DJ Lee was born in Perth and raised in a traditional Vietnamese family with a studious upbringing. His parents came to Australia as refugees to provide a better life for their two sons. Lee tells SBS Food, "They've always encouraged us to do what we love and don't let anyone stop you."
Lee's parents were supportive of him going to university and completing a marketing degree, but his appetite for something more creative kept niggling at him.
Lee soon followed his passion for music, becoming an international DJ and building a healthy fan base for his EDM sets. Missing home comforts while on the road, he took to eating traditional Vietnamese cuisine while on tour. Banh mi was at the top of his list since it evoked a sense of nostalgia.
Lee says, "I was very fortunate enough to play at some decent gigs where I would headline. I eventually turned this little highlife into a game and had to try a banh mi in each city I landed in, so I asked the club organisers, where is their fave."
He never would have expected where sampling banh mi from around the world would take him.
On a months' long trip to Paris in 2014, Lee dug deep into the French roots of banh mi and began to take notes. The experience made him miss home, particularly eating banh mi with family and cooking for friends. This led him to think of a career beyond the mixing desk to one in which banh mi would feature. So, he returned home to open his first cafe, Le Vietnam.
"I just wanted to go home and do something where I would remain, so once I returned to Perth after being away for about eight months plus, I took an opportunity and bought a cafe."
As part of his research for Le Vietnam's menu, Lee travelled with his wife, Emily, to Vietnam. Having family in different cities across the country helped broaden Lee's scope and allowed him to connect with local chefs and owners.
"Every stop, every city [in Vietnam] had their variation of banh mi, and each city had their own little 'must go to'. We even went to the one that Anthony Bourdain made visited through his 'No Reservations' adventures: Banh Mi Phuong. [We] talked to the owners, they invited us to the back kitchen, shared some stories, took us to their bakery, showed us around – their hospitality was incredible.
"Every stop, every city [in Vietnam] had their variation of banh mi, and each city had their own little 'must go to'."
The pair were also invited to Anan Saigon restaurant, home of the US$100 banh mi. "The chef told us to come at 2pm so we could talk as the restaurant opens at 5pm. We talked about banh mi, went deeper into stories and went into the kitchen and assisted in making the US100 banh mi."
Since Lee opened Le Vietnam seven years ago, it has not only expanded to two locations but exploded with unconventional flavour combinations that have cemented Lee's reputation as Perth's banh mi king.
From replicating a lobster and prawn banh mi that he tried in Tokyo to using truffle from Manjimup in regional Western Australia to create a banh mi with beef cheek and truffle aioli, Lee isn't afraid to offer something out of the norm. But the basis of his creations is his parents' Vietnamese cooking.
"Recreating things that mum and dad would cook at home and reinventing it to become 'my thing' was an achievement. Wowing the parents with what you did is an accomplishment, and now they are saving a portion, so they can share with their friends."
Lee also draws influences from renowned Vietnamese chefs such as Dan Hong (Sydney's Mr Wongs, The Establishment), Khanh Nguyen (Melbourne's Sunda and Aru Restaurant) and Peter Cuong Franklin (Vietnam's Anan Saigon). Lee says he's been inspired by the way they push boundaries.
His approach has struck a chord. Lines outside each store are a common sight during lunch hour, with the chain's popularity strongly supported by the local Vietnamese community.
His wife Emily, who's also Le Vietnam's manager and part-owner, tells SBS Food, "Being able to represent our Vietnamese culture, with a strong support from the Perth Vietnamese community and making them proud of what we've achieved… is beyond words."
Le Vietnam has also become popular with vegans. Lee's revolving menu of vegan banh mi's, such as vegan 'rendang beef', cheesy vegan 'chicken', caramelised vegan 'pork' and char sui 'pork', are all made from scratch.
"I wanted to help create a change to say that 'vegan' options can also be just as tasty as meat options, and some of the stuff I've created in-house has even blown away the meat-eating carnivores, and that seems like an awesome achievement."
As for what makes a great banh mi, Lee says it comes down to a balance of texture, flavour and freshness. The combination of silky French pate, creamy home-churned butter mayonnaise, mildly seasoned meat with a dash of soy sauce, lightly pickled crunchy vegetables, fresh herbs and a kick of chilli – all packed within a house-baked Vietnamese-French baguette – is banh mi perfection.
Beyond the mixing desk, Lee now makes edible hits, and fans can't stop raving.
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Photography supplied and styled by DJ Lee.
Grilled pork banh mi
- 1 kg boneless pork collar, about 1cm thick
- 2 tbsp honey (can replace with brown sugar)
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tbsp chopped shallot (can replace with brown onion)
- 2 lemongrass, finely chopped
- 1 tsp black cracked pepper
- 2 tsp dark (black) soy sauce
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp oil
1. Cut the pork into pieces about 8 to 10 cm big and set aside.
2. Put the honey or brown sugar, minced garlic, chopped shallots or onion, lemongrass, black cracked pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce, and oil into a large bowl and mix well. Note: blitz in a food processor for a smooth marinade.
3. Add the pork pieces into the bowl and coat well. Cover and set aside at room temperature to marinate for 1 hour. Hot tip: refrigerate up to 24 hours to intensify the flavour, let the meat sit out at room temperature for 1 hour before grilling.
4. Preheat a grill to medium-high heat. Grill the meat for 6 to 8 minutes, frequently turning, until cooked through. Transfer cooked meat to plate, foil, and rest for 10 minutes before slicing it to serve. Note: put the excess marinade into a small pot, bring to the boil and use it as a sauce, optional to whisk in a teaspoon of corn starch to thicken up the sauce.
Note: another alternative serving suggestion to the banh mi is over steamed rice.