On a scorching Friday afternoon in late August, Anh Lê was ordering hot dogs at her local pølsevogn in Copenhagen. As she picked up one of the red boiled wieners—served in a bun with ketchup, remoulade, mustard, pickled cucumber, and crispy onion—she said, "They look poisonous but they are full of umami. When you are tired, irritated, or just need love, go down and have a hot dog."
For 17 years, hot dogs were an integral part of Lê's life when her family ran a traditional Danish fast food restaurant—a.k.a. a grillbar—in northern Denmark. Today, Danes know Lê as the chef and author who championed Vietnamese food and exposed their squeamish tastebuds to umami, fish sauce, and the fragrant world of chilis. She runs LêLê, a Vietnamese restaurant which has grown to a chain of street food restaurants, takeaways, and a banh mi stall in Copenhagen.
A few minutes after finishing our hot dogs, we were in the backyard of Lê's house in Copenhagen's leafy Frederiksberg district, where she has torn through 80 square meters of concrete to create a lush garden with raised beds, a wall covered in planters, and an antique wood-fired stove. We were here to record the latest Copenhagen installment of MUNCHIES: The Podcast, but this turned into much more than just an interview.
As we walked around the garden beds, Lê picked ingredients for an impromptu lunch. She smelled fresh nasturtium flowers and picked spicy Vietnamese mint for us to try. "You can actually talk with the plants and they talk to you," she said. "It's a healing way."
There was green tree spinach, which Lê uses a lot to create a broth that "cleans up the body," bright green kale, sweet-smelling chrysanthemum flowers, chilis, and red roach. The roach leaves were soft, yet crispy on the bite. "If you eat it raw, it's not good for you," said Lê. "But when you cook it, you get umami. It has the smell of fresh green apples—do you get it?"
Lê's story probably deserves a feature-length biopic, but here is the abridged version: Lê and her family were boat refugees from Vietnam when they arrived in Denmark. They settled in a village outside the town of Aalborg where they ran the grillbar and where Anh's thoughts drifted toward more exotic pastures when she went to the local library and got lost in Henry Miller's writings about oyster excursions in Paris. She traveled the world, found inspiration in the street-food culture of LA, returned to Vietnam, lived in France, and worked as a flight attendant in Switzerland before she moved back to Copenhagen and opened her restaurant. This is when her mission to get Danes to eat Vietnamese food truly began.
"Everybody said: 'You are crazy! Fish sauce is smelly, and how can you get Danes to eat all the greens?' Fourteen years ago when you got greens [in Denmark] it was a piece of parsley on your grilled beef. Every day for the first year [at LeLe] we were in front of customers, explaining how to eat fresh summer rolls and put herbs on the salad."
Now that Danes realize that greens are not just parsley on a steak, she wants them to try more than vegetables and juices. "I want them to put herbs in everything—herbs, herbs, herbs—because herbs are much healthier than vegetables. There are a lot more vitamins. In flowers, there are 50 percent more antioxidants than vegetables. You need to tell the story. You need to show."
Getting Danes to eat fresh mint leaves or flowers seems small compared with the challenges Lê has faced. From the trauma of fleeing her home country in a boat to the narrow-mindedness, she sometimes encountered in small-town Denmark and France. Or the archaic macho culture of the airline industry. "I didn't know that I was a feminist," said Lê, "until I became a flight attendant."
While she was working in Zurich as a trainee for a Swiss airline, one of the pilots demanded a cup of coffee. "He didn't say hello," said Lê. "He said: 'Coffee. Black. Without milk and sugar.'" Lê looked at him, baffled, and replied: "I'm sorry, how are you? I didn't understand your English?"
The stern pilot repeated the order, and the chief purser urged Lê to follow the rules of the game. Lê prepared the coffee: a tiny amount of water and three sachets of instant coffee. The pilot spat it all over the cockpit. It took 20 minutes to clean up, the flight was delayed and he demanded never to see Lê working there again. She replied, coolly: "You know what, not all flight attendants can make coffee."
It was around that time she realized she wanted to move back to Denmark and become her own boss. "I wanted to live in a country that respects women and where women have all the choices." Back in Copenhagen, in her sprawling urban garden utopia, Lê carried out the rest of the ingredients for our lunch and served it up on a table underneath a canopy.
There were rice noodles and beef cooked with lemongrass, onion, and five spice, what Lê considers the "secret of the Vietnamese kitchen." Beansprouts, fresh cucumbers from the garden, fermented radishes and carrots, fish sauce packed with chili and garlic, and a generous bouquet of herbs: tree spinach, Vietnamese mint, nasturtium, sorrel, watercress, chrysanthemum, sweet Thai basil, and hibiscus flowers. And peanuts. "You find the most umami in peanuts and fried crispy onion," said Lê, "just like the hot dog you had today!"
Between the green leaves in the bowl, red bird's eye chilies were poking through to add extra spice. "You pick up the salad you want, you pick the herbs you want. If you want it spicy, bird's eye chili is actually not too spicy. With this, you can still taste the food."
Before she dished out the ingredients, she rubbed a pair of chopsticks against each other to grind off any splinters. "It's impolite to do this in Japan, but it's polite to do it in Denmark. Bon appetit!"