, and it adds more complexity to soup-based dishes, and its versatility has been something I’ve not been able to get over.
If someone asked me for advice on opening their new venue, I would tell them one: understand what your motivation is before commencing, it will help you get through the hardships you will face. Two: rely on resources around you to achieve what you need and don’t attempt to do it all yourself as you’ll stretch your own capacity in every sense.
I’m most proud of what we have achieved collectively in eight years, first as Anchovy, then as Jeow, and all the new relationships we’ve made.
And I’m excited about the future because opening Jeow gave me the break I needed to refocus on Anchovy, and I am excited about reopening Anchovy.
This final question was asked by last month’s featured business owner, Stef Condello of Stefanino Panino: What’s the best pizza in Melbourne and why? I like Freddy’s in Windsor. It’s close to home, it’s a consistent product, they have a great selection of vegetable-leaning pizzas and they make a mean limoncello.
Catch Thi Le cooking with Adam Liaw at The Village Feast, 18 November, 2023.