Restaurateur and interpreter Angie Hong now enjoys a quiet life playing with her grandchildren and posting pictures of her meals on Instagram – but she was raised in war. Photo: Steven SiewertDan Hong’s best places to eat in Sydney
“What I’m telling you now, I haven’t told anybody,” says Angie Hong.
Hong is a Vietnamese-born former restaurateur and interpreter, with a degree in chemical engineering. She shepherded her son – chef Dan Hong – through his druggy and disaffected adolescence, and now enjoys a quieter life playing with her grandchildren and enthusiastically posting pictures of her meals on Instagram.
But she was raised in war, the second daughter of two Viet Minh who lived in the jungle with a guerrilla unit during the French Indochina War. Her father was a writer of patriotic plays and songs and her mother a nurse. Hong was born in 1952 on a hill called Godbi. The unit could not always carry her with them in case her crying gave away their position, and they once covered her with lotus leaves and left her alone for hours. “I survived,” says Hong. “I was determined to live.”
One of her earliest memories is picking up a snake. “I didn’t get bitten,” she says. “I could have died two times.”
The war with the French ended in 1954, when Vietnam was temporarily divided into North and South. Hong’s family returned to Saigon, where her mother gave birth to five more children.
Angie’s parents worked for the resistance against the Diem government of South Vietnam, “but they were more like messengers passing documents”, she says.
In 1961, Diem’s secret police raided their home. “I vividly remember this box of cotton wool but inside in the middle of the cotton wool was this piece of paper they were after,” she says. “It was maybe the names of people.”
Her father and mother were both arrested and imprisoned. “We didn’t have any parents,” says Hong, “so they moved us to my auntie’s house and locked up our house”. Her mother was set free after three months, but her father was held without trial until 1962.
“In the beginning,” says Hong, “they tortured him to reveal things, and I think he did, because of the children. I think that’s why he was released”.
While Hong shares her memories with great warmth and courageous generosity, we are served a marvellous Vietnamese steak tartare with lemongrass, chives and Vietnamese mint at Ms G’s, the Potts Point restaurant where her son is the executive chef. He’s also the executive chef for Merivale’s Mr Wong, Papi Chulo and El Loco.
Out of jail, Angie Hong’s father became a pharmaceutical salesman and her mother a French tutor. Both Hong and her elder sister passed the entrance examinations for the academically prestigious public high school system. Her sister went on to medical school to become a doctor, so her mother told Hong she should be a pharmacist. By this time, the Americans had replaced the French in Vietnam, the Viet Minh had become the Viet Cong, and a new war consumed the tortured country.
Hong did very well in her baccalaureate, and was eligible for a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study in Australia. She was allowed to apply, despite her parents’ political record, as her birth in the jungle had never been officially recorded, and she was eventually registered as the daughter of her uncle. “So I have a different surname to the rest of my siblings” she says, “and that’s how I got out of the country in 1971”.
Dishes of fragrant, delicious food arrive from the Ms G’s kitchen: a pickled eggplant salad with apple; a deconstructed beef pho.
Hong says she arrived in Sydney in June, wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai under her coat. “The first thing I noticed was the sky,” she says. “It was so bright, so blue, and there were so many birds around and they were not scared of humans. In Vietnam, they’d be ending up deep fried.”
She studied chemical engineering at UNSW and had planned to return home when she graduated, but Saigon fell to the Communists in June 1975 and she was allowed to stay in Australia. She worked for a while in a Vietnamese restaurant in Glebe, married a Vietnamese postgraduate electrical engineering student, and went with him to Paris while he completed a contract for the French government.
She studied advanced French at the Sorbonne and took a job in a Vietnamese restaurant, where the owners encouraged her to open a place of her own when she returned to Australia. Instead, she went back and took a postgraduate degree in Polymer Science. But it was 1978, the year large numbers of Vietnamese refugees began to arrive in Australia, and Hong was employed by the immigration department as an interpreter.
She met the new migrants on the tarmac at the airport. “Their faces lit up when I started speaking Vietnamese,” she says. “Then a person would ask me, ‘Can you buy rice in Australia?’ I’d say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Fish sauce?’ ‘Yes. It’s from Thailand, but you can’.”
Hong’s daughter Francoise was born in 1978, Dan in 1982 and her third child, Rebecca, in 1985. They all went to Epping West Public School, then Dan was sent to Barker College.
“When he was young, he was a charmer,” she says. “Everybody loved him. But when he got to about Year 10, he sort of slacked off and wanted to not go to school anymore. But I forced him to. Every morning I had to wake him up and he wouldn’t wake up. I told him once, ‘Dan, you take 10 years off my life. If you get up on time, every day I’ll put 10 dollars in your bank account’. It didn’t work. I kept on looking into his eyes to see if his pupils were dilated,” she says. “I was just so freaked out with him, so scared that he was going to learn the wrong path.”
The food keeps on coming: chargrilled broccolini with white soy and miso crumbs; and pan-fried mulloway with ginger and soy.
“This is a big lunch for me,” says Hong. It would be a big lunch for a table of four.
Her father came to Australia in 1991, disillusioned with the government he had fought for, and died in Sydney in 1993. Angie reluctantly took over running Cabramatta’s Thanh Binh restaurant – which her husband had bought while she was overseas – and later opened new branches in Newtown and Cabramatta. She had to put the children in summer schools.
“They’d been to tennis,” she says. “They’d been everywhere. So I sent them to cooking school in Chatswood.” Dan had enjoyed the school, so when he said he wouldn’t go to university, Angie found him a chef’s traineeship at the InterContinental Hotel. He went on to an apprenticeship at Longrain. “From then on, I didn’t need to help him anymore,” she says.
Hong divorced in 2004 and married again in 2005, to a Malaysian-Chinese lawyer who had been in Australia for 30 years. In 2008, Dan won the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award. She has four grandchildren, Dan’s daughter Namira and son Omar, and Francoise’s daughter Milena and son Luka, and she sold the last of her restaurants in 2012.
The kitchen is threatening desserts, but I don’t have room for anything more.
“I didn’t take any photos, man,” says Hong, suddenly. “They’re going to kill me! I’d better take a photo!”
I assume she wants a picture with me, a well-known writer and luncher.
“I have to Instagram my food!” she cries. “I forgot all about it!” Forgot to take photos of all previous dishes #lunchwithmarkdapinA photo posted by Angie Hong (@angiehong52) on Apr 7, 2016 at 8:43pm PDT