The success of LêLê restaurants was once famous as a legend in the media in Copenhagen. The road to success is definitely not always smooth. Could you please share that story with The World and Vietnam Report?
My family of six persons arrived to Denmark in 1979 with nothing but a black back with some clothes.
Denmark then was different and everybody was alike: poor but very helpful.
My parents get integrated quickly and after six years my mother had passed a Danish education as chef.
She and my father opened a fast-food restaurant in 1986 where they provided Asian food. They couldn’t find employees so after school my three brothers and I worked in the restaurant for almost 17 years.
During 1992 until 2002 my siblings and I travelled and had lived in USA, France and Vietnam. We were all in search for our Vietnamese roots and finally in 2003 the four of us decided to open a restaurant in the capital to tell our story: a passion of Vietnamese food and to show Scandinavians that Vietnamese food is something different than other cuisines.
From day one our restaurant was full and the Danes were in love with our food. They have so far only tried Thai food, Japanese sushi.
We chose the name LêLê because of my father’s last name Lê. But the meaning was important to us we were four siblings so it equals LêLê. The hat over “ê” means our parents. In our old former Vietnamese writing “chu Nho”, the hat over “ê” means roof and roof is parents.
So LêLê is our family of four siblings and our parents.
From 2003 to 2018, we had 11 restaurants of different concepts as street food, takeaways, banh mi shop and fine dining restaurant with wine and cocktails with food from the Huế Kitchen (this restaurant is of 600 m2 with 250 seats), a production kitchen, producing salads and warm meals for a supermarket and 7Eleven and franchising to a French company with 200 employees.
As siblings we worked hard and trusted only in each other. We were strong as we had different areas to supervised. Dzung, my oldest brother was educated waiter and good at wine, cocktails and service system. Son, the second brother, was educated at Denmark Design school and was in charge of the design for LêLê, decorating all the restaurants as the logo. Lam, the youngest one, was administration and I was responsible for the food and marketing.
|Anh Le's mom and the family's restaurant since the early days.|
|One of the LêLê's kitchens served street food.|
My mother always said: “You are like a table with four legs and the table can’t stand on one, two or three legs but only on four legs”.
We showed the Scandinavians how to eat Vietnamese dishes and we did it in a modern way. We worked hard as we came to Denmark with nothing and had to rebuild a new life. It was important for us to build a place to belong to, network and friends but most important to have something we can give to our children and parents (as our parents gave to us).
In 2018 we agreed that we siblings have grown the company big and want to sell the company but that we weren’t capable to do it and need someone professional to make the company ready to sell.
We hired a CEO and after a year he got percentage of the company. From then the story writes itself when greed shows its face.
The CEO emptying the company for cash, spending on projects, travels and vacation and didn’t pay company taxes.
The taxes gave our company two weeks to pay the tax and we ended with bankruptcy. We found an investor to save the company and 90 employees.
In December 2019 my siblings and I was no longer a part of the LêLê – we decided to stepped out as the investor’s vision was not the same as ours.
Once again, we stood back with nothing. We lost everything and had nothing but our experiences and family.
It was hard. We were knocked down and devasted. Losing everything after 40 years hard work in Denmark in a moment of trust.
For a year my siblings and I were angry and we couldn’t stop blaming ourselves for being too naïve until my parents sit down and said to us: “We never looked back with sorrows but always forward with hopes. It isn’t the materials or money that are important to our family. The essence of life is that we all are in good health and we are together as a family. Small good things in life are happiness and everything else can come as an extra bonus”.
And my parents are right. For the first time in 20 years my brothers and I have been sitting and eating together, talking, laughing and drinking.
We have been working so hard for the last 20 years that we didn’t have time together. Money can’t buy happiness.
We work much less now. We have more time for the fun small things and we spend time together. We don’t work together but help each other.
My happiest memory was when we were children together. This connection we have rebound after the hard time of three years ago.Hard time makes us stronger.
|Anh Le's books are very popular with Danish women.|
How many cook books about Vietnamese food have you written in Danish? What is the response from readers?
I have made 3 cook books: LêLês Gadekoekken (street kitchen), LêLês Groenne Koekken (Green Kitchen) and LêLês Urtekoekken (herb kitchen). I have co-written with 3 other authors in a climate cook book with some of the best chefs in Denmark, and the latest cook book in 2018 with Princess Marie and gourmet chefs.
