“I want to share a moment of gratitude. A gratitude that being of Vietnamese background, a restaurant of colour, we finally feel that we are starting to fit in with everybody. Finally I feel the mass community is opening up to ethnic cuisine and seeing the value that it brings; the rich history and the rich love that comes with food and the stories that we share through food. Also a moment of gratitude to all our partners, local farmers, local distributors and fellow restauranteurs for embracing us as their brother and sister. I just want to give a shout out to everybody who has been so inclusive of us and being there during the Covid and for a long ride ahead of us.”
What a perfect name, Anh and Chi. It means brother and sister in Vietnamese. As the restaurant celebrates 5 successful years in April, they continue to embrace love for family, love for community and love for food in much stronger ways than ever before.
The story of the Nguyen family begins when Ly and Hoang Nguyen arriving as Vietnamese refugees by boat in 1980. They settled on Main & 20th and started a small pho restaurant called Pho Hoang. Amelie and her brother, Vincent, grew up just across the street and they would always come back after school, sit in the restaurant and do their homework. Although they watched their parents work everyday and helped with serving and grocery shopping, Amelie and Vincent took no interest in owning a restaurant when they grew up.
VOICE(V): “How did you two come on board to establish the restaurant?”
VINCENT(VIN) : “Our family has been running the restaurant business at this exact location for the last 25 years. Counting back to the first restaurant location only a couple of blocks away, it’s been almost 40 years. I was in my second year in medical school in Australia and Amelie was also in Australia studying when our father died. We both had to come back immediately to support the family. My mom was having difficulty operating the business without him, and that was when I realized I wanted to continue the legacy that our parents have built. It took a lot of convincing to my extended family for me to drop out of the medical school, but I knew what I had to do. Amelie came on board and took her time off from work to help me and the family, and together we have built Anh and Chi to where it is now.”
Amelie(A): “When our parents were running Pho Hoang, we watched them work so hard and struggled hard, we literally had to raise ourselves. The benefit of it was that we learned their work ethic, so now we work so hard, too. As an Asian minority, we feel like we need to work extra hard to be accepted and be recognized in the Western society. For us, running this restaurant, we want to bring Vietnamese culture and people and heritage to light. It is very authentic in taste but in terms of the approach, the delivery and the experience, we create something new and refined.
I have an academic background in public health and have been working with Fraser Health full time while I take care of marketing and business development for Anh and Chi. It is crazy busy, especially in a time like this, but I love having both careers align. I love how I am able to bring messages from population and public health and apply them to a business setting. Vincent is very focused and efficient. He is very good running the team from the front to the back of house. He has come a long way since we just threw him into the kitchen when we first started Anh and Chi!”
V: “What was it like to go through a life transition from med student to chef?”
VIN: “I always say, you realize that you have super powers when your back is against the wall and you have no other choice! You jump in and you figure it out. Nobody teaches you. I think life teaches you and your family teaches you. I didn’t go to school to hold a knife or how to cook, but growing up, my mom was an amazing chef. I looked around for support and I’ve got family, relatives and friends who would come together to support me. Even guests support me to be better. They would tell me this dish could be a little hotter or that dish is bit too salty or too sweet. That’s an important form of community support because if they didn’t say anything, they would never come back to dine in with us.
Although my mom is getting older and retiring, she is still heavily involved with the kitchen. When we cook certain dishes to her exact recipe, she would come and say, “Nah. it’s not perfect. Let me do it.” She is always our inspiration. Everybody at the restaurant calls her “mom”, and we are super grateful to have her around. This is her home.”
Their highly acclaimed dishes have roots in a family trip back to Vietnam in 2013 after their father passed away. It was partly a trip down memory lane of where they came from. As they travelled all through the country, they ate on streets, they ate in people’s homes and relatives homes, and wrote down those recipes that reminded them of their childhood or notes on dishes that were just too exciting to leave behind. They came back with a stash of great recipes from Vietnam and decided on only a handful of ones they wanted to highlight at the restaurant.
A: “ I still have the notebook that I wrote down all the recipes from that trip. We haven’t showcased everything yet, because it is a rotating menu. What you will find on our menu is 80% of our classics and another 20% of something new. We plan to gradually introduce new dishes every season.”
