East Meets West – Cooking Heritage by Award Winning Executive Chef, Minh Le

Fusion cooking – an exciting mix of culinary traditions or techniques in a single dish – is constantly being reinvented by creative chefs across Australia.

Executive chef, Minh Le, of newly opened Swaay Restaurant at Byron Bay NSW, brings two decades of adapting his own unique style to preparing dishes.

“I use a lot of Australia native produce which I ‘layer’ with my Vietnamese heritage”.

In this ‘snapshot’ of Minh’s twenty year career, it’s clear that he also brings together eclectic areas of experience and talent in award winning combinations.

Minh worked in some of the best restaurants

From 2002, when he started his apprenticeship at the Brisbane casino, and for the next six years, Minh worked in some of the best restaurants in the Queensland capital. Patiently building his skills and expertise paid off for Minh when, in 2008, he was offered his first Head Chef role at The Grasshopper Asian kitchen, Brisbane.

This was followed in 2011 by “my first opening, from build stage and hiring of staff to the entire set up, which received an incredible review by Tony Harper”. It wasn’t too long before Minh opened his first restaurant – The Foraging Quail – in 2014.

Best New Queensland restaurant

Described as a “fine dining hotspot, serving exquisite degustation style food”, it won ‘Best New Queensland restaurant’ and received a first hat. Minh Le says he “would source as much food as locally as possible”, mixed with the best from other regions in an “East meets West” flavour including, Viet Spiced Quail with tofu, edamame, quail eggs and Thai eggplant.

Two years later, his restaurant – a cool, suave aesthetic of white marble, French ivory-handled cutlery, and Italian wallpaper and tiles – was awarded its second hat.

“I also made the finals for ‘Australia Chef of the Year by Gault Millau’ – and also in the same year I was featured in The Great Australia Cookbook with some of the best chefs and producers in the country”.

New role at Spicers Peak Lodge then Byron at Byron

Minh later sold his restaurant and took a new role at Spicers Peak Lodge, a 2 hat restaurant, perched atop a mountain on 9,000 acres, enclosed by the World Heritage listed Main Range National Park and the Great Dividing Range.

Two years later Minh moved to Byron Bay as Executive Chef at ‘Byron at Byron’ Restaurant at Suffolk Park.  It offered a locally sourced menu including, smoky, spicy octopus with chorizo and kipflers, beef fillet with shallot puree, and herby fettuccine covered with sweet prawns and bugs.

Very sustainable approach to cooking

“Locally sourced” and “sustainability” are food mantras on most Australian chef’s lips, and Minh is no exception.

“I love everything about food, although I have a very sustainable approach to cooking now. I still like to use a lot of Australia native produce layered with my Vietnamese heritage. It has taken me a long time to adapt my own style, but now I take a much more casual approach to food.”

Minh says he designs menus that are, “fun, shareable, and accessible” – but still prepares dishes of culinary discovery and invention, “layered with creativity and technique”.

“I try to use zero plastic, sustainable produce, and always trying to harmoniously blend modern cooking techniques with indigenous Australian ingredients”.

Finding that harmonious blend extends also to the everyday kitchen life, and learning how to manage the enormous pressures and stresses chefs often work under.

Mental health is a massive problem in hospitality

“In the early days, I worked 60 to 70 hours a week, but times have changed. Sure, there is still the pressure of the kitchen. Mental health is a massive problem in hospitality with so many drugs and alcohol addiction, but I live a very clean life”.

Minh feels that chefs who “spend time outdoors in nature live a much healthier lifestyle”, adding that “any form of exercise such as surfing or hiking, is both physical and mentally rewarding for overall health”. Minh says he loves to surf, skate and hike when spending downtime away from the pass.

He also offers sensible, straightforward advice to any young chef keen to make their way in hospitality. “Just show an interest, work hard and show that you want to be there. While skills can be learned, the passion for cooking comes from within”.

Another example of ‘fusion’ food plus life philosophy in east meets west!