When Michael Le was growing up, weekends had an intoxicating smell: star anise, cardamom, and beef simmering in a fragrant Vietnamese broth. He didn't need a calendar to know what day of the week it was, because pho marked time so distinctly.
"We'd only have pho on the weekends," says Le, who currently runs Great Aunty Three in Sydney's Enmore. The noodle soup was a regular treat until he turned 10 when his parents divorced. "It always reminded me of my parents' togetherness."
The ritual of ripping Asian basil and squeezing lemon onto the broth, of lifting tangled rice noodles with his chopsticks, of slurping the beef-flavoured broth – these acts are all closely connected to his family.
He easily recalls the first "phenomenal" pot of pho his grandmother made for him. "I can still smell it, taste it and remember it. I was six."
She was famously particular about pho – refusing to serve it if she didn't have sawtooth coriander or enough lemon wedges on hand – and Le inherited her steadfast belief in appreciating pho the 'right' way.
"When you eat pho, you do not put sauce in the broth," he says. "It should be illegal!"
As a teenager, he loved the noodle soup so much he dreamed of opening a Vietnamese pork roll shop that also served pho. "Everyone laughed at me. They said, 'you'll never make money and who sells pho in a pork-roll shop?'" Le says.
"She could not get her smile off her face and I knew that I got her, I won her approval."
His extended family ran restaurants and bakeries, his father was a chef – they knew what they were talking about, so he believed their discouraging words.
"My parents dreamed of me having a corporate job with air-con, sick leave and a suit and tie. I got that for them, they were very proud," he says. "But I was dreading work after my ninth year."
Then he visited Vietnam and was struck by the "phenomenal" street food.
"I came back and I resigned in 2012 without a business plan," Le says. "I did all this behind my grandma's back. She was trying to get my uncles to talk me out of it."
They'd suffered business failures and didn't want him to endure the same challenges.
"My conviction was so strong, I had to hide from her. I wouldn't answer her phone calls," he says.
In fact, he successfully dodged her for six months as he scrambled to open Great Aunty Three. Le only shared his plans with his mother – but was so busy launching the restaurant that he didn't see his mum as often as he hoped. Soon after Great Aunty Three opened, his mother died. "She never set foot inside the shop."
The restaurant's launch was a bittersweet time. But with grief came celebration and reconciliation, too: his grandmother turned up at the grand opening in August 2012.
"She could not get her smile off her face and I knew that I got her, I won her approval," Le says. Which was a good thing, because she was plastered all throughout Great Aunty Three: his grandmother's face was the restaurant's logo. Le had named his dream restaurant after her (she's Grandma Ba, and Ba means 'three' in Vietnamese).
By establishing his restaurant, he was granting a long-held wish of his grandmother's, too.
Back in Vietnam, she'd run a successful restaurant and wanted to eventually launch one in Sydney. But at 50, she believed she was "too old" to make it happen. So three decades later, he opened Great Aunty Three in her name.
"She could have turned around and said 'get my face off there!'" Instead, she taught him how to master the noodle soup so he could realise his teenage dream of selling banh mi and pho.
In fact, she'd cook him a pot of pho so good that he'd take it directly to Great Aunty Three and sell it. Sure, it'd leak all over his car and ensure the seats smelt like spiced beef broth, but it was better than anything he could make.
He kept this charade up for a month: requesting a pot of her pho for 'research purposes', only to unladle it in his restaurant kitchen for customers. He knew hers was better because when he made it, "I failed and I lost a lot of customers," he says.
But he eventually produced a pho that patrons kept returning for by following her simmering and seasoning advice. "The funny thing is, customers love it," he says. "But it's not to grandma's level."
At the restaurant, Le replicates his grandmother's pho, which involves simmering the broth overnight for 12 hours. This recipe is his two-hour quick home-style pho. "I created this delicious pho recipe for people who love pho, but have a busy schedule."
- 5 small to medium brown onions
- 1 medium piece of ginger
- 20 g or 6 cardamon pods
- 8 star anise
- 10 g coriander seeds
- 5 g cloves
- 15 g cinnamon bark
- 3 cubes beef stock
- 500 g beef fillets
- 1½ kg beef brisket bones
- 500 g beef neck bone
- Himalayan pink salt
- Black pepper
- 1½ kg beef brisket
- 30 g salt
- 90 g rock sugar
- 35 ml fish sauce
- 2 kg rice noodles
- 1 bag bean sprouts
- 3 shallot stems
- 1 coriander sprig
- 1 small bunch sawtooth coriander
- 1 bunch Thai basil
- Lemon wedges, to serve
- Fresh chilli, to serve
- Hoisin sauce, to serve
- Fish sauce, to serve
- Sriracha chilli sauce, to serve
1. Add 5 litres of water to an 8-litre pot and bring to boil.
2. Preheat grill to 180˚C.
3. Place onions, ginger, spices and stock on a roasting tray.
4. Add beef bones to tray and sprinkle Himalayan pink salt and grind black pepper on bones.
5. Adjust oven to 160˚C.
6. Place tray in oven to grill for 15 minutes or until onions are golden-brown (be careful not to let the onions burn). Remove spices and crush them in a grinder, before wrapping the crushed spices in a cotton or muslin bag. Add the spices and everything from the tray (including the meat juices) to the pot of boiling water.
7. Add salt, rock sugar and 35 ml of fish sauce to the pot.
8. Add brisket to the pot and boil for 15 minutes on high heat.
9. Use a ladle to skim scum from the stock.
10. Reduce to low heat and simmer with lid on for 1 ½ hours.
11. Remove brisket after 1 ½ hours of simmering.
12. Cut brisket into thin slices.
13. Divide brisket evenly into 8-10 bowls.
14. Blanch rice noodles and divide into bowls.
15. Pour broth into each bowl.
16. Divide the veggies into the bowls, making sure to rip the basil before it's added to the broth.
17. Taste broth and add fresh-squeezed lemon to taste.
18. Serve pho with hoisin, Sriracha and fish sauces to taste.