Banhmi11′s new catering van needs a make-over artist!
I am the Mighty Griddle King! I roamed the roads of Southwest England and the streets belonged to me. Under the rain or shine, surrounded by friends or foes, I endured it all. In an earlier lifetime, I was an ambulance van. I helped to save lives. They called me a Ford Mountain!
I was sitting by the side road somewhere south of the Thames, forgotten and thought I had seen better days. Then the Banhmi11 girls found me, and brought me home. They can’t drive me around, because I am a manual and not automatic van. When will they learn that I am a different animal!
But I will be their shelter, from the winds and snow of the English winter, rain drops and fierce sun of the English summer. I will be their base, for making lots of banh mi and pho yumminess. And I promise, I will not be a fair-weather friend. But in deed, a true friend.
Yet before all of that, I need emergency TLC. Somebody to paint me, change me and make me over. Somebody to dress me and caress me. Somebody to give me a new face to the world. Somebody to give me a new name.
If you can be that somebody for me, email email@example.com or call Van 0777 502 9365 and give me this emergency TLC! I promise to reward you royally!
The partners-in-crime, Anh Vu and Van Tran, joined by sustainable and line-caught specialty fishmonger Adam Newman and Huyen Ngo, the new kid on Banhmi11′s block, takes over F. Cooke pie and mash parlour for a night of contemporary Vietnamese dining.
Breaking our daily obsession with le porc, we take the best in-season pre-autumnal seafood from Adam’s Fin & Flounder to put together a très délicieux 7-course melting pot of daring, forward-looking Vietnamese cuisine.
For starters, there’s lotus root salad with king prawn tempura, oven-baked seabass summer roll with chives, followed by squid pop on lemongrass with tamarind dipping sauce, crabmeat and prawn nem, salmon au caramel with dill mayo on sourdough bread, razor clam noodle soup. Finish with mungbean and coconut sweet rice mochi in hot ginger syrup.
The evening starts at 7:30pm on 18 August, 2011 at F.Cooke, 9 Broadway Market, London, E8 4PH, situated just opposite our Saturday market stall. Invite your friends and bring a bottle. Tickets are GBP 30 and available on www.finandflounder.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve. Queries, questions and quirks to Van on 0777 502 9365.
Looking back it has already been more than a month since we started at our new stall at Broadway Market. The weeks seem to run together into a circular chain of events that is barely distinguishable by the market sessions on Saturdays. Each day’s work follows on to the previous one, almost uninterrupted by a few hours of sleep at night.
Our hope, to the extent that we had any during that week of uncertainty, was that the mere act of being able to show up at the market on Saturdays, would sustain banh mi on the culinary landscape of London. Amazingly, it is proving to do just that. In our new position, the colorful collage of Vietnamese streets turns heads. And when we grill the Imperial BBQ, the smell of thinly sliced marinated pork cooking on open fire make passers-by very curious to try. For most people, it was going to be their first taste of banh mi.
On a deeper level, the new stall is transforming Banhmi11 and changing our operations in ways we hadn’t foreseen. The amount of food and equipments we bring to the market seems to multiply every week. We have gone from transporting them on the back of bicycles, to towing them behind in bike trailers, to stuffing them into a van, then taking out the seats of the same dark red van and putting in large canvas bags and now piles of blue and yellow crates.
Some weekends were quiet, when the weather had not been kind to us and rain showers came and went throughout the day. So in those late afternoons we sat on the stools outside the stall, eating carefully divided, lovely moist, fudge-like squares of brownies that John our neighboring bread man had given us, and sipping lotus green tea that we give out for free with banh mi. Sometimes we exchanged banh mi for mocha from Climpson’s, cupcakes from Violet, juice from the Juice Bar and gathered all our goodies triumphantly to take home. It can feel a bit sad that we didn’t sell out those days; but that is probably a good thing, because otherwise it would mean that we are not doing something right, not working hard enough to make enough food.
