On a return visit to Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago, Duc Le made his way to one of the city's thousands of quán ốc or snail restaurants. At a popular spot in District 3, Le ate snails with the house-made sa tế condiment – and it was a revelatory experience.
"It was the one of the best sa tế I ever tasted," he recalls. "I loved the flavour."
The meal inspired 'District 3 pasta', one of the signature dishes at Kinx Café in Bankstown. For the rich sauce, Le uses components of sa tế, including dried shrimp, shallots, lemongrass, chilli and fish sauce, to create a buttery French-style sauce to accompany prawns and other seafood.
The pasta dish is just one of the many appetising offerings on the ever-evolving menu, which features a wide range of savoury and sweet options.
"The menu is for everybody. It's for the simple eater, it’s for the fancy eater, it's for the people in-between," says Le. "You've got your toast, you've got your rice bowls, you've got fancier dishes too."
Kinx has all the café classics, though many have an Asian twist. Japanese and Korean ingredients feature heavily on the menu. You can order eggs with Lao lemongrass sausages and đồ chua, the pickled carrot and daikon found in bánh mì thịt. There's the option to have an omelette with lap chong (Chinese sausage) and served with rice - eaten the typical Asian way.
Le's deep knowledge of his homeland's food is evident with the use of lá lốt (betel leaves) in the wagyu cheeseburger and a show-stopping deconstructed phở dish. The plant-based dishes include a reinterpretation of a popular vegan Buddhist dish found all throughout Vietnam.
The innovative, seasonal menu at Kinx reflects Le's appetite for bold flavours. His new ideas often come from research and experimentation, as well as childhood memories of growing up in Vietnam until the age of 11.
"I was always very fascinated with food," says Le. "My grandmother, my mother and my sister are all good cooks."
After migrating to Australia in 1997, his mother worked hard to singlehandedly raise Le and his sister. This included years of working in the kitchen of Cabramatta institution Dong Ba Restaurant.
"She worked seven days a week. She'd leave at 8am in the morning and wouldn't come home till 9.30pm at night."
When Le decided he wanted to be a chef at 23, his mother was against it because she knew just how hard the work is. She passed on her strong work ethic, however, and Le spent the next decade working in the kitchens of restaurants across the city. This included a long apprenticeship at Fat Panda in Canley Heights.
"It was where I learned how to work the kitchen, how to be fast, how to be efficient," he says.
Le has long harboured the dream of opening up his own establishment. When he signed the lease for Kinx at the end of 2019, however, he and his wife Tina Hoang had a five-month-old son to consider as well.
"I was supportive," says Hoang, who co-manages the café. "I just wanted him to do whatever he does best."
Their now one-year-old son is named Kingston, hence the café's name.
"If you have a son born in the year of the pig, it will increase your wealth and success – that's what the thầy bói (fortune-teller) said," laughs Hoang. "That's why we named the café after our son."
Their respective mothers care for their son while the two work from Monday to Saturday. Le heads the kitchen, while Hoang is the floor manager. During the pandemic, it was down to just the two of them to manage their brand new business on their own.
"We looked at it in a positive way because it wasn't just us," says Le. "It was an opportunity for us to work on ourselves and the menu."
"The pandemic gave us the opportunity to know what customers wanted," adds Hoang. "We had more time to talk to them."
During the quiet period, they continued to experiment in the kitchen. Now that things are beginning to pick up again, they're feeling optimistic about the future.
"If this goes well," says Le, "My dream is to open a home-style shared meal restaurant in Cabramatta. People will love it."
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