When you first meet DJ Lee, it doesn’t take long to note his infectious energy and passion. And not much longer after that to see how he was able to channel it into success. After years of touring around the world and performing at various EDM festivals (yes he’s also a DJ), Lee came back home to establish permanent roots that allowed him explore the delicious and diverse flavours of Vietnam’s bành mì.
We chatted to Lee about the journey that led him to the establishment of his popular eatery: Le Vietnam, the essentials for creating a perfect bành mì and the importance of local collaboration.
Before Le Vietnam you were travelling the world as a DJ. What was it that attracted you to music and touring as a creative outlet?
I feel that music is a given for most people. It’s a form of relaxation. When you listen to music you kind of vibe out into a zone where you can just relax. During breaks between classes at uni, I’d be listening to heaps of music. All sorts of music, from classical to R’n’B and hip hop.
Eventually that took me to EDM and dance music. I started making mixtapes, and the more I released, the more followers I built up. It got me some shows here and there and the next thing I know, I’m getting flown to different cities around the world to play even more [shows].
In the past you’ve talked about how you sort out Vietnamese cuisine while on tour for that taste of the familial. Can you tell us a bit about what happened in France that made you decide to open Le Vietnam?
While I was on tour… it was a sort of game. Every city I went to I had to have a bành mì. Just for the sake of it. It started when I was in Sydney, then in Brisbane, to Melbourne and then eventually Indonesia, Tokyo and took me around the world. Before I landed in any city, I’d message the organisers and ask them, ‘Where is your go-to bành mì place?’ A lot of [the organisers] had friends that owned stores. The advantage of that was I got to go into the shop while they were closed. I got to see [the cooks] prepping and have some really awesome conversations where they shared their insights and a lot of tips and tricks.
It was a game until I landed in Paris where it really hit me. I started to document all the things that I was learning and had learnt over the past couple of years. I did it because I was starting to miss home. It really dawned on me when we were at the hotel. I realised that I missed sitting around eating dinner with the family and little things like having friends over. After a show one night I said to [the organisers], ‘I’ve got to head home to Perth and just do something that will keep me home for a lifetime.’ That’s when I thought I’d give this bành mì stuff a crack. I needed something that I enjoyed and loved waking up to do every day. I’d worked in cafés and knew I loved it because of the face pace and how fast time flew by. I figured I’d open something; now [Le Vietnam] is almost nine years old.
From there you travelled through the cities and countryside of Vietnam to further understand the traditional flavours and regional variations of bành mì. What were some of the lessons from this trip that really stood out to you and informed the ethos of Le Vietnam?
We spent about five weeks in Vietnam. We travelled from the south, to the middle, to the north, to the very north. We ended up smashing through about 50 different types of bành mì. It was the same sort of game: every pit stop we had to tuck into a bành mì. Just to try it. Mainly because we knew that there were many different variations from city to city. Some have cold cuts of meat with a pâté, others have grilled meats with strictly no pâté. We even went to the place that Anthony Bourdain made famous and caught up with some friends who knew the owners. They took us into the back kitchen and gave us a tour of their local bakery where they bake all of their bread.
They were just happy that foreigners were keen to learn and were also interested in the Australian approach to bành mì. That was pretty cool and something I will cherish forever. I learnt so much from them.
You’ve since been crowned ‘Perth’s Bành Mì King’ how have you found the embracement by the local community?
It’s unbelievable how much support we’ve received. The busier and longer the lines the most excited our customers tend to feel. We’ve really blown up and were still trending. A lot of places have listed us as an iconic Perth location; a lot of tourists come through. I’m really happy that they’ve named me their ‘Bành Mì King’ – it’s pretty awesome. We’re always coming up with new creations to ‘wow’ not only the locals but internationally as well.
You proudly go above and beyond when it comes to making your bành mì – including sourcing local flour for your uncle’s recipe for Vietnamese baguettes. What in your opinion are the essential elements that are required to make the perfect bành mì?
