Let’s hear it for the ladies! I mean, It’s no secret there are less women in the food industry than men, but from my experience those that do find themselves drawn to the industry are an incredible breed of woman. You have already met Vicky, feisty little thing she is, and pie-queen Brandie. We also have other food superstars in wellington like Rachel Taulelei, who I may have been known to use the words 'life crush' when talking about her. So it was Rachel i turned to when asking if she could put me in touch with more women in the industry to avoid eat and greet having more sausage than a charcuterie.
She introduced me to Nikki Chung, the owner of NAM restaurant on Willis Street. NAM was on my list very early on (yep, I have a E&G bucket list) and had originally hoped it to be one of our lauching stories, but that went on the back burner when, not sure who to ask for, I talked to one of Nikki's delightful wait staff and she thought I was asking for a job interview! Anyway, what a delight to finally meet Nikki after eating at NAM over the last year. She has a profound affinity with a country she knew very little of in her early life, but through her mother’s love of the cuisine she has come out holding the baton for authentic Vietnamese cuisine that Wellington severely lacks. NAM is tucked away in Willis Street village, it's mostly on word-of-mouth that people know about this place, but now you know, so I encourage you all to go and check it out.
Nikki emailed me the day before saying 'arrive hungry', you will know by now that is a sure fire way to win friends in my book! We sat down over cups of Vietnamese 'drip drip coffee' of which I am now a total convert. Coffee hipsters take note adding a centimeter layer of condensed milk at the bottom of your coffee makes everything instantly better.
How did you come to live in New Zealand?
We moved to New Zealand in 1980 after the Vietnam War ended in ‘75, I was three. We came over as refugees looking for a better life for our family. After spending six months in the refugee camps, New Zealand was the first country to offer us a home. My parents had heard it was a safe country to live in so it seemed like a perfect fit.
Have you been back to Vietnam?
My first trip back was when I was 18 and it was a real culture shock as I didn’t remember anything about living there. But I warmed to the whole place immediately and when I came back to New Zealand I missed Vietnam – the smells, the atmosphere and we still have a lot of family back there. I still have a very strong connection back to home.
Why did you decide to open up NAM?
It was the love of Vietnamese food and wanting to share it with everyone else. We also saw there was a gap in the Wellington market for traditional Vietnamese food.
What makes NAM special?
We want to provide good Vietnamese food and an education on what our food is all about – the freshness and the different flavours and textures of Vietnamese food. We wanted to keep it simple and focus on good service. The key to our restaurant is the relaxed friendly atmosphere. Often a lot of our customers are people who have recently travelled to Vietnam and then are looking for the same food and experience and our wait staff can relate to that.
What challenges have you had finding ingredients?
We have massive challenges. The foundation of Vietnamese cuisine are the fresh herbs and fresh ingredients. That has been really tricky with the Wellington climate, luckily we have found a lot of Asian ladies that grow them at home, but during the winter months it is really scarce, especially the Vietnamese mint so that has been the hardest especially when it is so integral to a dish.
Who taught you everything you know
My mother, I learnt everything off my mum. She is just a great home cook, but food is also a passion of hers.
Do you spend much time in the restaurant kitchen?
When we first started my mum and I were doing all the cooking because we didn’t have a chef so we were creating it all ourselves. As time has gone by we have weened mum off the kitchen and then we bought in a professional chef. We went to Vietnam and recruited an amazing chef. It didn’t take much to convince him to move to New Zealand. He has been here for 4 months now, he was working at some big restaurants over there so we feel very lucky. He tweaked our Beef Pho and customers have said it tastes exactly like home. And most importantly he gets on really well with my mum! He doesn’t mind her hanging out in the kitchen doing quality control!
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Crepe) I love it because you can eat it so many ways. You can break a piece off the crepe and wrap it around the fresh herbs and other ingredients or you can tear it all up and mix it with the other ingredients, pour the sauce over it and eat it all together.
Do you change anything for the New Zealand palate?
The only thing we have changed is the technique or the way diners can eat it. A few things we have changed because often people don’t like to use their fingers. Pretty much everything else is the same and you can consume it traditionally.
Who do you admire?
Martin Bosley, his food is fantastic, he is a great guy and a great mentor. He has given me some great advice on how to make the restaurant work and understanding the customer psyche. Rachel Taulelei as well. She has taught us a lot about how to get our name out there. We approached Rachel as we had heard about the City Market and we had always enjoyed doing that type of thing just to meet people and get people to try our food. So we did that a few times and got to know Rachel and Martin. Eventually we were at a bit of a crossroads with the restaurant and not sure how to take it to the next step. We got talking to them and asked them for advice and they have been amazing for us. It is just amazing that Rachel has time for that on top of everything. And she loves my food so that helps!
What do you make for yourself on a day off?
We eat a lot of fresh greens with braised fish and pork. Really hearty dishes, they go nicely with freshly steamed vegetables and rice.
What do you like about Vietnamese food?
The lightness and the freshness – it doesn’t feel heavy. There isn’t a lot of oil and deep fried foods and we try to steer clear from that.
What ingredients will you always have on you?
Fish sauce. That is a staple for all our food. We use it as a substitute to salt, we find it goes with everything. Also the key with Vietnamese flavours is the balance between sweet, sour and salty. Hence the use of fish sauce, you can’t just have it straight, it’s horrible, but by adding lime juice and the sugar it provides that balance.
Where do you eat out in Wellington?
We always enjoy going to Miyabi Sushi across the road. At the City Market I love the crepes from Crepes A-Go-Go and the canelés from Creative Cooking. I will always have one every market. I think the French influence in Vietnamese food maybe means I prefer French food.
What is happening in the future for NAM Resataurant?
We are hoping to bring out the Bánh mì (Vietnamese bread rolls) soon, which are becoming more and more popular. They are french sticks filled with pate, homemade butter, lots of herbs, salad and sauce. My mum makes amazing homemade butter and pate. But it has been hard to find a baker who does a good small French stick.
NAM, 142 Willis Street, Te Aro, Wellington.
(04) 385 9533
You can also find NAM at The City Market most Sundays.
Like them on Facebook