The Conversation: Anh and Chi’s Amélie Nguyen on being a Vietnamese Canadian, opening a new location and the changing face of Mount Pleasant

Anh and Chi co-founder Amélie Nguyen reflects on her journey in the restaurant industry and details how she's paving the path forward.

Amélie Nguyen and her brother, Vincent, opened Anh and Chi eight years ago in the same space that their parents had operated Vietnamese eatery Pho Hoang for years. It was intended as both an ode to their parents (their mom still serves as head chef) and a move forward into a new era. These days, it’s one of the most popular restaurants in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood—where Nguyen and her brother grew up and where she still lives—and the family plans to expand its business with a new concept.

We caught up with her at her restaurant to talk about the past and the future.

You’ve been on quite the journey the last eight years. Reflecting on that a bit, what’s it been like to reignite the family business while moving forward into a new era?

Well, we opened up Anh and Chi with a simple goal: to retire mom and create a space where there’s authentic Vietnamese food but also where we want to hang out with our friends. We wanted to pair great cocktails and local B.C wines with Vietnamese food, which you don’t usually find. But we realized that what we’ve been creating is a lot more than that, it’s a whole team and community. People are lining up for Anh and Chi yes, but the family we built at Anh and Chi is the most rewarding thing. We’ve sort of become ambassadors for Vietnamese food and heritage. The community is seeing us as making the food and culture approachable. You come here and learn a bit about Vietnamese culture while having a great meal.

It does seem like there’s that sort of community here that you’ve been able to continue on from your parents’ restaurant.

It’s kind of beautiful. What really warmed my heart was that we started seeing grandparents coming in with grandchildren. Intergenerationally and interculturally, people started connecting at Anh and Chi. I was so busy, working at public health, running this, starting a family. The only time I could connect was over a meal. And that’s how we grew up. Our parents were working all the time—the only time we got to connect with them was 9 or 10 p.m. around the dinner table. For us, dinner was our sense of connection to family, our parents, our heritage. That’s why we serve things family style. And yeah, one person can eat family style. But it’s better when you share it.

It’s 2 p.m. on a weekday right now and the line for a table is still out the door. How do you create that vibe of just being somewhere people really want to be?

 You know, I really think it comes from our team being so happy. When you feel that energy—the team is so happy here, they’re creating that feeling. And then the guests, they come and are happy and want to eat and the consistency in the food and the quality and the taste. But Mount Pleasant is such a laidback neighbourhood. That culture bleeds between Anh and Chi and the neighbourhood. There’s lot of community love and collaboration.

What kinds of collaborations have you done that you’re proud of?

All kinds of them. Like we’ll do a chocolate bar for Valentine’s Day and we’ll connect with Kasama Chocolate on Granville Island to do these beautiful chocolate bars—combine Filipino cacao beans and Vietnamese coffee beans and make a blend. It’s about promoting small businesses and the awareness of the local products. We worked with Powell Brewery on beer collabs. During COVID especially it was about bringing staff back and helping to support each other. It’s not about making money, just about raising awareness and showing we can work together to raise people up.

How were you able to survive during COVID as a business?

When we got the announcement from government that all doors were to shut, my brother’s phone started going off. So many texts from employees asking if they still had jobs. We had more than 50 staff. We decided we had to stay open and pivoted, made a drive thru market in the front and then did takeout. And we pivoted into making sauces for retail.

Through that, we kept all of our team. No one was laid off, except for the people who wanted to go on CERB. When restrictions lifted, other restaurants had a huge problem finding workers. It just goes back to, if you do the right thing for your people, they’ll do right by you. When restrictions lifted, we had a full team and we could move. But overall, the industry has taken a big hit. Even though you see the lines, our numbers are plateauing. A lot of that is the supply chain stuff. Our numbers are shrinking. But again, we’re going to shoulder it and see what happens. A lot of people count on us.

What can you do as a restaurant to weather the economic slowdown and all the other factors the industry is dealing with?

 I think we have to give people options. At Anh and Chi, you have the option to take our sauces home—you don’t have to come in every week. But we also have a happy hour, because people still want and need that connection and pleasure. Just to have that variety of options. We also have a reservation by donation program. It’s the first in the city and we hope more people will adopt it. If you want to sit at Anh and Chi, you can donate 10 dollars to the charity of your choice. We’ve raised over a quarter million and it’s totally optional. Five to 10 percent of the seating is for reservations, rest is all walk in. Not everyone can, even though they want to. Some people aren’t affected by the recession. But we’re feeling it and having that variety is helpful.

And now you’re opening Good Thief next door.

Yes, in a couple months! It’s exciting. If you think of Anh and Chi being the family, the heartwarming brother and sister duo, Good Thief is the rebellious younger brother, the black sheep of the family. It’s sort of Vince’s alter ego. The food at Anh and Chi is super authentic and with this we want to play with different flavours, tweak things and really retire our mom. We’re working with an amazing bar team, have a great chef coming on. It’s going to be more playful, more innovative. Cocktail-forward.

Is that going to be a big departure or does it feel like a natural move?

 The one thing we committed to not changing at Anh and Chi was the authentic Vietnamese recipes. Those are mom’s recipes and will forever be the staple of Anh and Chi. But next door, let’s talk about identity. My whole life, I thought I was Vietnamese. And I Am. But I thought I wanted to go back to Vietnam, help my people. And I did work for the World Health Organization and went to Vietnam and helped people in healthcare. But I realized that actually I’m Vietnamese Canadian. Just the way you think, do business, form relationships, it’s very different.

So next door, Good Thief is kind of honouring who we are. We’re Vietnamese Canadians. Yes, the food is the foundation and it’ll be Vietnamese, but we’re Canadian and well-travelled and always interacting with people from all over the world so we’re going to showcase Vietnamese food in a different way, in a Vietnamese Canadian way. I hope I’m not giving away too much there.

I wish you’d give away more!

You’ll see soon enough!

In terms of this neighbourhood, you grew up here, you’ve lived here most of your life. Anh and Chi was just named the best restaurant in Mount Pleasant by Vancouver magazine. You’re embedded here. How have you seen the neighbourhood change over the years?

 Yeah, we grew up on main and 20th in a small rental apartment. Back then it was really quiet. There might have been a gas station and a couple repair shops. Blue collar neighbourhood, nothing artsy or creative or cool. My parents really were lucky. On the surface Anh and Chi means me and my brother, but the deeper meaning is to say thank you, to acknowledge and be grateful for the brothers and sisters who helped my parents navigate being settlers in Vancouver back in the ‘80s.

But there wasn’t much here. And then a Vietnamese restaurant opened. Then Vancouver Special up the street. Then the bank. I saw it all happen. From nothing to, okay, things are popping up. Now we have Michelin restaurants. I’m protective of my neighbourhood. I don’t want it to lose its charm, but I appreciate it growing.