5 minutes with Jerry Mai

04 September, 2018 by
Jerry Mai

The chef talks about everything from changing diner perceptions of Vietnamese food to the importance of seasonal produce.

I launched Annam because I wanted to share my style of Vietnamese food; a different kind of Vietnamese food that perhaps people weren’t used to. Vietnamese cuisine is so much more than popular stir fries and rice paper rolls; it is much more complex, wonderfully aromatic, nutritious and exciting.

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We have built a loyal following of diners who have been inspired to try something new. We are having great fun with the menu, though there are a couple of dishes we can never remove such as our waffle-crumbed fried ice cream which has achieved a bit of a cult status on Instagram.

The dining experience differs greatly between Pho Nom and Annam. Pho Nom offers accessible Vietnamese street food in a fast-paced setting. Most people who come to Pho Nom are after a quick, tasty and nutritious bite. Annam is a dine-in restaurant with a ‘family dinner’ approach.

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I want diners at Annam to fully experience the joy of sharing dishes. The menus are also very different at each venue. Pho Nom has all the popular Vietnamese dishes people have grown accustomed to in Australia including pho, rice paper rolls and banh mi. Annam’s food is unlike what many expect from Vietnamese cuisine. We play off traditional dishes but give ourselves licence to experiment.

Although the two are very different, they are linked by a paddock-to-plate philosophy. It’s incredibly important to cater to a wide audience. Not only from a revenue perspective, but I’m trying to show people that eating ethical, sustainable and nutritious food doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. The broader the reach, the more opportunity to educate and spread the message.

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At my restaurants, you tend to leave feeling light and energised rather than weighed down. Also, the flavours we use are more diverse than standard Vietnamese fare. I love incorporating elements of Cambodian and Thai cuisines alongside traditional Vietnamese flavours. At Annam, we use the chargrill often and incorporate plenty of smoky flavour into the dishes. I love cooking with fire and burn specific types of wood in-house, so I can control the flavour.

It is so important to get to know the people producing your ingredients, and it is at the core of what I do. Producers are full of valuable information and can help you get the best out of the season. I have close relationships with many of my producers and have learned so much from them. A good example is seasonal purchasing of meat. It is widely known vegetables are seasonal but less understood that meat also follows a trend. Warmer seasons bring demand for steaks and premium cuts, whereas when it gets cold, the secondary cuts become more popular for stews and pies. My producers have helped me understand how I can alter my menu to ensure they are selling off the whole animal rather than letting certain cuts go to waste.

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s July issue. Subscribe here.

Image credit: Eddie Jim