When I sat down with chef Dung Trinh in the garden of his homestyle restaurant, An Nhau, he explained that he basically made everything. He planted the bamboo himself, built the gorgeous wooden canopies over the booths by hand, and, of course, he is in the kitchen with great frequency. What he did not have a physical hand in, he talked over with his co-owners. Trinh likes details and seems to have an enormous amount of patience- even for a chef. And, with that, An Nhau is beautifully atmospheric, on top of being wholesome of heart, and very, very pleasant to taste. I sipped two drinks: the green soy milk (herbal and addictive) and super strong and creamy, sweet Vietnamese coffee, and Trinh, with his glass of whiskey, shared about his life as a foodie, restaurant owner, homeowner, and growing up in Brooklyn.
Restaurants are often started on dreams and run by technicalities. During dinner, Trinh talked about both in equal measure, like any good chef/businessman. Trinh was born in south Vietnam and came, as he said “literally off a boat,” with his two brothers and parents, to Brooklyn. He attended culinary school and worked at La Esquina and Indochine, before opening Bánh Mì
. The date of the grand opening of An Nhau, 9-9-09, was chosen by Trinh’s mother, because she calculated that the day would bring them luck. She also told him that he had to have nine dishes on the menu. Though he didn’t feel totally ready to open his doors just then, he did have the required number of recipes and listened to his mother, whom he admires greatly. Many of the recipes -the mango salad, pork belly and egg, and caramelized catfish- are inspired by or borrowed from his mother’s kitchen. On the topic of how to make Vietnamese food in a region where there is not a high demand for Vietnamese imports (along with the overriding tension between the U.S. and Vietnam in the area of importation), Trinh said that he relies on his relationships within the Vietnamese community: “If we can’t find it here, we might have someone bring it up from Texas, where there’s a lot of Vietnamese. We still barter herbs and grains- it works.” Hey, by all means- do whatever works in this mad world.
He considers the level of freshness over the actual ingredients. As a culinary artist, he knows how to make a vegetable that is not native to the cuisine “taste Vietnamese,” as he put it. He freezes nothing, buys by the day, and grows many herbs himself; experimenting with new flavors as he goes- but those new flavors are not on the menu
yet. The last couple of years has been about establishing homestyle Vietnamese cooking in an area where it was previously lacking, and so he has. To set the record straight, he does for-real bánh mì right next door. An Nahu is a continuation of the effort to get Vietnamese cooking right for public consumption. Trinh is set on showing diners through their taste buds what Vietnam is about: intriguing blends of texture, everything from the sea, fresh vegetables, and delicate herbs. Eating with him is quite an experience, as he critiques texture, taste, and form in order to enhance the flavor of the food. He cannot help himself, and why should he? He loves food in much the same way as he appreciates the people who work in his kitchen, his family, and friends. The attitude is basically one of holism: everything is connected; keep a good balance and you will go far.
If food were just about ingredients and cooking, Trinh might not be as obsessed with it, but it’s important to note that he believes the way you eat a particular type of food is as important as the dish itself. From farm, to kitchen, to pot, to plate, to belly: everything should be done just so. For spring rolls, the lettuce and mint are not a garnish. You wrap the lettuce around the roll and place the mint inside, then dip it in the sauce. The lettuce cuts any (delicious) oil or saltiness (from the various seafood pastes used in place of salt in Vietnamese cooking) while adding vital nutrients and harmony of flavor. As he drizzled a traditional sauce over the caramelized sauce on my serving of the pork belly and egg, he explained “my cousin calls me a food Nazi, because I’m always telling people the best way to eat this or that, but you know: I just want them to get the best taste.” As I took a bite of the taste combination, I understood what he meant. There were layers of flavor; it was total comfort food, but it was not heavy. In terms of the pork belly and egg, I even detected the ingredient that seems to be part of the whole operation: Tender Loving Care.
An Nhau: 172 Bedford Avenue, NYC 11211 // (718)384-0028