A while ago we went to the opening of new Vietnamese street food spot Nghia n Nghia x Chow Amsterdam. Due to the great turn up we weren’t able to try out all there great dishes. So this was a great excuse to meet the guys behind this concept face to face and get to know them better, all the while munching down on the variety of their menu ofcourse.
Let’s start with introductions. Who are you guys?
NL: haha, I am Nghia La (on the right in the picture above) I was born in Malaysia where my family stayed a year before coming to the Netherlands. I grew up in Hoorn (North-Holland) from age 1 till 18 [Makes Hoorn-Kersenboogerd gang signs.] After that I moved to Amsterdam, my best bud Jaapie lived in Amsterdam when I was younger so I already got to know the city growing up. I stopped my formal education at a young age so at some point I turned my interest in computers, IT, in to a short career. Obviously I also did some partying and bullshit, so I went everywhere from north to south from east to west. But I always had a passion for sneakers and at one point I came in contact with a guy doing an internship at Blammo, the mother company of Gamekings, and we started a platform named Sneakerbaas. After a year and a half we switched over to an another project called Supercharged.TV and from there on I grew in the media field. Things started getting a bit easier to set up and before I knew it I became the “Knuffel Buddha” of the editorial crew. And not long after that I came to be the “KnuffelBuddha” of Gamekings. Not a lot of my Buddha look left though. After a couple of years at Gamekings I was approached by a friend of mine from the UK, Jay Read, to join him at Jilted Royalty. He asked me to become an Ambassador for him in Amsterdam. From that point on to starting up Nghia and Nghia became my next destination back in December. One month became two, became four, until quite some time passed and I ended up in the food business. So If you can make a job out your passion then that is what I did in life. From IT to Gamekings, from sneakers to Sneakerbaas, to Nghia N Nghia. Never trend following, always organic. There are things in life I wanted to try and see if I could become successful with. And with my network and background I just went with it. There is no magic formula, it’s all hard work and not giving up. It is investing a lot of love and time into people and passion and letting that grow over the years. And that love is returned in time, as we got to witness during the opening of your store. I don’t need anyone kissing my ass, just love. NH: And I am Nghia Huynh (on the left in picture above) Born in Saigon, Vietnam. Most Vietnamese outside Vietnam are boat refugees, refugees from the war. My parents moved with me to the Netherlands when I was 1 to Blaricum, North-Holland, where we stayed till I was 6. At that point we moved to Amsterdam-Oost, which is the best district in the city. ViaHenri: Well that is debatable ^_^ hihi. NH: Every year I go back to Vietnam, for the culture and experience. In Vietnam we always eat outside. Everyone does. Streetfood is so cheap it makes no sense to cook at home. There is where my passion from Vietnamese food comes from. What else do you want to know about me?
It is interesting to see that you go back to Vietnam every year. Is the shop maybe also a manifestation of you missing the culture and home feeling in this city?
NH: When I land in Vietnam, and step out of the plane, I instantly feel more at home than I do here (in the Netherlands). I feel more comfortable. My aunt in Vietnam has a foodshop she is such a great cook. What she makes there I can’t even try to do here. Like for instance certain tahoe dishes. There is this type of Tahoe crispy like crispy pork and with soooo much flavour. Food is a large part of the culture that I miss, as Nghia La already said, here in Amsterdam you just can’t find a place that fulfills that need. So then it becomes a natural choice to do it yourself, because that demand for that bit of culture is very alive within yourself. At the opening you could see so many people drop by to show some love, and that confirms that feeling that there just isn’t a real Vietnamese shop where that that need for authentic Vietnamese food is met. Even though in other International cities such as Paris, London, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles they do have that demand fed. All those world cities have Vietnamese food. They recently announced that there is a Vietnamese place opening in Antwerp as well, which shows that this (Vietnamese food) is definitely spreading over the world.
Both of you don’t have a food background? So what brought you to this field?
NL: Well we’ve done a lot of different things before this. Nghia Huynh has some background in nightlife, and I come from Marketing, PR and what not, so our background is very broad in that sense. But we’re both Vietnamese, so we grew up on Vietnamese food and know it like no other. At one point Nghia H and me came together and I asked him “why not start something Vietnamese together?” this is about 2 years ago. So we come from different fields, but what brought us here is our joined passion. NH: In Amsterdam there was hardly any Vietnamese food unless it was Chinese-owned. There was nothing authentic, and we felt we needed to make a change in that.
So you were missing the authenticity you were raised on?
NL: Yeah we were missing it a lot ourselves. The thing is a lot of Vietnamese come to study here in Amsterdam, but they have to go all the way home to let’s say Groningen, Limburg or wherever their parents life in this country to get some good Vietnamese Pho or a sandwich and that’s just ridiculous. Many students, commuters and all those youngsters don’t know how to cook! So what happens? They have to go home every time they want some decent home cooking or search for an alternative in the city. But like Nghia H mentioned unless you go to a Chinese-owned Vietnamese place, which miss that authentic flavour, there isn’t really an alternative. It is something Vietnamese here really miss, a place you come in where real Vietnamese food is cooked and Vietnamese is spoken, so you feel that bit of authenticity and home. We promise our visitors that our food is the real deal, all the way authentic. Real Family Recipes.