Then after Easter the weather got much warmer, daffodils were appearing everywhere and people covered London Fields on warm, sunny Saturdays. Everyone seems well pleased and intrigued seeing how we prepare banh mi in plain view, and we hear the oh-and-ah when Anh cooks steak to order for Op-La-Di Steak banh mi. It feels so unnerving when we get a big take-away order and as frantically as we can move, the queue is still elongating behind the organic meat van. In those moments, I have taken to looking straight ahead at the customers we are serving, avoiding the sweat beads that build up whenever I glanced sideway at everyone who is waiting. Towards 3.30pm, we had started to sell out and I had the horrible task of going to the back of the queue and apologizing to our customers that we were selling out. Seeing their disappointed, or perhaps fed-up expressions hurts more than going home with unsold bread and eating roast pork for dinner every night.
When I go home, and by that I do not mean the house on the other side of Kingsland Road where all of us live and work, but the place where my parents are, a small town in Niedersachsen, Germany, I still have a hard time explaining to them what we do. It’s hard to grasp that something as simple as making sandwiches every weekend can teach us so much about who we are, what we are good at, and where we fall short. We grew up in families that prioritized doing homework over helping with dinner in the kitchen and we were groomed to work with our minds, not our hands.
But what Banhmi11 is teaching us is that the most engaging work requires our minds, our hands and our hearts. Sustaining and improving the taste of the food, looking for suppliers, working against time to keep the freshest ingredients, marinating to the perfect flavor, keeping the team motivated is a battle that we fight every day. And to make it to market every week, arriving in rain or shine, departing with or without any left-over, is winning.
In this pursuit, what enable Banhmi11 to exist is our customers. Somehow we are blessed with the most amazing customers, who don’t get mad waiting, don’t mind trying new fillings, and don’t hesitate to bring new friends. The people are what we remember from the past month.
The young man with a bookish messenger bag and black pea coat who solemnly studied the menu and said: “This is my first time trying this…how is it pronounced…ban-me?” The family of husband, wife, and father-in-law who came to us and trustingly asked “My wife is pregnant, what can she eat?” The really energetic regular who drives his motorbike from Notting Hill to Bethnal Green for his banh mi and tells us: “You guys have the best jobs, you make people smile.”
We would like to speak to them more. We would like to sit down in the slow afternoons and perhaps have a chat about where they live, what parts of the world gave them this addiction to banh mi, would like to know what adventures they lived through in Vietnam, but things are changing and we often don’t have enough time for that. So I hand them an OpLaDi Steak, wrapped in extra tissues, warn them that it can be messy to eat with the runny egg, and thank them for their waiting.
Banhmi11 is moving to our own stall at Broadway Market
Goodbye to all that...
We are so excited to be telling you that we are moving into our own stall at Broadway Market! We are currently sharing a stall with Ca Phe VN but starting Saturday we will have our very own place! It may seem strange to you if you haven’t visited us, but this weekend is going to be a really meaningful day for us as we start on our own. The scary part is still ahead of us but so are the possibilities! At least we are so glad we survived. That we still can exist at Broadway, and we’ll tell you why.
Now since we returned from Vietnam in January a lot of things have happened, but one of the things that became definite this week was that Ca Phe VN decided to end our partnership starting this weekend. Rob and Tuyen will start making banh mi of their own and no longer wish to have us operate in the same stall. As you know, Ca Phe VN makes excellent coffee that goes down very well with banh mi. We always thought that banh mi and coffee goes hand in hand, just like toast and tea, so it was at this very stall, on the tiny stainless steel mini-stools in the middle of Benjamin Close that we proposed to do banh mi.
For the past eight months, the stall has been our home on Saturdays and we really treasure the moments when we get to sit down and relax as a customer. This little alley is like a corner of Saigon in the middle of East London, with a similar energy, creativity and sense of constant change. It was here that we first learned the ropes of running a stall, waiting for time to pass on a rainy afternoon when the market is empty or coping with the panic of piling orders during the lunch rush.
It was here that we did the small things we consider so extraordinary in our very ordinary lives. When Rob and Tuyen’s baby was born in the summer last year, he came to the market from the hospital having stayed up all night. So we stood behind the till and made coffee and felt a strange sense of serenity that the staff and we were running the stall, while the proud father was napping on a chair. Then there was the weekend when my parents were visiting, he was ill and could not bring the van with all our equipments. So my parents got to see three girls trying to set up a gazebo, put up signs by climbing on a bike, beg for electricity from the Laundromat next door and carry water from the cellar of the Broadway grocer to make coffee. No matter what, it was always our intention to keep the stall open in rain or shine, to not have a customer show up and be disappointed at the empty space where the stall usually occupies, to seamlessly serve really good food and drinks without thinking about who really owns what.