My own cook books are the bestselling ones in Gyldendal publisher.
My Vietnamese recipes was made so a normal household in Denmark can make themselves and the reason why I was a regular TV chef in the national TV for 6 years.
|Vietnamese cuisine is now well known by many Scandinavians.|
What do you think when introducing Vietnamese cuisine to Danes?
My family was the one that introduced the Scandinavians for Vietnamese food in 2003 where only few know about it. You had to go to Paris or the big cities in USA to find Vietnamese food. So Vietnamese food in Scandinavia in 2003 was like to go find a restaurant in the jungle.
It was difficult to explain the Danes what raw fish sauce is and why should they eat herbs when in 2003 in most restaurant scenes was like a steak with fries.
But it was all about storytelling and passion. We started in 2003 with street kitchen of the goi cuon (fresh spring roll), pho (Vietnamese noodle), ca ri ga (chicken curry) and bun thit nuong (vermicelli with grilled meat).
In the year 2008 with IT and economy crisis, we convinced the Danes that they need takeaway and that it is cheaper. We made a whole line of takeaway of finger food as spring rolls, goi cuon, wontons, etc. In 2010 we showed them Huế cuisine pairing with cocktails and wine. In 2016, it was banh mi and bao stalls in market place and Copenhagen airport.
It is hard work, lots of storytelling but as well a lot of showing up to TV shows as writing cookbooks to talk about the Vietnamese food. When they see they understand and it took like 20 years to teach the Danes to eat Vietnamese food from the different kitchens: from the farmer kitchen, street kitchen as our fine dining from the imperials time in Huế Kitchen.
In 2012, I was the host in the food programme “Eat Vietnam” where I made six episodes going to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Phu Quoc to show the food and people there.
The TV programme was shown in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.
Therefore, to my siblings and I, introducing Vietnamese food to the Scandinavians means that we are telling our stories, showing our roots and proud of our culture.
|Chef Anh Le with her royal friends and the book co-written with Princess Marie.|
What is the factor that makes your dishes always pure Vietnamese?
When living in a cold country you can’t always get the Vietnamese products. But to me, Vietnamese food is when using the best quality which means I have to use local Danish products and pairing it with the fish sauce and herbs to make it become Vietnamese food for me.
It isn’t logic if I import a frozen Vietnamese fish to do ‘canh chua’ when I have lots of fresh Danish fish. But the fish sauce has to be import from Thanh Ha in Phu Quoc (smile).
And real Vietnamese is that the recipes are by my grandmother from Hanoi and my mother from Saigon.
Do you have plans to develop Vietnamese dishes in the future?
I do not intend to develop more Vietnamese dishes because I have spent 20 years introducing those dishes to the Danes. Now is the time to reap the fruits of the hard work of the past. I have just reopened my Vietnamese bakery and will fulfill my dream of making the Danes “addicted” to the favorite dish I dream of eating everyday: that is ‘bun dau mam tom’ (tofu in fermented shrimp paste with meat balls and noodles) just like the taste in the streets of Hanoi.
You must still have a lot of feelings about Vietnam!
For years I have been travelling and working all over the world: in the United States (New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles), France, Schweiz and Denmark. And I must admit that my happiest two years in my life was in Ho Chi Minh City in 1995 to 1997. When my son turns 18, I would like to live more in Ho Chi Minh City, around Hanoi and in Da Lat. This is my goal in the next five years.
For 45 years I have been searching for my roots by living in different countries. I have seen tall Vikings all my life, meeting brown, black and red color people and trying their food. Learning a lot from the different cultures and having a good time in the different cities.
But finally, when looking in the mirror I see an Asian woman, when thinking of my memories it was always the first in my first five years of life with the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the green rice fields of Song Be and the language of my grandparents. And the dishes that satisfied me most and, in my dreams, when craving for food are Vietnamese dishes.
Once when I was stranded a cold winter in Warsaw (I was then flight attendant for Swissair in 1999). Walking around in the big market I was somehow very happy and I realized first after 30 minutes that all the stalls there were owned by Vietnamese people. Wherever I am around the world, I always look for a Vietnamese restaurant.
It tells my longing for Vietnam.
|The crowded Bánh mì CPH that Chef Anh Le has just opened, serves Vietnamese-style bread.|
|Every time we sat together, the laughters seemed endless.|
By: Thanh Chau
Photo and video source: CNA, Anh Le, Thanh Chau
Design: Nguyen Hong