How did you to learn those family recipes and how to implement them?
NL: They’ve been broken down in such steps that almost anyone should be able to learn them, but what you then get is that you always add a little bit of your personal taste to the mix. More of one ingredient here, less of the other maybe there, changing the recipe according to the person. I for instance like things to be just a bit more sweet and with a bit more spices. There is a big difference in cooking for a few hundred people or just for a family of 4 though. So we adjusted things here and there when cooking for a large number of people, but it’s all still family recipes.
It’s nice to see you guys not just about being authentic, but you’re keeping it close to home also. Did that make the step to start this more exciting for you?
NL: You start something because you miss it in Amsterdam, and others do so also. But then the question remains if the people of Amsterdam are going to embrace it as well. The people that pass by to eat, what will they think, and what do the Vietnamese think of it? Those are my countrymen. But the responses have been positive up until now I have to say. Very positive even! ViaHenri: We heard from a few foodies that you guys are the best Pho in this town. NL: That is a good compliment. Nice compliment. But that is really also the motivation to start this. The Vietnamese kitchen in the Netherlands is/was only known for the Dutch Vietnamese egg rolls. What actually doesnt really excist. Most people don’t just know the Vietnamese Kitchen and what it entails, it this is a good start to make them familiar with real Vietnamese food.
And if we talk food, where do you get your inspiration from?
NL: My mom man. Since I can remember she’s been in the kitchen. I love her cooking! When I go home to Hoorn she always asks beforehand what I want. She can spend a whole day preparing food with the utmost care and love. She works with such precision on marinating, slow cooking…Vietnamese is not the type of food that you throw on the stove and it’s done. It needs attention to get all the flavours just right. I was interested in my mom’s cooking before my sister was, I stood next to her in the kitchen as a little kid watching her prepare everything. My mom is from a from a strict upbringing, military lineage, where she had to learn to cook despite her favourable position as the daughter of an high officer. All my aunts and everyone had to learn to cook under the observing eye of my grandma. That is your basics, whether you are rich or poor, it is a basic skill in life that you’ll always need. Everyone needs to eat. I acquired that skill also and have the fortune that in a western country I can use that skill to make a living. The Pho is my mother’s recipe, we owe that one to her. From the family passed down to me, and it has every bit of her in there. It is all mom’s. She still helps with the pork even, I couldn’t do that one without her. She is so supportive, when I told her I was starting this she came to back me a 100%, she goes in full throttle. And that was the first step that I needed to know that I was doing good with this. She recently told my aunts in Vietnam and they were like WOW. When people here the story of Nghia and Nghia they understand more about the Vietnamese kitchen and then ask: But where did those Vietnamese spring rolls come from then? Vietnamese spring rolls are make believe, they’re Walt Disney!
Pho is a term that has been increasingly more popular over the years, especially after the Anthony Bourdian Vietnam Episode. So convincing that we even followed his list in NYC.
NH: Anthony Bourdain is my hero. He’s been back to Vietnam over a dozen times just for the food. Funny story actually, 3 years ago I was in Vietnam and just before an episode had aired of Anthony. He was touring around to the best food places in Vietnam with his teacher, a renowned French chef, that lives in Vietnam. The episode has “The soup-lady”. ViaHenri: Yes! Exactly, we remember this episode. People were waiting in the middle of the street in line for the soup lady on the square. NH: Every day of the week this soup lady serves one type of soup. You have to line up real early once she opens, because when she runs out, you’re out of luck. And since Anthony Bourdain visited her in that episode, that square where she stands has been crowded with worldwide food-bloggers. I remember passing by, it is not in the middle of the city, but more on the outskirts, you really have to go there to find it, the city is immense. At one point I saw tourists queuing up and slurping and eating there and that is a beautiful sight. Because of Anthony Bourdain, these food-tourists now keep an eye on Vietnam. And this lady gets to sell her soup to tourists. The soup is super good I can tell you, because I’ve eaten there as well. I’ve followed a few addresses that I got via Anthony as well, but it is still different than knowing places as a local.
And if we look at dreaming and goals for in the future, are there any goals that you’ve set for yourselfs?
NL: We already offer Catering. But expanding the business is not realistic yet at this point in time. We thought about it ofcourse, there are so many more dishes and things to let people explore. But for now not nearly enough locals have eaten here yet, so they still need that ‘Basic” introduction into this kitchen. So we are not at a stage to think about expanding yet. First goal would be to stay open till later. At the moment we are open from 11am till 5pm, and we’re closed on Mondays. But we are getting a lot of responses, also from the neighborhood, asking why we can’t be open till say 9pm to also serve dinner. The thing is that at the moment the kitchen runs on just us two and we are limited in how much time we can spend each day/week without asking too much of ourselves. If we start working from 9am till 9pm we’d be exhausted, the first weeks we’d run on adrenaline and drive, but we both work 6 to 7 days a week. And we do need our energy levels to stay on point to continue with this passion. So we see as we go for the moment. NH: We got a nice organic flow going on, just look at our Social Media channels. People come by, tag us, even though we only have around 3 pictures ourselves. There is a lot of online buzz. It is not something we’ve consciously invested time in at the moment, even though we are planning to utilize it more in the future.