Best recent dining experience: From an industry point of view, I believe Pilot in Ainslie and Aubergine in Griffith put Canberra on the map. They’re delivering a dining experience like no other – an intimate atmosphere, delicate and simple food, subtle and non-intrusive service.
Most embarrassing pantry item: Packets of instant mi goreng. I cannot lie. After the late nights, all you want is something easy to cook and packed full of flavour and umami. This is a childhood love and it never lets me down.
Must-buy ingredient: Lee Kum Kee Chicken Bouillon Powder. I’ll probably get judged for this, but I use it when I need to enhance flavour, whether it’s for plain and simple stir-fries or if I need emergency stock. Fish sauce would be the other staple – it fixes everything!
Next big thing: Keeping food simple. We can always complicate things and be extravagant, but at the end of the day, what everyone wants is an honest plate that we can relate to and appreciate. The intricacies of what we do behind the scenes during prep can still exist, but on the table people want to just taste what they see and let the produce do the work.
Favourite place for breakfast in the ACT: Cafe Mame in Melba shops. Caprese on toast is one of my favourite dishes on the menu.
My Canberra food secret: My business partner Greg Lally and I have always loved what we call the “naughty and cheeky hits”, meaning the suburban restaurants. One of my locals in Belconnen is King Fook in Florey Shops. I hadn’t visited this place since I was a child, but I went there one night recently and realised I’d rediscovered the best local Chinese restaurant.
It’s one of those venues where you have to know the hidden gems on the menu to make the experience worth your while. In my opinion, they do the best Peking duck in Canberra. You have to give them 48 hours’ notice and they use the duck from head to toe. They give you two extra dishes with your order – shredded duck and yee mein noodles and their version of a nourishing ABC duck soup.
Biggest culinary influence: My mother is my inspiration. I loved watching her from a young age cooking, reading cookbooks at night and running our family Vietnamese restaurant in Griffith, and seeing her joy in doing what she does. She has a sincere curiosity and appreciation for other food cultures and no matter how good or bad the attempt may be, my mother would always experiment with new dishes. One of XO’s most popular dishes – Asian bolognese – is her recipe. She showed the dish to me and our head chef Anand Kumar Ramakrishna (AK) in the planning stages of XO and we immediately knew it was going to be a crowd-pleaser.
My second biggest influence would be AK. Through years of working alongside him and working on menu changes and other projects, I have come to appreciate how diverse he is as a chef. He never quits and nothing is too hard. He always considers how a dish can be improved further. Having a French culinary background, AK uses those experience and techniques in Asian cooking. Growing up with this palate has made the XO journey so much fun.
Favourite cookbook: Secrets of the Red Lantern by Luke and Pauline Nguyen, and Mark Jensen. I read the book when I was in my first year at university and it sparked my thinking that maybe one day I could own my version of a contemporary Asian restaurant. I’d always had a love for food and dining out, and growing up in a restaurant-owning family, it was second nature to think about it. The book hit home with the story of Luke and Pauline being raised in Australia to Vietnamese migrants. The sacrifice our parents made to allow us kids to have a better education, future and life was immense. I can definitely say mine did their part.
Who I admire on the Canberra food and wine scene: There are so many, but the people I really admire (and their venues) are Andy Day from Rizla, Ben and Mork Ratanakosol from Morks, Sean McConnell from Rebel Rebel, Ben Willis from Aubergine, Dash Rumble, Ross McQuinn and Mal Hanslow from Pilot, the Trimboli Brothers from Italian and Sons and Mezzalira, Nick Smith from Bar Rochford, Omar Muscat from Urban Pantry, Double Shot and Locale, and Gus Armstrong from 86. I still think Gus’s Braddon restaurant was one of the first to change the Canberra dining scene for the better.
What’s on the menu this week: XO changes its set menu once a month. There is one dish on the menu that pays homage to a Malaysian classic, Bak Kut Teh, a Chinese herbal pork rib soup. But AK has turned the dish into a duck risotto. It’s simple, elegant and perfect for winter.
Where I’m going next: Corella Restaurant & Bar on Lonsdale Street, Braddon. The guys from Assembly just across the road have worked hard on this new venue. Brady Scholes, the co-founder/manager, runs a brilliant show between the two venues and the wine list is intricate and fun.
Death row meal: I don’t know if you would consider it a meal, but it would have to involve either a bottle of Champagne or chablis accompanied by pizza or KFC.
My COVID-19 response: COVID is a reminder that although professionally it’s important for businesses to remain open, the well-being of our staff is the most critical thing. Being in touch with our team during that period was what helped us get through the pandemic – along with a few sacrifices to ensure that we were all OK, both physically and financially.
Our response to COVID also saw the birth of ILY in NewActon, where Morning Glory used to be. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to step back and reassess and redevelop the concept into one that focused on simpler, home-style food.
My really simple recipe tip: Dial 131 888 – Domino’s is everywhere.