Amid the style-conscious, modern décor of a new Vietnamese restaurant in Kitsilano, there's an anomaly: non-descript, empty tin cans, larger than soup cans, are on each table, slightly appearing out of place.
But they're actually a throwback to Vietnamese history.
In a chat with the Georgia Straight at her new place, owner and cook Chi Le explains that these cans were used to contain dried milk during the Vietnamese War. After their contents were emptied, she says, they were widely used as utensil holders and could be commonly seen at Vietnamese eateries across the country.
For her new establishment—Chi Modern Vietnamese Kitchen at 1935 West 4th Avenue which has its soft opening today (August 25)—she shipped 29 of them from the U.S. They were difficult to find but she wanted to maintain a connection to Vietnam's past.
It's interesting, then, that she chose a location in Kits, which was the locus of Vancouver's hippie community and the local anti-Vietnam War movement.
Le says she lost several of her 11 siblings during the war, and the rest scattered across the world after 1975. Originally from Bình Dinh province in central Vietnam, she moved to Vancouver in 1990 and is now a mother of four children.
Although she never intended on becoming a cook despite her lifelong love of cooking, there was a pivotal event that took her back to her homeland where she became a celebrity for her culinary talents.
A friend, who knew how well she cooked, signed her up—without her knowledge—to compete on MasterChef Vietnam in 2014.
A reluctant Le flew to Saigon, where she said she had trouble recognizing the country she once knew. She noticed people spoke faster, were less trusting, and had a preference for Western cuisine.
Although she finished as a runner-up on the show, she toured across the country with famous chefs as she was recognized on the street, signed autographs, and posed for selfies. She has since written two cookbooks (one in Vietnamese and another in English) and became an inspiration for many Vietnamese people.
On the eve of her opening of her 50-seat, 2,000 square-foot restaurant, the former jewellery designer says she feels nervous in the way a student might feel before taking an exam at school. It's her first restaurant.
The reason she wanted to open one, she explains, is because she feels there are many aspects of Vietnamese cuisine that aren't fully represented here.
"I want to make a difference in Vietnamese food because I know there's so much more," she says.
With a preponderance of pho, bánh mí, and street-market dishes, she feels there's a lot of affordable, casual food in Vancouver "but you don't have a whole cultural experience", she says, such as shared family meals or dishes for special occasions.
She's hoping to change that, with her menu, which she says will change with the seasons.
Among her offerings are raw bar selections, including a tangy so diep song (Atlantic sea scallop) with cucumber, citrus, red Thai chili, and black tobiko.
She points out her bo luc lac (Vietnamese) shaken beef, ga kho to (chicken clay pot), ca nuong (chargrilled eggplant salad), and goi vit (barbecue duck salad with peanuts and cabbage), and can chua ca (tamarind soup that she says many mothers cook for family meals) as highlights and as "very Vietnamese".
She also hopes to hold cooking lessons eventually, and she will announce the grand opening once the liquor licence is approved. Eventually, she also hopes to offer cà phê trung (Vietnamese egg coffee).
All in all, she doesn't take her blessings for granted.
She has seen the tough life of women sitting on the streets of Vietnam in 40 degree weather for 30 years of their lives. She hopes to expand their aspiration by showing them what other possibilities the world has to offer.
"I feel so lucky to have the life I have," she says. "I want to show, if I can do [it]...and there are millions of mothers stay[ing] in Vietnam homecooking who look at me and [I] can say, 'Here I am. I can do it. You can do it.' "