Meals From Memory: Vit Béo's David Huynh makes his grandma’s dumplings
The chef of Bloordale's Vit Béo gives us a bite of his childhood
Vit Béo's chef David Huynh makes bành he
Like a lot of Asian kids growing up with grandparents at home, chef David Huynh, of the new Vit Béo at Bloor and Ossington, spent his childhood making dumplings with his grandma.
They were 13 in a three-bedroom home in Etobicoke, including aunts and uncles and cousins. When everyone else was at work or at school, Huynh, the youngest, would get picked up from kindergarten by his grandmother, and they would start cooking dinner at 2 p.m.
“It’s slow food,” he says. “And this takes a long time.”
There are more steps to making the dumplings than there are actual ingredients: It begins with finely chopping handfuls of garlic chives, which his grandmother grew in her garden. A dough is formed out of water and a combination of tapioca and rice flours, which envelops the garlic chives. The dumplings are steamed and then pan-fried before being served with a sauce of black vinegar and chili oil. Et voilà: a flat, chewy, doughy, pan-crusty wrapper around a hefty mouthful of tightly packed garlicky greens. That’s the thing he resurrected from his childhood memories to kick off a menu of Vietnamese items.
“This particular dish is comfort for me,” he says about the dumplings. Huynh grew up and moved out of the crowded household. His grandparents eventually passed away.
Vit Béo's bành he
“I moved on to do different things, learned about coffee and French pastry and worked in bars and tapas restaurants,” he says. “After a little while, you kind of look back, and you don’t know where you came from anymore.”
In November 2014, he and his friends opened up the bar Civil Liberties.
“It was great,” he says. “We were seeing a lot of success, and there weren’t a lot of reasons to be unhappy, but I just felt like I was missing something.… I was talking to my girlfriend Amy about it. We were together when both my grandparents died, and she said, ‘You never really dealt with that. You just moved on.’ ”
He and Amy took off to Vietnam, with a quiet seed of an idea for a Vietnamese dining concept gestating in Huynh’s head. He knew vaguely what he wanted: Vietnamese food, beyond the usual bành mi and pho.
Different food, food he had grown up eating.
“When I went to Vietnam, even that perspective was dwarfed by the complete breadth of the regionality of everything,” he says. “The perspective of Vietnamese food in Toronto [dates back] 40 years. We only have this perspective from 1975 to 1980 when Vietnamese people started coming here.”
But with other Asian cuisines in Toronto, tides were shifting. Susur Lee and DaiLo’s Nick Liu put elevated Cantonese food into the mainstream spotlight. Ramen exploded onto the scene.
“We were all watching this thing happen, and it was only a matter of time before Vietnam was going to take its turn,” he says. “If we were a part of it, we could influence it and shape it the way we want it.”
The menu of Vit Béo has nine items depending on the time of night. It’s mostly stuff that has some sort of personal connection: brown rice congee; bánh xèo, a street food of pork belly and prawns wrapped in a rice crepe; beef pho; Shin instant noodles served with meat and veg; and, bành he, his grandma’s dumplings, with the flavour that brings him home.
“We eat garlic chives all the time,” he says of the star ingredient. “It’s just this beautiful fragrance that’s herbaceous and grassy. It makes me feel like a kid again. It’s how I remember food being. It’s always a therapeutic thing.”
Vit Beo, 858 Bloor Street West.