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Whaam Banh Mi

#CatererMotivator: Who's behind Whaam Banh Mi?

In 2009 and at the height of the recession, Whaam Banh Mi’s Tom Barlow decided that it was time for a much needed change. Inspired by his friends’ travels, he upped and moved to Vietnam, having never visited the country previously. Whilst residing in Saigon, Tom became so enamoured by Vietnam's culture, community spirit and of course its food, that he decided to bring his passion back to his native London in the form of Whaam Banh Mi. Having decided to infiltrate what he perceived to be a gap in the street food market, Whaam Banh Mi was born and has gone from strength to strength ever since. We recently caught up with the team to get the lowdown on their recent expansion and to congratulate them on their much coveted ‘Top Banh Mi in London’ award, as voted by Time Out magazine.

Hi Tom! Tell us, what inspired you to bring your business to the UK? Did you consider setting up your own street food business in Saigon itself?

The thought had certainly crossed my mind, but I eventually came home because I was home sick and there’s most definitely a gap in the UK market for Vietnamese cuisine. If you head over to Australia or the USA, it’s considered comfort food but it’s still pretty niche here in the UK. I think Vietnamese food is on trend right now and is the next natural stage in the evolution of the sandwich! You get more for less cost when compared with sandwiches; we worked out the other day that it took us 77 hours to produce one of our banh mi’s, if you consider the 9-hour proofing of the bread and the marinating of the meats.

Wow, that's dedication! How did you learn to cook typically Vietnamese dishes such as Banh Mi and Pho? 

Well, the shredded chicken which is a staple on the menu was fairly easy to create as I ate it for breakfast every day for two years whilst living in Vietnam. The bread however was incredibly difficult to perfect. It took 6 weeks of training with 2 bakeries in Saigon, a week-long trip to Laos, 15 bakeries in the UK and many months of trying different things with home baking equipment.

You certainly perfected it in the end (: Are you still as heavily involved in the food preparation and the development of the menu as you were when you created the business?

Initially it was just me but now my incredible chef Anh Pham has taken the reigns, although I get in there and help with the prepping quite often, especially with large corporate orders. We’ve had night shifts to punch out 1300 banh mi in a weekend and I’ve been in at 4am several times to roll summer rolls. Anh’s the one who has taken our menu to the next level though and I owe a lot to her for the growth of the restaurant.

You traded this summer at the brilliant Soho Food Fest. What were your other calendar highlights for 2016?

Well, the Soho Food Fest was a lot of fun, although we managed to sell out in 3 hours! We also did the Just Eat food festival which lasted for 4 days a received quite a lot of press. As a result of the festival, we were rated top Banh Mi in London by Time Out!


Congratulations guys! So having already expanded in to your very own bricks and mortar restaurant, what are your hopes for the future?

We’ve got some pretty cool things on the horizon actually. We’re partnering up with another Vietnamese brand to become something much bigger. We’ve just opened a market stall at the new Mercato Metropolitano Italian market down in Elephant & Castle and we’re also looking to open at the Street Food Union on Rupert Street in Soho this month. On top of which, we’re also converting a pub we now own in to a fine casual Vietnamese restaurant under a new brand. That’s not to mention the inception of our YouTube channel ViVi TV which will be rolling out in January in order to showcase some of my culinary skills!

It sounds like you’ve got your hands well and truly full. How do you go about sourcing such incredible opportunities?

Well it’s always nice to get a ping from NCASS with possible work opportunities! As well as taking advantage of that, we also get approached quite a lot which we really appreciate. Other than that, we go and talk to people. People are quite friendly when you’re talking about food, especially if you’re offering them freebies!

And finally, do you think the street food revolution in the UK is helping to change the long held view that it can be difficult to eat great food in Britain?

There’s no doubt that great food is far more accessible now than it used to be but we need to make sure that we keep pushing boundaries in the industry. It’s great to have companies like NCASS who are raising the bar and setting high standards in the industry.


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