Uyen Luu

1st February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

1st February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Uyen Luu is a writer, photographer and chef who hosts a long-running supper club at her home in Hackney. Born in Saigon, she has lived in London since 1983 – her family fled the Communist regime when she was five. In spite of the hardships she remembers from childhood, Uyen maintains close ties with Vietnam. She goes back to Saigon every year, cooks southern Vietnamese dishes at the supper club and in 2013 published a book called My Vietnamese Kitchen.

She lives in a two-floor flat in London Fields with her dogs Millie and Kodi. The first thing you see going in is Uyen’s gleaming new kitchen, which has replaced a cramped cooking area upstairs. Spacious, functional, bookended by a massive fridge, it comes in handy when 30-odd people are coming to dinner every week. It opens onto a more homely living area at the back with a long wooden table and benches – and a little stone garden where guests sit when the weather is warm.

When we visit, Uyen is preparing dinner for 28 but still finds time to whip us up a five-course lunch. First we talk about her life and career over a pot of ginger tea, then she takes us shopping – to Broadway Market for fish, to the local Vietnamese supermarkets for vegetables and rice. She seems a little shy at first but that impression quickly fades as she takes control in the kitchen – enlisting us to peel taro stems and shred chicken – and serves up an extraordinary, multifaceted meal in 90 minutes flat.

Continued below...

What age were you when you left Vietnam?

Five or six. It was a really hard time. People were starving because of the trade sanctions and millions died of poverty. My mum had to sell banh mi on the streets and my grandmother set up a café selling noodle soups, just to earn enough for us to eat. My family were all thrown into concentration camps – or I should say “re-education camps”. We were there for three months, but my uncle spent two years in a tiny little room with 200 people and just one handful of salt and rice to eat each day.

How did you manage to get out?

After many attempts my father escaped by boat. He was rescued by the British and shipped over to England. He got us refugee citizenship in Britain but could only take me, my mum and my brother. My father lives in America now; we stayed here.

Who cooked at home?

My mum. She didn’t cook at all when she was growing up in Vietnam, but when we came to England she craved Vietnamese food so much that she taught herself. We didn’t have any money, but in Vietnamese cuisine you can make really tasty things from very cheap ingredients.

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Is she the main influence on your cooking?

Yes, it’s all from her palate, but what my mum cooks is really traditional. Vietnamese people are very strict in their ways – “This has to be eaten with this herb, with this size noodle, and in this shape”. I’d get bored if I cooked traditional things all the time, so I throw in lots of different influences.

My mother told me how to make caramelised sardines in coconut and tomato soup with sea bass. When I did it, I was like ‘Yes yes yes!’

When did you became interested in cooking?

Not until I was in my 20s. My mother didn’t let me help out in the kitchen when I was younger – she doesn’t let you do stuff! The first time I cooked something really good was in university. Me and my friend got a student loan and ran off to New York, but then I missed my mum’s cooking so much so I called her up and she told me how to make caramelised sardines in coconut and tomato soup with sea bass. When I did it, I was like “Yes yes yes!”

What prompted you to start the supper club?

I had loads of friends who kept coming around for dinner. It was nice to start with but after a while I was really out of pocket, so I started charging people. Then I thought I’d start blogging about food, just for fun, and it snowballed. It was all an accident. I thought I’d just do one dinner, but it’s still going five years later.

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Did it feel odd inviting strangers into your house?

I didn’t mind at all because I’m quite a sociable person (as well as an unsociable person). And I had a boutique [a clothes shop in Covent Garden called Leluu] for nine years that was like my house, so I was used to people coming in and out. It’s much better now that I’ve built a kitchen and a bathroom downstairs – everyone is contained down here. It’s nice to have a bit of private space.

How many people can you fit in?

If the weather’s good enough to sit in the garden, there can be 40, but usually it’s 25 to 30. I did have 56 once.

Any tips for the aspiring supper club host?

Clean up as you go along, otherwise things will get on top of you. I try to prep everything before cooking and get as much as possible done in advance so I can spend time with guests. In general, take your time, do one thing at a time and keep things simple.

Would you ever be tempted to open a restaurant?

I’ve thought about it, and a few projects have fallen through. But actually I don’t know if I really need to. This way [doing a supper club] I have time do lots of other things.

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How often do you go back to Vietnam?

I tend to go every year – usually to the south. My cousin and I tried to go north once but we couldn’t eat the food. There’s a massive conflict between northern and southern Vietnamese cuisine – but I think the northerners secretly prefer the southerners’ food [laughs].

At home, is your day structured around meals?

Yes, but I’m not a massive breakfast person; often I don’t eat until lunch. I always have stock in the fridge, so I’m always having noodle soup. It’s the easiest thing to pull together. If you poach a chicken, you can survive on it for a whole week. For dinner, I usually like to eat something Italian or British.

I always have stock in the fridge, so I’m always having noodle soup. It’s the easiest thing to pull together. If you poach a chicken, you can survive on it for a whole week

So you like taking a break from Vietnamese food?

Oh yeah. My favourite thing in the world is just spaghetti pomodoro with lots of Parmesan. Or risotto.

How long do you spend in the kitchen on an average day?

When I’m on my own? A couple of hours.

Do you enjoy the process of cooking?

I really do – I think I’m a bit addicted. I love playing around with things. Recently I’ve been making flavoured salt using dried herbs. And I’ve been making a lot of frozen yoghurts and ice creams with seasonal fruit, such as mango and avocado (which is treated as a fruit in Vietman). I also cook quite well for the dogs. They get fresh chicken and vegetables and pasta with rice.

On The Menu

Lunch with Uyen Luu
London, July 2014

To eat:

Pan-fried plaice with green mango and sweet chilli dressing (Cá rô phi chiên xoài xanh) »
Chicken salad with kohlrabi and red onion (Gà xé phay và rau răm) »
Hot-and-sour fish soup with taro stem (Canh chua cá) »
Marrow stuffed with pork, wood-ear mushrooms and mung bean noodles
Blueberry ice cream cake

To drink:

Ginger tea
Prosecco

Lucky dogs.

Actually they really like dog food – they love a bit of Cesar – but they hardly ever get it.

What do you always have in your fridge?

There’s always some leftover wine for risotto. There’s got to be parmesan and butter, although I usually keep the butter I’m using outside. And there’s always loads of noodle soup stocks – I keep them in bottles in the door.

What’s your favourite Vietnamese restaurant in London?

Everybody always asks that, but I don’t have one. I can’t really eat Vietnamese food that’s not cooked at home.

For more info, see www.uyenluu.com

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Posted 1st February 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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