You don’t need to take our word that Thi Le is one of the most interesting chefs working in Australia right now – it’s a view shared by chefs across Australia who participated in our peer-voted Chef of the Year Award. Le is acknowledged as a highly talented and sharp-minded chef with an excellent and adventurous palate, but also as an original thinker with a holistic approach to the industry; someone not afraid to change things and who understands that mental and emotional well-being are vital to a successful business.
The recent decision to close (or, at least, put into storage) her loved and lauded Melbourne restaurant Anchovy is a great example of Le’s approach. Opened in 2015 with her partner Jia-Yen Lee, Anchovy immediately hit a nerve with Melbourne diners. A smell-of-an-oily rag operation with food billed as “Asian, Australian, a little bit in between”, Anchovy had moments that felt like the most original fine dining with its deft blend of influences: Le’s childhood growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, her Vietnamese-Chinese heritage, her work with chefs like Christine Manfield and Andrew McConnell. It was, as she has said, fusion food but fusion in terms of fusing memories, experience and tradition.
Pressing pause on Anchovy was partly about finding a more intimate space better suited to how Le wants to express Vietnamese cooking into the future, but it was also pandemic-influenced, that inevitable mix of exhaustion and re-evaluation. Also, a pandemic side hustle of selling takeaway khao jee pâté (the Cambodian cousin of bánh mì) not only became one of Melbourne lockdown’s greatest hits but begat a permanent bánh mì shop, Ca Com, where the concept of what a bánh mì in Melbourne can be was pushed and expanded with startlingly good results. It also sparked vital conversation around why this Vietnamese classic is expected to be ridiculously cheap, regardless of the labour and quality of the ingredients involved.
Highlighting Le’s work ethic and constantly engaged approach, the former Anchovy space is now a Laotian restaurant called Jeow, with a menu of spicy funky salads, curries and stews. Again, it’s inspired by Le’s childhood experiences of eating in suburban Laotian restaurants. Again, it brings her particularly balanced, nuanced approach that inevitably results in thrilling flavours. It’s there for now but there’s more to come too. It always does with a chef of this calibre. We can’t wait.