Five minutes with… Anaïs Van Manen

The Vietnamese chef on research and menu development, working on multiple initiatives, being grateful and learning to trust yourself

Food and Drink 6 Apr 2021

How has your Vietnamese upbringing and heritage influenced your approach to food? 

My Vietnamese culture is omnipresent in my cooking, from its ethos to its dishes. Traditionally, a Vietnamese meal will include a multitude of dishes from meats, vegetables, sides, soup, and rice. We like to share food and I try to bring back this feeling as much as possible in my pop ups. The dishes are full of unapologetic flavours and freshness, which I try to convey in my cooking while using local ingredients.

How would you describe your approach to food and cooking?

I’m trying.

You have played a huge part in menu research and development for Bao alongside Erchen Chang. What is your process?

Research, research, testing and talking. We spend a lot of time going back and fourth with ideas and testing them. I think it’s important that one fails to find better results.

How important is it to you to learn about the cuisines of other cultures and how does it influence the way you create menus?

It might be romantic from my part but I believe that all cuisines are interlinked to each other by invisible threads that a chef has to uncover as he/she dives into each cuisine’s history and story. These threads allow you to create new dishes while respecting the past. Especially for my cooking, which doesn’t focus on innovation but also on comfort and nostalgia.

I absolutely love the concept behind Kitchenette Karts, can you explain more about the initiative? 

Kitchenette Karts was a social enterprise street food truck that mentors young ex-offenders and shows them how to run their own self-sufficient food business. Unfortunately, they are inactive at the moment.

What can you tell us about the projects you are working on at the moment and do you have any plans post-pandemic? 

Well, at the moment, I’m going through cancer, which obviously isn’t fun, but it allowed me to really take a new perspective on cooking. I’ve been trying to go back to why I started this career. I am still brainstorming on what’s going to happen next, post pandemic. I know for sure that I will keep on cooking and creating new ideas!

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from the uncertain nature of the past year?

To be grateful no matter what and to play the cards you’re dealt with, even if it’s bad hand.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given in your career and why?

To trust myself. I think it’s important to trust yourself to be able to create without compromise and fear. It’s such simple advice but so impactful on the dishes you send out.

Who is your role model and how have they influenced you in your work?

My father, He is the reason why I cook. I gave me my appetite, and the best memories I have with him are the meals we share. He had a passion for life that I admire.

What ingredient can you not live without and why?

Fish sauce. It’s such a beautiful flavour enhancer, and to me, it always bring me back home.

What item, apart from your passport, can you not travel without? 

Tough question, I tend to overpack so… I think I don’t need anything else. If I have my passport and money, I would go on a plane and just travel.

Where is your favourite place to eat in London? Why? 

Lyle’s and Bright. They never cease to surprise me, and I love how they respect each ingredient they put on the plate.

What do you like to do on your day off? 

Cook and eat, it’s funny but even when I’m off I like to cook. My boyfriend thinks I have an obsessive behaviour towards food. He’s delighted about that.

What, apart from food, are your biggest passions?

Japan, my cat, furniture design and Manchester United. I have a somewhat hyperactive brain, so I would get new obsessions/passions for a short amount of time and then move on to the next one.

If you could recommend one cookbook what would it be and why?

Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli. It is a book, I go back to a lot, when I doubt my love for food. The recipes have so many layers, and Paul Bertolli has a very natural way of writing, making it easy to read through. There is a chapter just about tomatoes, and I find that just so beautiful.

Can If you could choose anyone from today or history, who would be your ideal dinner party guest and why?

Would it be cliché if I say Dalí ? His book Les Diners Avec Gala has always fascinated me, and I wish he’d invited me.