The fresh prince of balmain
LES HUYNH IS a man on a mission: a mission to make Sydney a healthier place to eat. With the dual launch of his new book, Takeaway: Noodle Soups, Salads and Stir-Fries, a collection of colourful and fragrant dishes for the time-poor, and his Bar Asia chain of noodle bars (the first in Annandale, and most recently in Brighton Le Sands) the chef and businessman is hell bent on changing the eating habits of the modern man.
“We have access to freshness and produce that they don’t have elsewhere and [we] need to educate people. It’s all about planning and quick results, there’s no excuse to say, I don’t have time. There’s a convenience-led culture when it comes to food; we spend a lot more time working, so I came up with the concept of Bar Asia for that reason; you see people eating fast food, but bad fast food and life’s too short to eat bad food. This [Bar Asia] way is fast, but still nutritional and fresh. That’s my recipe, fast and fresh.”
If ‘fast and fresh’ weren’t enough of a catch cry to get people into the new generation of noodle bars, then maybe Huynh’s rationale behind it will: “At Bar Asia, you’re in and out for convenience – what we do is value for money. It costs customers $11 for noodles in a box. If they were to buy all of the ingredients from the market it would cost them a lot more than that. And that’s the catch: why do it yourself when we can do it for you at a cheaper price?”
Why, indeed. But, despite Huynh’s zealous enthusiasm for a healthy version of the late-night takeaway, in no way is the restaurant experience becoming obsolete. Head chef of Balmain institution, Blue Ginger, for 10 years, the Asian food master knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant; no small feat in the competitive climate of one of the world’s most food-savvy cities.
“The restaurant game is one of the hardest there is. It relies on, not just [the end] product, but design, service, and prices. It’s like running a V8 engine. One cylinder breaks down and it’s no good, so it’s vital that we’re fine-tuning things day in and day out. What you see here today doesn’t happen overnight. In the service industry, it doesn’t matter whoever walks through the door, as long as you treat them how you would want to be treated – that’s the secret.”
Not one to rest on his laurels when things are going good, Huynh believes in striving for constant improvement. “I’m always trying to find an edge to be ahead of everyone else – it’s crucial. I’m a man who believes strongly that we never stop learning. Food is the same, it’s my occupation and because I have such a passion for it, I think about food all the time.” A love of Asian cooking and favourite ingredients, such as garlic, tamarind, palm sugar, lemon grass, has got Huynh to where he is today and, given the Australia-wide popularity of all orientally-inspired culinary creations, this is no bad thing.
“Asian food has always been what I cook, and I think in life, you should stick to what you know best and be good at it. I’m a very unorthodox cook and chef – for me, anything goes. The most important thing is, give me the food, I’ll taste it and I’ll tell you whether it’s good or bad. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a 100-year old recipe; if it doesn’t taste good, it’s pointless. At Blue Ginger, we have a basic menu that people don’t want us to change, then we always have a monthly special that focuses on seasonal produce and introduce new dishes. It’s more of a test for feedback from the customers, but it then might get added on to the permanent menu.”
So with all of this energy devoted to food, it is a relief that Huynh finds time to relax and avoid the burnout that affects so many successful chef’s. “My daily escape is when I go for an early morning jog. I used to get obsessed [with work] but now I’m a bit older, I try to understand myself a bit more. You have to long term. Everyone in this industry suffers burnout sooner or later. I do from 3km to 5km every morning, get my head clean, and that’s how I escape from everyone else, in my own world.”
There’s no question that Les Huynh, a man who aims to look after the digestive health of his clientele, will overlook himself. So what does the future hold for the man who already has so much?“Sometimes in life, it’s not how hard you work. If you’re passionate about your work, eventually things will come to you. My goal is to do what I really love to do – have a little restaurant where I cook that’s full every night and [be able to] cook the food I love, not worry about whether it’s going to be a sustained business or not. To me that’s the most important thing. Passion for cookery that’s not overtaken by money worries.”
barasia.com.au / blueginger.com.au
Blue Ginger, 241 Darling Street, Balmain,
02 9818 4662