I have a friend who calls me on a fairly regular basis to tell me that she's whipping up a bunch of vegetarian dishes from her native Vietnam: spring rolls beautifully wrapped in rice paper, rich curry soup made with good full-fat coconut milk, fiery bhan mi sandwiches on just the right kind of bread with just the right amount of heat, amazing salads with cucumber and cashews, and tofu so delicious you'd never believe that it started life as a bland block of bean curd.
I've watched her prepare a five-course meal in less than 20 minutes, pulling as many ingredients from her home garden as she does the refrigerator. As she cooks she quickly explains the process. "Burn the onion just a little," she tells me. "It makes for a more flavorful broth." Still I'm amazed at the flavors she coaxes from humble ingredients. In my own kitchen I've struggle to figure out how to recreate what seems to come so naturally to her.
You may know her, too: Tuyen Le, the always-smiling and energetic creative force formerly of New Que Huong in Collierville. She closed the place last year. Since then she has cooked for the eaTABLE supper club, friends, and family but has stayed away from cooking in restaurants.
As luck would have it, she has decided to come out of retirement to host a meal at Saigon Le restaurant on Cleveland near Madison Avenue in Midtown. The buffet-style dinner will be mostly vegetarian but will feature a few dishes that contain meat. It's open to the public and will be held on Sunday, July 13th, from 2 to 6 p.m. There are no reservations needed, so it is on a first-come, first-served basis.
So, what brought her out of retirement? I got a call last Sunday about that: "Meet me at the Buddhist Temple on Goodlett at Winchester. I'm cooking, and I want to introduce you to someone," she told me. I arrived at the temple (the one with the two-story Buddha) and found Le chatting with Thay Hao, whose monastery in Vietnam tragically burned down. "I want to have a dinner to raise money to help Thay Hao rebuild," Le announced.
Le is a devout Buddhist who often sent her tip money back to Vietnam to help feed orphans and support the temples and monastic life of those who devote themselves to good works like Hao. This is her way of using her talents to give something back.
As anyone who has ever dined with Le can tell you, the food will be a plentiful, delicious, and artfully prepared mix of Vietnamese soups, curries, stir fries, salads, and spring rolls. Among the dishes are Vietnamese barbecue ribs, shrimp with jalapeño, vegetarian stir-fried noodles, vegetarian "beef" stew, and tofu stir fry. Here's the catch: Le refuses to set a price for the dinner on the 13th. That will be determined by each diner in the form of a donation, depending on how generously he or she would like to give. "If this is a success," Le's daughter, Huyen, tells me, "she will definitely host more dinners."
Vietnamese Dinner Fund-raiser at Saigon Le, Sunday, July 13th, 2-6 p.m.