Our readers abroad know the difficulty of finding delicious and soulful Vietnamese food outside of home cooking. Recognizing the dearth of dedicated Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S., Jimmy Ly and Yen Vo saw an opportunity to bring the love and delight of their family recipes to their fellow New Yorkers. First came Madame Vo, playfully named after Yen herself, whose short rib pho took critics and ordinary diners alike by storm. Soon after, Madame Vo’s booming success and the restaurateurs’ unending zeal led to the newest Madame Vo BBQ, showcasing the rich grilled flavors of Vietnamese cuisine often lost abroad.
As Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, the two have embraced their roles as ambassadors of Vietnamese diasporic culture and the flavors of home. We had the opportunity to ask Jimmy and Yen about the origins of their restaurant ventures, their love for food, and how they envision the future of Vietnamese cuisine.
Tell us about your earliest memories of food.
Jimmy: I remember when I was little, my babysitter made MAMA mì gói (instant noodles) for me—it was the best f*cking thing I’d eaten at the time!
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Can you share the origin story for Madame Vo, and then subsequently Madame Vo BBQ?
Jimmy: It all started when me and my wife, Yen, connected over our love for Vietnamese food. She had just moved to New York from Houston and we met through friends. Since I was raised in New York, she asked me where she could find good Vietnamese food. I said, “My house!”
Yen: Adding Vietnamese barbecue to our food was my idea—I grew up eating bò chiên bơ, which is beef cooked on a skillet with butter. We’d have it with rice paper, vegetables, pineapple, and apple. It was one of my favorites. Jimmy had never tried bò chiên bơ before, so we made it for his family to try. They loved it, and eventually Jimmy had the idea to open a Vietnamese BBQ restaurant.
Jimmy: One day, I was in the office at Madame Vo and I was thinking of all the grilled dishes we could do. Japanese and Korean barbecue have been poppin’ in New York for a long time. Vietnamese BBQ needed its moment!
What excites you the most about cooking?
Yen: We only cook things we’d eat at home. That was the entire inspiration for Madame Vo. It was family recipes from my mom as well as Jimmy’s mom. We feel lucky to get to share that with the world.
Jimmy: The support and loyalty of our customers and fans have made our journey so worthwhile. We’ve built a community of people who have the same love of food that we do, and that’s priceless.
Has critical acclaim and newfound stardom changed your relationships?
Jimmy: Stardom?! I’m still about being humble. I don’t feel any different than who I was before, although I definitely work harder now. And I want to always stay open to learning new things. My parents, who owned Paris Baguette in Chinatown, still tell me I’m doing things wrong! Out of love, of course. They’re so proud of us, they show us off to their friends. Even my son watches my cooking videos on Youtube. When you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says Daddy. Not many people are lucky enough to have that. We feel blessed.
Yen: With more recognition, we definitely feel more pressure to do well. But we’ve gotten this far being true to who we are, so why change? Maybe I spend more money these days… But really, we don’t just want recognition for ourselves. We want recognition for Vietnamese food and Vietnamese people.
How do you calibrate the balance between a dish’s roots and its new possibilities?
Jimmy: It’s about balance—knowing when and where to have fun or make small changes, and when to stick to what you know. At Madame Vo, we used family recipes that are true to our roots. As a kid, Yen loved the beef in the pho, so her mom would include the bone-in short rib. That’s where our signature short rib pho came from. With Madame Vo BBQ, we pushed the boundaries a little, since no one in NYC had ever put a title on Vietnamese barbecue before. In our bò bảy món menu, we top our cháo (rice congee) with a honey butter fish sauce, and we serve our bò tái chanh as a beef carpaccio. What stays the same are the flavors. Even if we spend more for the best cuts of beef and fresh produce, we keep the flavors true to the flavors we grew up with.
Yen: With our brunch menu, we wanted to do something fun and different. So we did pandan waffles and fried chicken. Brunch isn’t a traditionally Vietnamese thing, but for families like mine, making waffles with coconut milk and pandan is something we learned to do once we moved to America. So that’s authentic to our childhood. And we still wanted to use traditional ingredients, so our maple syrup is made with condensed milk and fish sauce.
What other chefs would you love to collaborate with in the future?
Jimmy: You know, Roy Choi is like an idol to me. His sh*t is lit. That would be a dream. And since we have Vietnamese barbecue, I would love to one day work with David Shim from Cote, which is a Michelin-recognized Korean steakhouse in New York City. It would be cool to showcase Korean and Vietnamese BBQ culture side by side.
How has your business allowed you two to explore your other interests and passions?
Jimmy: I’ve always had a passion for streetwear. So when we opened Madame Vo, I was blown away by all the cool, creative people who came into the restaurant. They’d see my Bearbricks and my Hypebeast article and we’d connect on that level. There have been so many cool people, from Edison Chen to Bobby Hundreds of The Hundreds. I love that I get to connect with people I respect through my food. I appreciate what they do and they appreciate what we do.
If you’re cooking at home for the family, what do you love to make?
Yen: We always make chicken wings. It’s easy, everyone can eat them. Chicken wings and rice.
What’s your favorite cuisine outside of Vietnamese?
Jimmy: I gotta be honest: Chinese. I’m half-Chinese, so I could also eat Chinese food every day. There are plenty of other cuisines I love. For example, I love French food. But I couldn’t eat it every day.
Where do you see the Vietnamese-American cuisine headed? Do you have your eye towards any new ventures in the future?
Jimmy: Right now, it’s a bit of a rush in the Vietnamese food scene all over America, but especially here in New York City. There have been so many new Vietnamese restaurants opening nearby. Sometimes it seems like people are trying to cash in on the trend, but at the end of the day, more Vietnamese restaurants means more visibility for Vietnamese cuisine. And that’s good for all of us.
I think in the future, we’ll see more Vietnamese fine dining and Vietnamese dishes that have not become popular in the United States yet, but are already known in Vietnam. We do have some exciting ventures planned for 2020 and beyond! And we would love to work in Vietnam someday, whether that’s opening a restaurant or just meeting the crazy talented chefs over there and collaborating.