Known as ‘The Lunch Lady’, Nguyen Thi Thanh has been serving up delicious soups every day for 15 years at her street stall on Hoang Sa street in District 1. After making an appearance on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’ show No Reservations she became an unlikely international star. These days her regular office worker clientele mix with the tourists who have come from far and wide to sample her cooking. However, she tells Lieu Anh Vu fame has not changed her life or her passion for her work. Photos by Alex McMillan.
You became known around the world after Anthony Bourdain featured you on his television show. What did you think of that experience and did you ever imagine you would become so famous?
I don’t know how to express my feelings back then for you to understand, but generally I felt happy and excited when I knew that there were people living on the other side of the world thinking about me and missing Vietnam, and coming to this country. I paid a lot of attention to the newspapers that featured me. I never thought that one day I would become famous. Everything happened to me so suddenly. At first, it was only a few journalists eating at my stall. They thought my dishes were tasty and cheap, so they wanted to advertise my place to other Vietnamese.
How did this attention from the media change your life, and did it change the sort of customers you get?
My life hasn’t changed much and I’m still doing the same thing as before. It has been already a few years. Now I’ve become familiar with the media and the new customers. Many tourists know about my stall and visit as well. There are more people coming here than ever before.
How long have you been operating this business?
I started this business 15 years ago, but it was not until three years ago that it became known in the media. Recently I have been interviewed a lot. There was also someone from New York who came here to interview me. I heard that it was already broadcast over there.
Unlike many street vendors, you serve different dishes each day, why is that?
Yes I have different dishes for each day. I think that the customers would get tired of the dish if I just kept cooking the same one for every single day. Serving different dishes will enhance their appetite and they will like the food better.
How did you develop your recipes, did anyone help you?
I have quite a few dishes to satisfy the palate of my customers. I try to cook what they demand. Some of the dishes include pho, mien ga, bun thit nuong,nem nuong, cha gio, mi quang, bun cha ca. I developed all the recipes myself based on my experiences cooking over the years.
Why do you think your food has remained so popular?
First, I think my dishes suit the customers’ tastes. Second, they are quite cheap. Last but not least, perhaps the customers are quite fond of me, and that’s a very important thing.
Are you here every day of the week, and do you ever take any time off?
Nowadays I’m only here for six days a week. My older sister replaces me on Sunday. I used to serve bun thit nuong cha gio on Sunday, but now my sister serves hu tiu nam vang.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy everything about my job, because if you want to have a dish, you must love all the processes and the dish itself. Only then will your dish be delicious. From selecting the ingredients from the market to preparing the dish at home, I must love everything.
Can you imagine ever doing anything different?
No I don’t think I will be doing anything other than this. I might improve the facilities or move to a more proper place, or renovate my current place a little bit, if I have an opportunity. The customers are now familiar with me and my dishes, and I am a well-known person. Whatever I decide to do later on, I will stick to the business of serving food.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
I don’t think there is any secret at all. I’ve become successful because my customers have been loyal to me and always support my street stall. They even gave me the signboard “Lunch Lady” that I’ve put in front of my place now. Sometimes they bring me the photos, the articles featuring me, and the DVD of my interview from the US. I really appreciate all that.