The idea for Pho was conceived by husband and wife team Juliette and Stephen Wall during their research trip to Vietnam in 2004.
Now 30 restaurants deep, the casual restaurants serve authentic pho cooked using traditional methods, and are proudly against the use of a central kitchen - still insisting on boiling the pho broths individually in each and every of their restaurants.
“If the wind’s blowing in a certain direction you can smell the pho all the way down the street,” Juliette Wall tells Food Spark. “We believe it’s important to make food as freshly as you can.”
Aside the steady growth out of London and further within the capital, Pho also have an expansive approach to veganism: 25% of their menu has always been vegan, they say - and since the new cross-menu collaboration with meat replacement company THIS Isn’t Chicken, they are now proudly up to 40% vegan. “It’ll be the year of the meat substitute,” she says.
Here, Wall delves into her beginnings with food, Pho Cafe’s expansion plans both in vegan and high street expansion terms, and more about their approach to recreating authentic Vietnamese flavours in the heart of London.
I went travelling in 2004, and started off in Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam. I absolutely loved the food. It was a totally new thing for me to be in that part of the world, but I’d previously been to Thailand so I knew I really loved Asia and Asian food. Travelling around Vietnam, I just absolutely fell in love with eating the noodle soups. I always loved hospitality, being around people and making them happy. So we put the two things together and started Pho.
Our first chef we ever employed was Vietnamese, and we’ve always had Vietnamese chefs. In terms of the recipes, we try to always make everything from scratch and use traditional methods. The bone and spices are simmered for many hours, and we follow the traditional methods to make those stocks. There are lots of places out there that use stock cubes, and there are lots of faster ways of making stocks these days, but we still stick with the traditional methods. We don’t have a central production facility - we make all our sources from scratch.
There are lots of advantages to central kitchens. You can get a lot more consistency, for instance. But we want to keep making things the traditional way. It’s nice to have that aroma from the stock pots in the restaurants when the stocks are cooking. In some of our sites we make sure you can even see the stockpot bubbling away in the corner. In Wardour Street, the boiling pan is upstairs near the bar. If the wind’s blowing in a certain direction you can smell the pho all the way down the street, it’s amazing. We believe it’s important to make food as freshly as you can, and we’ve managed to maintain doing that so there’s been no reason to do anything else.
I think we could possibly gain some margin if we made things more centrally. But you’ve still got to produce the product and ship it around the country. Do you freeze it then and lose flavour? It’s not going to be the same as chopping vegetables fresh in that restaurant. We might lose a little bit of consistency making the stock fresh, but the stocks are a living, breathing entity that mature as they bubble away. The flavours change so you’re constantly tending stocks and looking at them. I don’t know what we’d gain if we were to make that into a central unit and drive it around the country.
Making pho is a long, slow process. We also add whole pieces of brisket to the stock, which cook very slowly and take on the flavours of the spices. That enhances the flavour of the broth, which cooks in 132 litre stock batches in each restaurant. It’s a long process of constantly getting that up and running.
We source as many of our ingredients locally as we can, but others must come from Vietnam. The meats and vegetables we of course source locally, but we import the fish sauce and herbs, and source the noodles and rice papers from Vietnam. There are certain ingredients that have to be imported that you can’t get here which enhance the authenticity of the product.
With Vietnamese food, it’s all about texture. The fried shallots need that crunch. Then you need the softness, the warm, the cold, the pickles.
We’ve always stuck to exactly what we wanted to do. We’ve opened a restaurant specialising in pho with a fairly small menu… It has got more sections than we first started with but we’ve kept it simple really, and specialised in a handful of core dishes from Vietnam. We’ve tried to stick to what we started off doing and not get waylaid changing the menu and bringing in dishes from other countries: we’ve stuck to the Vietnamese street food.
Anywhere that serves good food is a competitor. It’s not as simple as only looking at other noodle soup operators. Everybody wants fresh, healthy food relatively quickly, so anybody that can deliver a good flavour is a competitor. We’d be wrong to say a burger operator isn’t a competitor because they are. Generally, people can tell the difference between things that are highly processed and things that are made from scratch. In terms of the type of food consumers want, it’s a gut instinct: what is going to satisfy me today?
With Pho, it’s different to any other cuisine. You’re saying here’s your broth, here’s your noodles, here’s your meat, but on the side you’ve got all your sauces, fresh herbs, fresh condiments. People weren’t used to the idea of adapting a dish and enhancing it - that was new to people. It was a massive educational thing for us to explain and unless they’d been to Vietnam they weren’t familiar with it.
We’re opening our 30th restaurant in a couple of weeks in Sheffield and we hope to open a few more. Four more non-London sites are definitely in the pipeline and it’d be nice to open a couple more London sites in the next few years. There are still lots of places we could go; there’s plenty of room for growth but it’s making sure we don’t run away too quickly and that when we do open, it’s successful. We need to make sure we take care to train staff and do everything properly.
We’re quite lucky as 25% of our menu is vegan, and always has been because we don’t have egg, or egg noodle or dairy products in our dishes. There’s not cheese or milk, so our vegetarian dishes are vegan.
We’ve just launched our first vegan menu using a meat replacement from a brand called THIS Isn’t Chicken, and people are loving it. I don’t think it’s a fad, it’s something that will continue. People are looking to eat less meat and that product is fantastic. So many people who eat meat are returning to that as opposed to saying I’m going to be a vegan. I think that’s growing massively this year and will be the year of the meat substitute.
A lot of meat substitutes have a lot of gluten in but we’re accredited by the Celaic Society, so we only have gluten in a couple of products across our whole menu. Most use seitan which is 100% gluten free and a lot of meat eaters can’t tell the difference. January’s been a month of everybody launching special Veganuary dishes - we didn’t want to just launch one dish, as that’s not going to appeal to a wide customer base, so we’ve put meat replacements in as many dishes as we can.
The fish sauce is the authentic sauce for pho, but you can create the same flavours without the fish. I’m surprised we’ve not done this before to be honest as the blend of the chillies, garlic and lime juice enhances and sits perfectly with the flavour. Previously we were always offering ginger soy, but that’s a world apart from nam cham [Vietnamese fish flavoured dipping sauce]. I don’t think you have to be vegan to eat a vegan dish. If you were to have our spicy tofu mushroom, many meat eaters would eat that and it’s not a specific vegan dish.
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Pho: ’Four more non-London sites are definitely in the pipeline’
Co-founder Juliette Wall talks about the street food chain’s regional expansion plans, why Pho won’t use central produciton kitchens, and developing its first vegan menu including a ‘fish’ sauce.