• Thi Le has adopted this economical, sustainable approach at Anchovy, her acclaimed Melbourne restaurant. (Jana Langhorst)
For Anchovy's Thi Le, preventing food waste isn't a new trend but a lifelong lesson learnt from her Vietnamese mother.
By
Yasmin Noone

20 Nov 2018 - 1:38 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2018 - 11:55 AM

To some, success is measured by where you end up. To others, it’s determined by your starting point and your rise to the top.

Today, chef Thi Le is highly noted as the co-owner of the one-hat Melbourne restaurant serving Australian-Vietnamese fusion cuisine, Anchovy.

But Le wasn’t born into culinary fame. As the chef tells SBS, her starting point in life was influenced by the displaced environment she was born into.

“I was a transit baby – born in a refugee camp in Malaysia and spent a year there prior to landing in Australia with my mum and two older sisters,” Le explains.

When Le first arrived in Australia with her family, they moved locations a number of times until they finally settled in Doonside – a suburb in Sydney’s west. Le’s upbringing thereafter was one shrouded in a wealth of cultural experiences that made her the chef she is today.

“Mum would take us to Cabramatta after church every Sunday,” she says. “We would eat and shop in the area. Outside of the Sunday bubble, mum cooked Vietnamese food a lot at home when we were growing up and she still does so these days.

“I was lucky enough to have grown up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, as it was one of the most diverse areas to have grown up in. Many of my school lunches were traded for lunches of other ethnicities, from Lebanese through Filipino. In that sense, my experience of my heritage and its food has always been positive.”

The ideas for most of the menu items come from Le’s food memories – from the time she spent as a child in Sydney’s west, to her year-long trip travelling through Western Europe, Southeast and Northeast Asia, and current dining experiences.

“A dressing we paired with asparagus a few years ago came about because we were hungry at home and all that was available in the fridge was a jar of fermented beancurd and a jar of mustard greens and olives.

"Many of my school lunches were traded for lunches of other ethnicities, from Lebanese through Filipino. In that sense, my experience of my heritage and its food has always been positive.”

“Others evolve through a more structured thought process. A tempura cheese and Vegemite snack we had on the menu has fingers in several pies – from a custard snack on the streets of Taiwan, the use of Marmite in Southeast Asian stir-fries as a seasoning, a bizarre Bovril soup my partner once served me while trying to explain her childhood and my love of Laughing Cow cheese.”

Yesterday’s food values inform today’s food waste practices

Anchovy has been listed as one of Victoria's most celebrated restaurants in the newly released Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery: A Guide to the Truly Good Restaurants and Food Experiences of Australia. The book aims to showcase venues that are ethical and sustainable – as well as delicious. According to the guide, Anchovy’s menu offers “a story of heritage and displacement, and growing up in Australia at a time when scarcity of Asian ingredients meant making do”.

With ingredients being hard to get, Le was taught how to make every meal count. Her appreciation of available ingredients has since moulded Anchovy’s sustainability focus.

“I’m a stickler for reducing food waste,” says Le. “This mentality was drilled into me – mum was a big fan of using every part of an animal where possible. There is a Vietnamese duck dish that uses every part of the duck from the blood to its flesh through to its carcass. It’s also because, growing up, we were not very well off and I was always hungry.”

Anchovy currently composts and reuses offcuts in creative ways to reduce food waste.

For example, the kitchen boils the tough stems of asparagus and turns it into a drink for the bar.

“We go as far as insisting on only one bin pick-up a week (instead of two) so that we are forced to produce less waste as a restaurant. Staff education plays a big part in this.”

“This mentality was drilled into me – mum was a big fan of using every part of an animal where possible. There is a Vietnamese duck dish that uses every part of the duck from the blood to its flesh through to its carcass. It’s also because, growing up, we were not very well off and I was always hungry.”

The restaurant also gets whole animals in, so the kitchen can use all parts of the pig to create everything from terrines to scratchings, and crackling to pork chops.

“As far as customer meal leftovers go, dishes that consistently yield a lot of leftovers are reviewed. Portion sizes might be reduced or the dish is taken off the menu completely."

If anything, Le says the food and waste reduction practices at Anchovy are simple: a throwback to a time when life was less complicated and being mindful of food waste, was, perhaps, a natural consideration.

“My food is not complicated, and food should not be complicated,” says Le.

“If an Asian person can bring their mum in and mum is impressed, then I have done my job right.” 

Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery: A Guide to the Truly Good Restaurants and Food Experiences of Australia ($34.99) is edited by Jill Dupleix and distributed locally by Thames & Hudson Australia.

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