A friend once told Yen Trinh that she should "date a chef or something". It was an off-the-cuff idea, meant to discourage her from going out with someone in her field of design.
But this advice turned out to be magically accurate: within weeks, she'd meet her future husband. Fast forward five years, they'd be married. Skip ahead two years and they'd be opening up a restaurant together.
But in 2012, none of this was obvious.
"At the time, I had won a design prize to travel, and Copenhagen was on my list," she says. "It's highly regarded in town-planner circles as one of the best cities for urban design."
So when she struck up an online conversation with a stranger, Copenhagen was a focus.
That stranger happened to be a chef. His name: Ben Devlin, and he'd just returned to Brisbane after two years working at Noma in Copenhagen. Named the world's best restaurant on four different occasions, Noma is known for its inventive, extensive menus featuring ultra-local ingredients such as spruce wood oil and sea buckthorn paste.
"At that time, I certainly didn't even know what Noma was! Nor what a tasting menu even was!" says Trinh.
That didn't matter.
As their onscreen exchange developed, it was clear they had other things in common, like Copenhagen.
"I don't remember Ben's exact words, but he described the city to me in a really beautiful articulate way. I had a gripe about how city design was communicated poorly in policy, and I remember thinking he wrote things the exact way I’d been advocating for in my work."
When they started dating, food played a headline role.
"He first met my family eating out at my parent's favourite pho noodle soup place," she says. "I was always nervous bringing Ben home to meet my parents, and my mum doesn't always speak much English, but they can both relate and talk about food."
On special occasions, her family dine at Upper Mount Gravatt's Chinese Garden restaurant and the lobster dish with noodles is a big favourite. So when Trinh and Devlin got married, "Ben made a twist on that for our wedding with Moreton Bay bugs," she says. "He also stubbornly made our other family tradition of prawn crackers from scratch for our wedding. The cheap store-bought ones would've been fine, I thought, but that approach is typical of Ben."
His way of going above and beyond is something Trinh depicts in her new project: the Chef Widow Club. The illustration series has helped her during a tough period for Pipit, the restaurant the pair opened last year in Pottsville in northern NSW.
The project has been something she's considered for years. Even before getting married in 2017, she wondered how she'd balance family life with the all-consuming hours of running a restaurant. The industry's unforgiving schedule meant that becoming a "chef widow" (what partners of some chefs are called because chefs often work anti-social hours - and in Trinh's case, because she hardly ever sees her partner outside of work) wasn't just a wry punchline, but a real possibility. On the Chef’s Table episode about Osteria Francescana's Massimo Bottura, his wife Lara Gilmore said she'd inadvertently "married a restaurant" by being with Bottura. That sentiment "really resonated with me", says Trinh.
"I created a blog to explore the topic and I had wanted to make it a panel event for a food festival – that never happened – and the project idea sat idle, until 2020," she says of the Chef Widow Club.
"Pipit and our [18-month-old] daughter Penny took over most of my life recently and I had lost balance with my illustration and creative passions," she says. "Drawing is my way to have a mental health break away from the restaurant, and this COVID-19 time has been a time to relook at many ideas I’d been procrastinating on."
So she restarted the Chef Widow Club. Today, it's a creative snapshot of hospitality couples: their how-we-met stories, as well as the first dishes they shared together.
Trinh began the series by illustrating the first thing Devlin made for her: calamari with pasta the chef created from scratch. "I found out pasta was the thing he first learnt and loved as an apprentice chef, and is still his fave thing to make at home," she wrote on the Chef Widow Club's blog.
The project is a way for her to "fight the weight of internet-troll negativity" after the heavy scrutiny she's faced since opening Pipit last year. Despite critical acclaim and recognition as Good Food Guide's Regional Restaurant of the Year, "at an already difficult time, we received a particularly negative message that felt like such a personal attack on Ben and that also tipped me over," she says. "I wanted a project to really highlight the human side of hospitality."
"I wanted a project to really highlight the human side of hospitality."
Pipit feels especially personal because it's Devlin's dream and she's here because of their relationship. She calls herself an "accidental restaurateur", but her many behind-the-scenes roles (in bookkeeping, marketing, HR, design, and being a very junior waiter if the occasion calls for it) helps Pipit thrive. Her outsider perspective means she can examine the restaurant's issues in a fresh way, too.
This dynamic is explored through the Chef Widow Club – as are the cultural connections created by food. Lily Pegus and Jay Elbrihi met at the back sink of Sydney's Quay; after learning that her dad's teriyaki barbecue steak was a favourite dish, Elbrihi recreated it with his own Thai herb salad and fish sauce improvements. Meanwhile, Dominique Lebel recalls partner Daniel Wehling making nopales the first time they met and how she tolerates his interesting-smelling "in progress" fermenting experiments. That's love!
"I started to draw these stories just for the fun of it, and reached out to [a] few 'chef widow' friends," says Trinh. "My aim is 100 drawings with 100 couples, and I'd like to even print them all in a book."
She's collected 24 couples and needs some help with expanding the 'membership'. Contact her if you'd like to share your story for the Chef Widow Club.
This light, airy mousse is excellent to spread on tigelle, light fluffy mini flatbreads from Emilia-Romagna.