Pulled up on the grounds of Joynton Park in Sydney’s Zetland is Yang’s Malaysian Food Truck serving up traditional hawker food.
On one side of the truck, orders are being taken, while the other side is where chef Lyly Nguyen, together with owner and chef Alex Wong are dishing out boiling hot laksa, Indo mee goreng, as well as their take on Hainanese chicken.
“Working in a restaurant on wheels – as we call it – is very different to a kitchen,” confessed Nguyen, who has worked in some of Sydney’s more permanently positioned kitchens, including China Doll and Merivale’s once-opened Lotus.
“All the prep has to be done in a kitchen before it is moved to the truck. Then there are certain factors, like heavy rain, that would affect our trading. We’ve learned that because it’s a moving kitchen, a lot of things would fall out of place if it has not been stored tactfully; we dislike speed humps and slopes!”
While Nguyen has no Malaysian blood in her, and instead grew up eating central Vietnamese dishes containing plentiful of rice papers, home grown herbs, and chillies, it was perfect timing when Wong, who she had worked with before, approached her about working on his food truck.
Nguyen recently returned to Sydney after a three-month stint working at Cocachu in Hamilton Island after realising she missed the city buzz.
“Initially, I decided on Hamilton Island because I felt I needed a change of pace and scene. It was just beautiful to be working on an island where the speed limit was 30 kilometres. But I missed the big smoke,” she said.
The 27-year-old was inspired to become a chef from her own personal interest in food, mainly from watching a lot of cooking shows, enjoying the pleasure of eating, and her fascination of watching “chefs working in the kitchen like a crazy orchestration”.
“My biggest motivation and inspiration comes from the chefs whom I’ve worked with over the years: Their duty of care, their ability to continuously teach and preach, and most importantly, leading by example.”
But learning how to become a chef didn’t happen overnight. Nguyen recalled her traumatic days as an apprentice cleaning the walls and floors; chopping kilos of chillies, lemongrass, and galangal; and whisking dozens of eggs and sugar — by hand.
“Thank god for the KitchenAid!,” she said.
“Being a chef wasn’t that easy; there were a lot of long hours and dedication. Senior chefs would test your patience, but once they felt that they could trust you, it means you’re not that bad of a chef.”
These chefs she refers to have also become her mentors. Frank Shek and Ben Haywood from China Doll, along with former Lotus chefs Dan Hong; Jowett Yu; Laura Londono, who has returned to Colombia to run her own restaurant; and Tom Hol, who is now out of the industry, are talents that Nguyen said she admires.
Nguyen said watching and learning from them have influenced the way she works now in the kitchen as a qualified chef.
While it is often working 14-hour long shifts, Nguyen said the most rewarding part of the job is sitting down for staff meals.
“I think it’s the most important meal of the day, if you work in the kitchen,” she said. “I used to get stressed out when I got told I had to make staff meals, but now I enjoy making them. It’s a time where you get to be creative, utilise scraps or unused bits, and turn them into something wonderful.”
Nguyen said while she is content, for now, riding along with the team at Yang’s, she looks forward to being able to work away from home again in the near future.