Perhaps that’s because we are stubborn, or we are workaholic, or we are beginners and amateurs with too much energy and too little sense. Perhaps that’s because we have been fools to go into such a partnership, not foreseeing that either way we would have been prey of our own success or our own failure.
Yesterday we were in almost despair; it’s almost impossible you see to get into a real food market in London. But the stars aligned in a way that Broadway Market management were so helpful to us – we have incredible respect for the community here. We are so happy that we are just nervous and almost cannot believe it until we really set our stall up on Saturday. Things will be a bit shabby to start with, so bear with us until we can decorate the stall. But the food will be the same, and hopefully better than the last time you tasted it.
There is no excuse but you must know that even though we have been away from the blog, we have been at the market, cooking up new varieties of banh mi. Imperial BBQ, thin slices of sirloin pork soaked overnight in a special marinade inspired by Hue-the old imperial city, is quickly becoming a heavy-weight contestant to the perennial favorite Quad Meat. It hits the spot every time and even though we love the traditional mixed meat variety, we confess that we must refrain ourselves all the time from picking at the yummy fragrant pork, hot off the grill, so that we actually have some left for customers.
So if you can make time for us on Saturday, we will be at Broadway in our brand-new pitch. This is a new beginning, a marvelous thing for all of us. Against all odds, this is the chance we have got to take. And you, will you travel with us on this new road?
Two Saturdays ago was the last time we traded at Broadway because of the horrible autumn rain. Rob was sick so we got on our bikes and begged and pleaded for water and electricity from neighboring stores to keep the stall open. The stall looked different but it was opened! We could do this when it was dry but with the rain and wind of the past weekends, we had to sit it out.
This week Bánhmì11 is busy preparing banh mi to sponsor the Vietnamese cultural show the students at LSE are putting on on Saturday and we got thinking about what we ate in those student days, when we were young and free.
The first meals we had outside of home were at boarding schools. Generally now and even then, we knew that the meals were bad. Breakfast was usually the best meal of the day; that is if you managed to get up more than fifteen minutes before class. Our school kitchen must have been extreme believers in monotony because breakfast always alternated between either all things boiled, or all things fried. Mondays started out with boiled eggs, grits, and biscuits (in the American sense which is a soft, flaky bread, that was scorned by all Germans) whereas on Tuesdays we had fried eggs, bacon and hash browns. At weekends however, breakfast morphed into the most glorious meal of the week – brunch, when we could sleep in until noon and stagger in in our pajamas ten minutes before the cafeteria closes to have all the boiled and fried breakfast food we missed all week. On top of that there were French toast, Danish pastries, fresh fruits instead of the usual sloppy cocktail fruit mix and sometimes even an omelette bar.
Lunch and especially dinner, however, were composed of dishes so unidentifiable that each meal was a strategic game of selecting a few edible elements from a dish to put onto our plates. It may involve taking the fried batter off a pepper, or lifting carrots from swimming with overcooked broccoli in a greasy, vinegary liquid, or mashing up eggs from the salad bar to eat with spaghetti. None of this, as you can tell, was appetising, normally.
But we ate them ravenously, because we were sixteen or seventeen and always running, up and down the hundreds of stairs connecting the castle to the lower buildings, to and from the dorm, across the soccer field to catch the van for our afternoon activities, and back to our rooms in time for the ten o’clock nightly check. If they gave us chocolate chips cookies and milk in mid-afternoon, we ate them too, and stuffed two or three in between our folders to snack on under the table during class. By the time we queued up for our food and sat down at the table, we would have gladly wolfed down boiled shoe soles without complaint.
In my second year, things improved significantly culinarily with the arrival of my new roommate from Singapore. Unlike most of us whose parents lived overseas, Claire’s dad brought her to school, and with him she had a whole suitcase full of snacks, noodles, sauces and a brand new multi-function rice cooker. It was placed ceremonially on top of the bookshelf separating our two halves of the room and often in the wee hours of the night, there would be steam arising from whatever strange concoction we had put into it.