Bread is the key. The first step is that traditional bread. We could’ve gone down the path where we made longer breads or bigger breads, but the Vietnamese community knows what’s right and what’s not. We decided to go strictly, one hundred percent, authentic; learn what’s traditionally done in Vietnam and keep it to what is found on the streets. My uncle is the baker and he bakes our bread on site. We make sure to never sell yesterday’s bread as well. We’re very strict on that. I want customers to have the most top quality [bread], freshest as possible, straight from the oven to the mouth.
Secondly, when Emily and I were in France we learnt how to make the pâté. We’re very grateful to have learnt that. The organisers of my DJ trips sort of knew people that knew people so they were able to dig in a bit deeper for me, do that research and build those bridges. I had my own connections with chefs and they were open to telling me what I needed and didn’t need to do. That was an essential part of the puzzle that became Le Vietnam. Learning that French technique was very important.
You haven’t shied away from serving up some new and interesting flavour combinations with both local and global inspirations. What is it about bành mì that you think makes it inherent to experimentation?
Everyone has different taste buds. We’re always trying to cater to as many people as possible. Some people might like beef, so we do a slow cooked beef brisket. We cook that for about 24 hours and it melts in your mouth. When Christmas time comes around we do lobster and prawns. I like to show people how I prepare things on my Instagram live feed so people can make it at home if they want to. I keep those traditional [bành mì] on the menu as well though. Strictly traditional. We get a fair percentage of the local Vietnamese community come through as well, and they’re the ones who’ve helped us to achieve the popularity and fame that we receive.
How does it feel to be one of the leading figures and promotors of Vietnamese cuisine and culture in Perth?
I’m really humbled by that, especially dealing with the higher tiers of Vietnamese events and councils. [The community] really adores this place and they invite me to a lot of their events which is really cool. It’s allowed me to inspire the younger generations as well. It’s cool that [the community] sees me at that level but Emily and I are really humble people; we don’t really think that highly of ourselves. We’re very ordinary people. We’re more than happy to share our tips and tricks, help younger generations and just share everything. If what we do motivates people then that’s a win for us.
You’ve collaborated with many local legends – including Deli’s Continental and Big Don’s Smoked Meats – how important are these culinary collaborations in terms of growing and expanding our local food scene?
I honestly believed that it is so important for local businesses. We pushed a lot of collaborations post COVID mainly because a lot of hospo spots were feeling it. Deli’s is a good example. We have our little cult following, they have their little cult following. We kind of fused them together to where both followings were supporting each other. The locals win because they get great local produce but the businesses also win because not only do we gain following but we also develop a new level of friendship. Even with Don’s – top tier collaborator with a huge following – we put our minds together and created a beef brisket bành mì that went viral.
Our most recent collaboration has involved making a bành mì vodka… We’re always trying to reach out to others and help locals collaborate with us so that we can give them more exposure. And it can really be anything like the vodka thing. I think collaboration is probably one of the biggest things that I love about Le Vietnam.
We can’t forget to mention your wife and Le Vietnam manager Emily. How important has it been to have her by your side during the growth and expansion of Le Vietnam?
It’s honestly been one of the best things ever. A lot of people say, ‘Don’t work with your wife because it can be like a tornado versus a volcano.’ But when you have someone that you trust in the business it helps you grow and makes your product even better. For example, I’m usually out the front taking orders and making sure all the orders are correct before they’re sent to the kitchen. Meanwhile, she’s in the kitchen making sure everything comes out as it should be. If it was just me by myself it’d be very hard. There’d probably be a lot of mistakes with no one there to catch them.
I’m really thankful that she’s there. She’s the heart and soul of the business and pulls it all together to make it work. I’m just the fun guy coming up with ideas; she’s the one making sure that it’s all sailing smoothly.
Le Vietnam is located at 1/80 Barrack Street in the CBD and is open 10am-3pm Monday-Friday. Chuck him a follow on INSTAGRAM.