Souped Up

Restaurateur Margaret Nguyen shares her thoughts on the role of food in bringing us together

Six years ago, Margaret Nguyen and her mother Kim opened Café O-mai in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley. Margaret’s food philosophy has its roots in her Vietnamese heritage and in all her choices connected with the café, she is focused on creating a deep sense of community with locals and a welcoming environment for anyone that comes through her doors. Margaret is collaborating with QPAC’s Food & Beverage team on BrisAsia Symposium 2019. Ahead of the event, we learn about her philosophies and beliefs.

Is there a key philosophy you have towards food and community that has shaped your café?

I grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, the hub of Vietnamese food. It’s loud, busy, colourful, with a bountiful array of exotic fruits and vegetables. I would get my Pork bánh mì fix weekly with pate oozing, lips swollen from the hot chilli and soy sauce dripping. It would give me palatal cuts from the extra crunchy baguettes, but it was worth every bite!

The food I serve now is essentially from my childhood memories. My mum Kim Nguyen is the cook at Café O-mai. She calls herself a home cook not a chef. She cooks from the heart and you can taste it in her food because she cares about it. It is uncomplicated, honest comfort food, with freshness of the produce maintained without added MSG.

Food evokes memories and conjures nostalgic feelings. We use charcoal to grill our meat dishes. The smell of charcoal takes me to the hustle and bustle of the streets of Vietnam. We also serve our Vietnamese coffee the traditional way through a drip filter. It’s a few extra steps but it is worth the wait. There is something so romantic about watching the coffee slowly dripping over lashings of condensed milk. These elements contribute to the overall dining experience. We have educated and changed our diners’ palate over the last six years, such that it is totally acceptable to enjoy a bowl of steaming pho at 7am.

When I came up with the concept of Café O-mai I wanted to create a safe space where everyone is welcome. We offer an inclusive menu and everyone is welcomed at our table. I know people’s names and stories, their favourite dish and this makes everyone feel special. We have invigorated a once sleepy street of Annerley, creating a deep sense of community the locals are proud to embrace.

As an Australian with Vietnamese heritage and an advocate of vegan culture, what have you learned about or seen change in the role food plays in bringing people together, fostering a sense of belonging?

Food breaks down barriers between people. If you were meeting a friend at a restaurant, breaking bread together sets a lighter tone. As humans, we all crave connections with others.

Back in 2012 I noticed a lack of vegan options in Brisbane. The beauty of Vietnamese cuisine is how well it blends in with vegan requirements. For instance, Vietnamese don’t use dairy in their cooking. There is also a large Buddhist population in Vietnam, so vegan food is very accessible. In the first year we opened, I said to mum let’s ‘veganise’ our pho so everyone can enjoy it. I had many conversations with customers saying they haven’t had a pho in so many years because they have gone vegan. So we gave birth to the ‘original gangster’ vegan pho, the first vegan pho of Brisbane. It is so popular it has evolved into a deluxe vegan pho with all the different soy protein with crispy bean curd on top. Even meat eaters come in for the vegan pho on their meat free days!

We have created a safe and non-judgemental environment where vegans or vegetarians don’t have to explain their needs to the waiter. As a vegan, it is always a treat to see a section on the menu that is dedicated to plant based diets.

I believe that if a restaurant doesn’t offer vegan options for diners these days, the establishment is not evolving. There is still a huge stigma around vegan food but that is quickly changing. At the end of the day, we desire connection. Being able to offer food that helps people connect is a great achievement.

Increasingly our choices about what we eat are framed as moral or environmental acts. How do you think our relationship with food is changing?

There are more and more establishments that are voicing their views about sustainable practices. We are educating our customers on ways to preserve our planet.

In recent years, I have noticed a gravitation towards eating unprocessed food. For me, I like to look back to what my ancestors ate 100 years ago. When my mother was in Vietnam, their portion of protein was very minimal. They would split 500 grams of meat between seven people in the family. Rice, different types of greens, stir fries and vegetable soup was what filled them up. We have gained insight into the way food makes us feel and how it affects our emotions. The food that we digest has an effect on our health and can alter our moods, our gut being the second brain.

We have a deeper understanding about where our food is sourced. There is a stronger relationship between farmers, growers and consumers. We have more choices to shop at farmers markets to directly support our local producers and a fairer food system. We are teaching our children where their produce is from. Giving them firsthand information of where the meat they are eating is coming from – not packaged from the supermarkets. It’s vital that we do this for our children and their future.

Food is an important factor in our religious and cultural identities. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam all have guidelines about what or what not to eat. Outside of religious practices, what are some of the ways you’ve seen food used to nourish a spiritual or psychological craving?

I remember when I was in high school, mum and I had a big falling out and she didn’t apologise. My parents’ generation knew how to work hard to provide for the family. Asian parents of second generation refugees would totally understand this line “have you eaten yet?” or “have you eaten enough?” My parents rarely said they loved me or showed any physical affection.

Then one afternoon I came home to find my favourite noodle soup bun rieu (crab mince tomato based soup) on the burner. The house was filled with the scent of shrimp paste and to this day, I call it the ‘I’m sorry soup’. My mum expresses her love by cooking. It’s an indirect way of her showing affection that we have come to accept now!

Margaret Nguyen

Margaret Nguyen grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta. After four years of chiropractic health practice Margaret decided to become a restaurateur in Brisbane. In 2012, she opened Café O-mai located at Annerley with her mother Kim Nguyen. Over the years, Margaret's café has invigorated a once sleepy corner of Annerley, creating a deep sense of community all the locals are proud to embrace. Her food philosophy focuses on her Vietnamese heritage and she believes in running a sustainable restaurant where the environmental impact is considered.