These were the best suppers. It was truly the wonder of one-pot cooking, with no kitchen sink and no grocery store nearby except for occasional trips to Walmart, which was like a giant convenience store with no fresh meats, fruits or vegetables. In those days we were in love with sesame oil, dried seaweed and oyster sauce. So whatever instant package of ramen or glass noodle or rice vermicelli or soba we had at hand, we spiced them up with these three ingredients. We even rubbed sesame oil under our nose and walked around sniffing it all the time and fell into helpless giggles. Mmmm…It seems so silly now but it was so natural back then.
Without these suppers, it seemed we lived in a hopeless desert gastronomically. But the longer you stay in any place, the more chances that you will discover havens of good food. For us, these havens were the teachers’ houses.
Judy was our Maths teacher, not mine really, but I gladly went along to the study sessions at her home. There would be hot chocolate, home-made brownies, cakes, and one time before Christmas I remember she had the biggest box of popcorn I have ever seen. There was plain popcorn, and chocolate popcorn, and caramel popcorn, and toffee popcorn and salted popcorn. To this day I can’t tell the difference between integers and integrals but I can still savor the taste of caramel popcorn, which I ate handfuls of until I was almost sick, and went back to bed before exam day.
Ravi-ji was our Economics teacher, actually he was more of a legend than a teacher. We loved him and feared him with godlike admiration and everyone, even the most annoying kid in school, agreed that he must have been a saint. He was probably in his fifties, although his perfectly trimmed mustasche made him look older and wiser, and lived with his mother. Mommy-ji often had dinner parties and most of us were likely to have the honor to come at least once this special dinner, unless you were from the Indian subcontinent, in which case you seemed self-entitlted to come every week. From the pre-dinner drinks that came in blue glasses to the fragrant rice to the raisin and almond dessert, the food served was simply divine. It was so good that whenever we got a chance to go to Santa Fe and visit the Indian buffet in one of the adobe houses, we always looked for the halwa, hoping to experience something that resembles the exquisit taste of Mommy-ji’s.
Ravi-ji and Mommy-ji’s dinner was the first time that somewhere in my consciousness, I woke up to the fact that food was something beautiful to be shared with and powerful to bring people together. Raji-ji loved chocolate and his old students always sent him chocolates from whichever corner of the world they were in, and he always shared them with us in class, Lindt truffles and Cadbury’s almond chocolate. Probably because Economics was the last period before dinner and ended at quarter past six. Probably because he saw us as the starved puppies we always were. And probably because of this, no matter how we failed in other subjects, how we misbehaved outside of class, how we moved on in life to do things we are or are not proud of, we never wanted to disappoint Ravi-ji. We wanted to do well in his tests so that we could arrive at his house for dinner without guilt. We wanted to grow up to be like the students who sent him chocolates, whose pictures and press clippings he pinned up on the wall, who wrote that they graduated and went on to do important things. Those were the powers and pleasures and pains of good food.
It was a surprise that all of us made it out from of boarding school, without gaining or losing too much weigh, or getting one or two ulcers, or a nasty appendix operation, or food allergies. It was different for us to be in an isolated community far from a big city. But we were a community, teachers and students, roommates and friends, and this probably saved us.
Now things have changed in many ways. When our cousins came to visit us on boarding school half-term the other day, instead of waiting to be fed, they went grocery shopping in Harrods Food Hall (fancy kids!), and cooked us a full meal of beef and potato wedges with tomato sauce, minced meat and spring onions omellet, and cabbage and ribs soup – all of which we would not have managed at sixteen.
But somehow, even in a much different place and different time, we’d like to be a little haven of good food for students in London. We are happiest when we see students come to the stall. They come after their language assessment, or weekend job, or simply on a leisurely Saturday morning, for a cup of coffee with condensed milk and a banh mi with pate. They usually never come alone, and the group seems to grow and disband throughout the day. They joke around with us and sometimes daringly ask for discounts. They make lots of noise most of the time but they patiently quietly wait when we have a big rush. When they know us, they don’t hesitate to roll up their sleeves to help us pack up.
