What's the best cure for fear and loneliness? For Nina Huynh, it's her grandmother’s fried-egg banh mi.
When the Sydney chef was growing up, solace came in the form of a warm baguette served with two eggs fried by her Vietnamese grandmother - sunny side up - then flavoured with dashes of soy sauce and pepper for extra punch and flavour.
But what made this extra special was the way her grandmother lightly charred the bread: she'd stick the banh mi onto a chopstick, then wave the bread roll over the flames of her small stovetop, gently toasting the baguette until it was warm.
Huynh says, "We used to ask for eggs on toast and this was the closest thing she had to it in her tiny kitchen.
"Now every time I feel a little scared or lonely, I make it and it reminds me of being a kid in her kitchen," says the chef, who learnt how to cook, garden and pickle at her grandmother's home.
"I found it so comforting, because I remember watching her as she made it. With her very little broken English, she understood the words 'eggs' and 'toast' and, to me, that is love."
In her current role at Sydney's Yellow, Huynh produces snacks like charred leeks with kombu mayonnaise, wattleseed and fennel lavosh, or 'fish skin' made with tapioca and seaweed. She sees a connection between her work at Brent Savage's acclaimed vegetarian restaurant and the childhood hours spent with her grandparents, who looked after her while her parents worked.
"They weren't always vegetarian, but slowly as they got older and older, they started to adapt to an almost vegan diet. Some of my most favourite Vietnamese vegetarian dishes came from the local Buddhist temples [that my grandparents still attend]," she says. "I remember being little and while other kids were allowed to be picky about eating their veggies, I would be eating rau muống xào tỏi, pickled root vegetable spring rolls and lotus root soups and salads."
Once a week, the whole family would gather at her grandparent’s house to cook in a lively way.
"I would watch all the women in my family chat, while telepathically hopping on either the noodle-making section or the protein section or the spring-roll section," Huynh says. "I was obsessed from a young age and all the visceral experiences of the kitchen truly captured me. The smells, sounds, flavours – everything."
"I was obsessed from a young age and all the visceral experiences of the kitchen truly captured me."
In a way, her path to becoming a chef at Yellow seemed inevitable – but there were tremendous challenges along the way.
"It was during my time [studying] at TAFE that my marriage broke down," she says. "I didn't leave the house for at least six weeks."
Crippling anxiety stopped her from wanting to go outside, but she promised herself that she'd at least go for a walk or stop somewhere for a cup of tea. After sitting down at a cafe, she noticed a striking red book in a shop across the street. "I went over and it was the Marque book," she says. Huynh would later find out that her future boss at Yellow, Brent Savage, spent time at Marque before opening his own businesses (Bentley, Monopole, Yellow and Cirrus).
While she was working in the Blue Mountains – where Savage also got his start – she found herself talking to one of the chefs in the kitchen. "He would confide in me…about one of his apprentices he worked with and that apprentice's name was Brent Savage."
Then she took a vegan friend out for a birthday dinner to a place she had read about online – this turned out to be Savage's Yellow restaurant, which has an entirely meat-free menu.
"I remember through my studies at TAFE, I'd hope and pray for a way that I could combine my love of cooking but to do it in a way that would be gentle on the earth – a place where I didn't harm animals and a place that I would be able to make my grandparents proud," she says.
The universe seemed to be telling her that Yellow was where she needed to be.
But Huynh wondered if she had missed her shot – she was a twenty-something single mother, whose marriage had collapsed. Her confidence was shaken.
"I wish I could be a part of this cool kitchen, but I started so late and I don't think I am good enough … But I really want it. I just don't think anyone will accept me," she recalls telling her mother.
Her mum replied: "we all have our limit, what is yours?"
So the following weekend, Huynh packed her chef's uniform, TAFE notes, knife kit, toiletries, sleeping bag and printed out her resume. She was ready to knock on the doors of hatted restaurants and ask if she could wash dishes or be a stagiaire (intern).
A chef she used to work with happened to be working in the pastry section of Yellow. Through this connection, Chris Benedet (Yellow's head chef at the time) let her spend a few hours helping out. And she's still there today.
"My determination to work for Brent magically came together and it was truly a dream come true," she says.
But Huynh's path to becoming a chef – especially with a young daughter – hasn't been easy.
"There were weeks where I would save all my money for proper meals and clothes and books for my daughter, but I would cook pasta and just add vegetable stock cubes to the water and that would be my dinner," she says. "I remember posting once on my Instagram stories that I buy 65c cans of sardines from Woolies (because they were cheaper than tuna), and one of my friends innocently messaged back 'those are fantastic, I buy them for my dogs' – not knowing that I was the one eating them."
Huynh is careful to point out that her wages weren't bad – this "was just another curveball life had thrown me as a single parent".
There were also times she slept in her car in Chinatown because the drive back to the Blue Mountains was too long.
"When I was broke and poor and just starting out in the industry, I would sit in the car and look up at the sky after a long and busy dinner service and dream about all the great chefs that were doing great things and so badly wanting to be like them," she says.
"I like to bring people joy in just one bite."
Nowadays, her grandmother's influence inspires her creative experiments in Yellow's kitchen.
"For her, cooking is about what is going to fulfil and make people happy," she says. "I think that's why I love being apart of the snack (amuse-bouche) creation at Yellow. You have to nail the brief in one bite. I like to bring people joy in just one bite that feels like a story. I want people to be fulfilled yet also for their curiosity to be ignited."
Her daughter Rori has also been a massive influence on her life.
"I wanted to lead by example and show her that you can be a 24-year-old- single mother with no real job prospects and a failed marriage – basically the biggest failure…and still strive and achieve things if you kept trying," says Huynh.
And just like her mother, Rori loves the comforting flavours of a fried egg banh mi, toasted over a stovetop flame. The taste reminds Huynh of an important message: don't be scared and stay bold.
Banh mi with fried eggs and soy sauce
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 organic free-range eggs
- 1 Vietnamese baguette
- 1 tbsp butter
- Ground pepper and soy sauce, to taste
- Fresh chilli slices and chilli flakes, optional
1. Add the oil to a pan over high heat. Rotate your pan in a circular motion to evenly distribute the oil. When the oil starts to make a slight rippling effect, it’s time to add the eggs.
2. Crack eggs into the pan – the egg whites will begin to cook immediately. Turn your heat down low and place a lid over the pan for 1 minute. Set aside once the eggs are evenly cooked.
3. Place the baguette on the end of a chopstick and wave over the flame on your stovetop. The outside crust will start to bubble and char slightly. Alternatively, if you have an electric stove, you can toast your baguette whole in the oven.
4. Season the eggs with freshly ground pepper and small amounts of soy sauce to taste.
5. Spread butter on the toasted baguette – it should be fluffy on the inside and light and crispy on the outside. You can also add slices of fresh chilli or chilli flakes if you want a more grown-up version.