The steak tartare is a good place to start. Not only is it Thi Le's favourite recipe ("Actually, it depends on the mood I'm in, but it always reminds me of home"), it says a lot about her past as well as her future.
Not many young people grow up eating steak tartare, but Le's mother, a Vietnamese refugee who landed in Sydney's western suburbs with her young family when Le was only two, liked to make it with the beef left over from making pho. "She always says she never cooked back in Vietnam and it's something she had to learn when she came here. Back then it was about having no money, using everything and making what we could in-house. Cooking in Australia was about trying to find all the things you had back in Vietnam," says the 31-year-old chef. "My mum predominantly made Vietnamese with a bit of Chinese - there was a bit of Thai and Laotian as well. She used to trade dinners with our neighbour. They'd give us sausages and she'd start incorporating Australian food."
At her Melbourne restaurant, Anchovy, which Le co-owns with Jia-Yen Lee, she confounds expectations with her bold take on South East Asian flavours with modern techniques, which has earned her GT's Best New Talent in this year's restaurant awards. "Modern Asian. Modern Australian. A little bit in between" the restaurant dubs itself with unassuming accuracy. It raises the hoary subject of "fusion" food, a term Le has problems with only when it refers to tin-eared mash-ups "like putting satay sauce on a steak". "Technically we are fusing food," she says. "It's fusing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to bring them together. I'm fusing my memories and traditions I've learnt along the way."
It's safe to say Le has covered the full gamut of Australian eating, going from cooking such delicacies as Old El Paso tacos and KanTong chicken as a teenager ("Mum was always at work, and I thought those things were legit") to training with the likes of Christine Manfield and Andrew McConnell as an adult. She threw in an interior design course along the way, but took up the spatula full-time after a year of travel revealed she cared more about food than architecture.
"Thi's approach to cooking is unique," says McConnell. "She is blessed with her culinary heritage from which she draws a lot of her inspiration. Her training and time in some of the best kitchens in Sydney and Melbourne has given her the foundation and ability to finesse and balance a dish like very few people I know. Thi cooks with great care and cooks with a confidence most chefs should envy." The recipes here, including dishes from the menu that launched Anchovy, such as garlic shoots with spicy salt, sum up Le's favourite way to approach a meal. "I like anything with wraps, a DIY thing with all the bits," she says. "Just having people over and everyone helping out."
Recipes by Thi Le:
Anchovy, 338 Bridge Rd, Richmond, Vic, (03) 9428 3526, anchovy.net.au