We always think when we see them: “These guys are like us before, but better…sharper, funnier, and worldlier.” And that, in between our banh mi mouthfuls is, I can tell you, a very happy thought!
Two weeks, four days, pouring rain on three of them, hundred of hours of planning, cooking, setting up and taking down. Camden was hard work, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, determination, joy, and pride, all bundled up into one experience. You see, food business is like show business. Regardless of what happens in our personal lives, of the things that we can and can not control, of what goes on behind the scene, what matters is that the show must go on.
And on it went, through bicycle rides from Islington to Camden with all our equipments in three bike trailers, gusty winds of late autumn that splashed rain on everything, heavy puddles that built up on top of the tarpaulin cover, wet shoes and wet socks, burned fingers and cold feet, fumbling in the dark to pack up, and feeling our heart sunk when somebody failed to show up, at moments when we really needed more hands to help.
But then again on it went, through the sunny Sunday that felt like Indian summer t-shirt weather, celebrating a birthday in exhausted exhilaration, the joy of discovering making banh mi with electrical appliances instead of our usual gas stove, the excitement in churning out consistently strong, sweet coffee, meeting face-to-face with those who follow us on Twitter, seeing the group of Vietnamese-Australians who come out for the pop-up stall, smiling when whole families who had never heard of banh mi came back for seconds, and explaining to Parisians how a Vietnamese baguette is different.
Camden was meant as a three-week pop-up stall. It could have been longer and it has turned out to be shorter. We wanted it to turn into a relationship, because you have asked Bánhmì11 to go West, to be closer to a tube station, to open on more days. But for now it looks like Camden was a fling, because you know sometimes sheer efforts don’t make up for chemistry. Camden is boisterous, bustling, unashamedly derivative of its former, more original self, transient like the foot steps of out-of-town weekend visitors, and colorful but unadventurous when it comes to food. Bánhmì11 is always seeking permanence, planting roots and going local, and obsessing about the small things like deciding between grinding or pounding peppercorn. Sometimes, as much as we want, it is simply not the right time and the right place for magic to happen.
But it doesn’t mean that what happened was not beautiful in itself. We were changed by Camden, we grew from it and drew strength from it. It taught us to schedule cooking in a way that preserved freshness when we scaled up three times, to stay with the home-cooking way even as we saw others making short-cuts, to serve more food with fewer people. It taught us to run a stall entirely by ourself, from packing to sheltering from rain. The menu was DIY, the stall may have looked makeshift and rough, but the bread was more airy and crusty than the week before, the pate spread was always warm and tasty. You could smell the BBQ pork a few stalls away and everyone who tried our sample nodded and smiled.
The most important lesson for us was that we may move, we may change displays, we may redesign the stall, we may finally find a way to physically express how we feel, but we must not lose ourself when it comes to the heart of what we do – banh mi. The food must never be be changed and the taste must never be compromised. When you try our banh mi in Broadway or anywhere else, you should get the same experience at the first bite. The bread should always be warm, the pate should always be peppery and soft, the pickles should always be rightly balanced between sweet, salty and sour flavors.
There are moments when we look at each other and wonder why we do any of this, whether it matters to anyone. But somehow, it still matters to us. And what we did at Camden, we will do again and again and again, until we find that right place, right crowd, and right timing for magic to happen.
Pop-up Bánhmì11 stall in Camden Lock Market, Saturdays and Sundays from 24 October to 8 November, 2009
For a while we have been wondering about this show
In our heads picturing how it will flow
Looks to us like we have gathered a team
Can we not make it come true then, this dream?
So last week the way things turned out
Is that “Go West” is what it is all about
At Camden making banh mi together we will try
To see if spreading our wings we can really fly
Alone we are not sure we can stand this test
But so far luck has brought us to work with the best
A Spring from the South brings the beauty of photography
And a friend from years past marked us in digital geography
Three trading sessions mean several times more food
Can we cook all that fresh and maintain a good mood?
Oh goodness and how do we deal with the stall display?
With the big boys, is this really a gamble we can play?
All these questions are still spinning in our mind
But our guts tell us this chance is one of a kind
Faith is what we need, with our hearts to believe
And indeed with hard work, succcess, together we shall conceive!
P/S: This is what we call a ”frog poem” in Vietnamese