As we walked into Cô Thành, we were greeted by the smell of lemongrass, basil, lime and a hint of chilli wafting through the air. With the faint smell of Vietnamese coffee lingering deeper inside the restaurant, the atmosphere definitely reminds one of the streets of Saigon (without the motorcycles).
That vibe is exactly what Brian Woo, the only apprentice of Nguyen Thi Thành, also known as the Lunch Lady, wanted to bring to Hong Kong, along with her dishes from the heart of Saigon. Featuring a rotating menu every day of the week, with only one noodle dish per day, the Lunch Lady‘s street stall attained international fame when Anthony Bourdain visited it on his TV show No Reservations and fell in love.
Without further ado, the Lunch Lady entered with a warm smile on her face, donned her signature hat and sat down to tell us more about herself.
When and how did you start cooking?
I’ve never been to any culinary school, but I was raised in a family of food lovers and great cooks. My mum, my sister and I were all into cooking good Vietnamese food. When I was 28 years old, I saw my sister’s food stall doing very well, selling only in the morning, so I thought it would be a good idea doing lunch, and that was how I started.
How did you decide on the current menu?
I wanted to do something different each day. I didn’t want my customers to eat spicy every day, so I decided to serve different flavours each day. As for the particular order, I just happened to arrange them in that order.
Serving only one kind of noodle each day, what do you do if something goes wrong while cooking?
I’ve been doing this for decades and decades without ever encountering any problems with ingredients. I have a lot of confidence in my abilities.
Are there times when you have considered giving up?
It has never crossed my mind about giving up cooking. I believe that cooking comes from the heart and that my greatest joy is when customers eat my food and like it because it’s delicious. If anything, I want to cook until I can no longer cook, due to old age. I want to spread the gift of Vietnamese food to the whole world.
How has gaining international fame changed your life?
Generally, my life hasn’t really changed, but I love how people recognise me and thus are happy to see me. I love it when they go the Lunch Lady! when they see me, come over to take photos with me and tell me how delicious my food is. With so much satisfaction in my career and my cooking, I believe that it has made me happier, you know, and the happiness has translated into better food for the customers.
What would you say makes your dishes special and stand out from competitors, since they seem to be quite commonplace in Vietnam?
I have three main reasons. Firstly, everybody has different ways of cooking the same dish, so I believe my own personal style is one of the reasons. Number two would be that I use fresh and good produce; I am very selective about what goes into my dishes. The last reason would be that I really appreciate and value the customers, so I’m always trying to please the customers and make sure that they are happy.
How do you feel about your apprentice finally opening a shop and spreading your cooking overseas?
I’m very grateful and proud of Brian as my disciple. He’s a really good student, and more than anything else, he has really tried to capture and replicate my spirit and cooking as authentically as possible. I’m really proud and happy that this is finally happening. When I tasted Brian’s food, I found it to be 90 per cent similar to mine. The 10 per cent is by no means a criticism of his abilities but is due to the differences in available produce. The quality is just different and much less available in Hong Kong. Then again, I’m really proud of Brian, and I want him to expand all around the world in the near future. I want Cô Thành signs all over the world!
Have you tried any Hong Kong food and, if so, what do you think about the food here?
Yes, I have, and I have to say that Chinese cuisine is one of the best in the world, alongside Vietnamese cuisine.
2–4 Kau U Fong, Sheung Wan, no phone