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One of London’s Most Creative Chefs Returns for a Pop-Up Bistro Dedicated to Her Mother

Anaïs Ca Dao van Manen wants to use Maison Mathilde to interrogate perceptions of Vietnamese food — and have fun while doing it

Chef Anaïs Ca Dao van Manen.
Chef Anaïs Ca Dao van Manen.

A chef responsible for some of London’s most creative cooking of the last few years will return to the city for a typically idiosyncratic pop-up bistro dedicated to her mother. Anaïs Ca Dao van Manen, formerly of Bao and Snackbar, will run Maison Mathilde out of the Corner at 180 the Strand from 24 - 27 May.

“I’ve had this idea for maybe a couple of years. I’ve always thought about there being so many different ways to do Vietnamese food — sometimes kind of raw, more like street food — sometimes more ‘Western Vietnamese food.’ I want to try and segment the different types of Vietnamese cuisine, so that when I’m doing a pop-up it will have a certain theme.”

This pop-up “stems from French-Vietnamese food, with a pinch of my creativity,” based on the kinds of foods that van Manen grew up eating, but she doesn’t want it to become a nostalgia trap. It’s her first London pop-up in two years after recovering from cancer, and now based in Brussels, she says that for the occasion “I wanted to do something more directly connected to me, to find comfort in food this time.”

It’s also informed by not feeling that the linear form of culinary storytelling now so prevalent in restaurants and cookbooks fits her whatsoever. “There’s been such a big conversation about who gets to cook what, and for me ... I was born in Paris; I was raised in Vietnam; I went to school in Singapore; I worked in London restaurants. I don’t want to be restricted to cooking a certain, kind of brutal type of Vietnamese food, with its rawest flavours.”

Accordingly it is a tribute not just to her heritage, but to the modern British comfort restaurants that she loves from her time in London: St. John; Cafe Deco; Rochelle Canteen; 40 Maltby Street. Two dishes that typify her approach are versions of those “traditional” dishes she wishes to deviate from. A “Saigon style” roasted chicken leg will draw cues from both gà roti and the continental French chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, while the paté chaud, a puff pastry roll filled with spiced minced pork, is based on a pastry staple. The chicken leg will be cooked slowly in the jus, before being whacked in the wood oven on site for caramelisation, while many of the dishes will be suited to low-lift, warm-weather eating (and to the fact that the kitchen has just that oven and a couple of induction hobs.)

This menu is a major deviation from her previous pop-up in Berlin, a traditionalist menu based on cái mâm, and the differences between the two exemplify her aim to show off the multiplicity of Vietnamese cuisine. “People have a way of thinking what Vietnamese food is: spice, heavy fish sauce, lots of herbs. I didn’t want to do something that was too traditional this time; too Vietnamese even. I could do that, I could do a selection of really traditional dishes, but that wouldn’t be fun for me.”

Another time, that might be fun: just not this week. The brevity of the pop-up feeds into her stated aim to show off many different sides of Vietnamese cuisine. If only for a few days, it will be like this; in the future, if only for a few days, it might be completely different. For now, this is the closing of a chapter in the city, a city that she considers formative to her identity as a chef. “I’ve always felt safest in London, even though it is so mediatised, it doesn’t feel competitive. It feels like people really want to support each other.”

And even though she’s leaving the city behind for now, she knows what she wants Londoners to take from the pop-up. “I don’t want people to have this static, idealised portrayal of Vietnamese food as cheap, raw, street food. It’s not a holiday memory, the kind of restaurant that feels like the owner went there once ... There are so many angles to take Vietnamese food, and it shouldn’t just be pigeonholed.”