Dining & Wine

We Met The Legendary Lunch Lady, And You Can, Too!

June 30, 2022

We recently told you all about the upcoming super-special multi-course dinners at Vancouver’s Lunch Lady restaurant, and all three seatings sold out in the first 15 minutes after announcement. No surprise. However, fret not. The legendary Lunch Lady, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh, will be onsite for the month of July at the Commercial Drive eatery so fans can still get a chance to meet her while she visits from Vietnam. Thanh was discovered at her Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) food cart by the late, so incredibly great Anthony Bourdain. In 2009 he included her in his CNN television series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, an episode focusing on his love of Vietnam, its people, and of course, the food. Meeting Bourdain dramatically changed Thanh’s life. We sat down with her live and in person, and chatted about her success story, and her first-ever visit to the Vancouver restaurant that honours her and bears the name of her food cart back home, given to her by the culinary rockstar himself. —Catherine Dunwoody

You must be so pleased to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Lunch Lady. We know you couldn’t be here for the grand opening in 2020 due to the pandemic. How does this feel today?

I am so happy. I’ll be here in Vancouver for the month of July at the restaurant, Tuesdays to Fridays from 12 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. In August I’ll be travelling across Canada since it’s my first time to visit the country. I’m excited to see Banff!

It was recently #BourdainDay. I know he was a dear friend of yours and you had a very special connection to him. You’ve called him your guardian angel. I believe he would be incredibly proud of your success, that sadly, he never lived to see. What would you say to him now if you had the chance?  

If Anthony was still with us, I would definitely give him a very tight hug and say, thank you. Because without Anthony, I would not be known as the Lunch Lady by the world, and maybe Vietnamese cuisine wouldn’t be as popular as it is. I have so much gratitude. We had a special bond.

You are such a skilled chef. Where did you learn to cook?  

I was not academically taught. Cooking was brought into the family, taught by my grandma, my mom, from generation to generation, learned at home.

Has your original food cart restaurant back home changed at all since you opened in 1995?  

After I met Anthony and appeared on the show, there was a huge change in the restaurant. Particularly it was not just locals visiting as before, but tourists came, too. I didn’t want to change the concept of the restaurant, it’s what Anthony loved about it, and I wanted to keep it like that. The volume has changed, but it’s still a street-vibe concept, a very casual restaurant. Just busier!

In 2018 Vancouver restaurateur Michael Tran came to meet you in Ho Chi Minh City. One sip of your soup Bourdain featured on his show, and he was hooked, too. How did you react when he asked you to consider collaborating on opening a restaurant here in Vancouver?

When he first mentioned the plan, I was excited and very grateful. I was able to keep the promise that I made to Anthony, to bring Vietnamese food, authentically, to westerners interested in the cuisine.

I think we can thank Michael for grabbing the baton Bourdain unknowingly passed him to support your success. Tony would be so proud of you both, don’t you think?

Yes, he would be very pleased.

Can you tell us about your cookbook?

My cookbook will be for sale here, and I’m happy to sign them. It includes my soup recipes plus main courses, crispy spring rolls and more.

At your restaurant back in Vietnam, you prepare a different soup for every day of the week, is that correct? How does it work here at Lunch Lady?

We prepare them here on the same daily rotation as my restaurant back home.

How has your life changed now? You must be a celebrity everywhere.

It has. After meeting Anthony and being on the show, I have received so much more than I have given away. I step out the door and tourists and foreigners recognize me and want to have photos taken with me. 

Such a privilege to meet you Mrs. Thanh, you’re an inspiration. Thank you.

I am very grateful for this; it brings me so much joy and makes me very happy.

thelunchlady.com

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