V: “Did you bring over any of the old recipes from Pho Hoang?”
A: “We only brought over 2 dishes. One is our Beef Pho Noodle Soup. This is a classic recipe from our grandmother to our mom and to us, so we will never let it go. We named it Pho Hoang as a tribute to our late father (his name was Hoang) and our parents’ old restaurant. People who have lived in this neighborhood remember our parents and their restaurant. It warms their heart. The second carry over is the Number 37 which is Lemongrass Chicken and Pork Chop on Rice. This is mom’s secret recipe and I have a feeling that she might take it with her…”
VIN: “ She doesn’t even tell me the recipe! She will come out once a week to do the secret marinade. Besides those 2 heirloom recipes, we have created all other recipes here. It can easily take months to come up with a new dish, because when we present something to the guest, it is something that we cook from our heart. We don’t want to make just any new dish, we want it to speak, “welcome to our home”. This is really important to us. It has to be connected to our hearts and better than what we already have, or else why bring it on?”
With respect to food, they source all their specialty herbs and key ingredients for their salads including basils, mints, banana blossoms and water spinach from Vietnam. Starting off with an accurate ingredient is important to staying authentic. Staying loyal and supporting small, local or ethnic businesses continues to be at their core. They still keep the same vendors and suppliers for the last 30 years. Anh and Chi’s Beverage Program comes mostly from BC wineries, local breweries and distilleries except, of course, the Saigon Beer. They prefer to shop from small-scale local farmers and independent grocery stores whenever possible.
V: “ How did you respond to the community in the pandemic?”
VIN: “One of the things we introduced during Covid, and we still do, is for the first time, accepting reservations by donation. If people want to reserve a table with us, it is a $10 booking fee per person; 100% of the donation goes towards 3-4 different charities that our team or community has chosen and resonates with our values. We are always thinking of how to use our restaurant as a platform as a way to do more and help more in our community.”
A: “Reservation by donation is a brilliant idea that Vincent came up with. At the onset of Covid-19, everybody was struggling, including non-profit organizations. At the same time, we were figuring out how to safely minimize the queue outside the restaurant for dine-in guests. Everything we choose to do has to link with improving our community, staff and guests alike, in some way. It is what we are passionate about; to create change or policy in our micro-environment at Anh and Chi.”
Speaking of policy, when designing the space for Anh and Chi, they made an intentional choice to create a gender neutral bathroom. Vincent was involved in the design, and they were nominated for the most beautiful bathrooms in Canada in 2017. Better yet, they got a call from Ottawa when the Government of Canada consulted them for gender neutral bathrooms in Parliament! This was the moment when Amelie and Vincent first realized that even a small restaurant on the opposite coast can create a buzz loud enough to bring about change.
V: “ What Anh and Chi and food mean to you?”
VIN: “We’ve built Anh and Chi to bring people together across cultures and across generations. After all these years on Main Street, it is still amazing to see third generation families including grandparents, parents and children, come here to eat and we actually witness some growing up (as we have grown up here). We’ll continue to contribute to the Mount Pleasant community. Hopefully one of our children will take over and keep our legacy going.”
A: “ For my mom, she started cooking out of necessity, for survival as a refugee arriving in a new country. The only skill she had was to make noodles. She cooked for everyone in the Vietnamese community at that time and everybody felt so warm to eat something that reminded them of home. Then she started cooking to feed her children and it would bring her so much love and joy. It is all in her muscle memory now that she can’t stop cooking. She cooks out of joy and passion and she does it so perfectly.
For Anh and Chi, and quoting our Mom, ‘food is love’. That’s how we show love to each other and that’s how we perceive love. When we offer food, it’s our gesture to say we care about you, we appreciate you or we love you. We hope people share the same message through sharing food with others and inviting others in.”
It was very clear through our beautiful and inspiring conversations that Anh and Chi is not just about delicious, authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It is a love story of the Nguyen family. With or without the pandemic, it has always been about love. It is love that builds Anh and Chi and it is love that builds a community.
Note: In light of the temporary pause of indoor dining, Anh and Chi’s patio is open for spring. Join the newly extended patio dining in a lovely “oasis” setting! Take out and delivery are also available.