For a typical Vietnamese diner, Japanese cuisine has increasingly become a familiar item. Though familiarity breeds comfort in a way that exoticness might not, the loss of peculiarity has made Japanese dishes somewhat less alluring among Saigonese food connoisseurs.
Determined to help Japanese dining in Saigon to rediscover its mojo, Vietcetera arrived at the novelty-hungry Thao Dien to find NOMU, an innovative Japanese eatery.
Upon walking through the entrance, we were immediately awed by the izakaya-spirited interior design and decoration. But, there is more than meets the eye to the place. We can’t quite put our finger on all the influences that inspired the place, so we asked Tam Le (Tammy Le), NOMU founder, what ideas she tapped into when conceptualizing NOMU.
As equally intriguing as its interior aesthetic is NOMU's menu, which paints a comprehensive picture of Japanese contemporary food scene. Focusing on yoshoku cuisine (a style of Western-influenced cooking), Tam Le put a personal twist on her dishes — making the food here a unique offering unlike no other.
Focusing on yoshoku cuisine, Tam Le put a personal twist on her dishes — making the food here a unique offering unlike no other. Source: NOMU.
With so many novel and untested ideas in the DNA of NOMU, the daring entrepreneurial spirit of the founder is what makes it all work. We ask Tam Le about her "dare to think, dare to do" entrepreneurial journey.
How did your relationship with food begin?
As a child, my palate was exposed to the full range of complex Vietnamese flavors through my mom's cooking. When it came to international food, however, in the mid-2000s Vietnam didn't have the same variety of options it does now. Hence, I took matters in my own hands and educated myself by watching popular YouTube channels like Laura In The Kitchen (Italian-American recipes) and Cooking with Dog (Japanese cooking series).
It wasn't until 2008, when I moved to California, that I discovered a cultural melting pot and a foodie paradise. Seemingly every cuisine under the sun was represented, especially when it came to Asian food.
This combination of factors fueled my passion for food, so at the age of 18 I decided to enroll in a Hospitality Management course at the State University of California.
With such a broad horizon to work with, why did she choose to concentrate on Japanese cuisine?
There are many reasons why I chose and adored Japanese cuisine, but the biggest influence came from watching Studio Ghibli's legendary animated films. I often went to Little Tokyo, to buy food plush toy and discover new places to eat and drink.
My love affair with the Japanese food entered a new chapter when I started traveling the world. Having dined at outstanding Japanese eateries in 30 cities and seven countries across three continents, I was impressed with how consistently good yet unique each visit was. As a result, I became even fonder of the Japanese dining experience.
What does NOMU mean? And how is NOMU's culinary experience different?
NOMU means "to drink" in Japanese. Izakaya-style drinking establishments have recently become a familiar sight and are quite popular with Saigon’s after-work crowd. What makes NOMU different from the lot, however, is having yoshoku dishes taking the central stage.
Why did you make yoshuku to be the selling point of the menu?
Japanese restaurants are a dime a dozen in Saigon. Most of them serve up traditional washoku specialties such as sushi, sashimi and tempura and lack the wow factor. Hence I wanted to develop a yoshoku-style menu to set NOMU apart from the competition.
NOMU dishes follow the 60/40 formula with the original Japanese recipe as the base (the 60%) and Italian, French or American influences evident in the cooking method and presentation (the other 40%). Source: NOMU.
In Vietnam, beer and wine are traditionally enjoyed alongside bold dishes. NOMU’s yoshoku menu, which is Japanese in essence yet just far removed from it enough, allows us to push the envelope and be creative. I believe this culinary exploration will satisfy even the boldest taste bud.
How did NOMU come into being?
I originally planned to open a restaurant in California, USA or Brisbane, Australia where the food scene is thriving. However, seeing Vietnam’s growth potential and an opportunity to contribute to the country’s success, I decided to bring my concept to Vietnam instead.
I officially returned in 2015. Moving back to Vietnam wasn’t the only significant change in my life at that time, however. In the five years of doing market research, I switched to studying Multidisciplinary Design, feeling that to build a brand, I needed in-depth knowledge of the creative field.
Once the concept was finalized, I started looking around for the right location. Thao Dien in District 2 was my childhood stomping ground and had the advantage of being a modern community popular with foreigners and locals open to new culinary experiences. And so the NOMU sign went up in Thao Dien.
What should a successful F&B concept focus on? And how are these principles applied to running NOMU?
For me, a well thought-out F&B concept needs to be able to deliver consistency, as well as making the experience well-worth the price.
With a hands-on approach, my team and I give each dish the attention it deserves.
At NOMU, every single ingredient is carefully selected to maintain the highest quality. My team and I use a hands-on approach, giving each dish the attention it deserves. It’s my aspiration that each NOMU guest receives the best possible experience.
Meticulously researched and presented, NOMU food wins over thanks to its complexity. Source: NOMU.
When it comes to service, I focus on convenience. One example of this are the electronic menus that allow customers to make their selection as soon as they are done browsing and are ready to order.
Building a business comes with its challenges. What were NOMU’s?
In the first days of NOMU, I struggled with lack of confidence stemming from my young age. Born only in 1995, I appear inexperienced and unreliable in many people’s eyes. As a result, I was riddled with self-doubt.
To get over this handicap, I started reading management and self-help books like Work / Life Symbiosis: The Model for Happiness and Balance; Managing Oneself; The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking etc.
When team members look in the same direction, their combined expertise will create resonance.
Another challenge that I had to tackle in the early days was team development. For me, it’s the shared values more than skills that are the decisive factor when building a team. When team members look in the same direction, their combined expertise will create resonance.
Of course, it wasn't easy putting together the finalizing pieces. Fortunately, my mother was there all along the way and served as a huge source of support and eventually, NOMU crystallized as a concept and emerged as a restaurant.
What is behind NOMU team’s success?
I consider myself lucky to have Thien. He is a partner - the head chef who helped me design the menu and was by my side throughout the whole process. He is both a friend and family.
Because we share the same values and beliefs, it was easy for us to agree on NOMU’s philosophy - to bring high quality fusion dishes at friendly prices.
At NOMU, it’s the young Vietnamese who run the show.
Unlike many domestic F&B businesses who prefer to recruit foreigners, the NOMU team is 100% young Vietnamese. There's a preconceived notion that Vietnamese chefs are not qualified enough or that only foreign chefs are fitted for fine-dining. However, I do not believe in such ideas.
Having worked in many parts of the world, I can confidently say that young Vienamese are some of the most diligent and forward-thinking. I have total faith that they can make important decisions and deliver both on the restaurant floor and in the kitchen, and I'll always reserve a spot for them on the team.
The article was adapted by Uyen Do.