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From refugee to tuckshop queen

Nahji Chu once rebelled against her heritage, but food culture turned her around and now she is on a roll.

WHEN Nahji Chu's mother first served a rice paper roll to her Greek and Croatian neighbours, they'd never seen anything like it.

''They asked, 'can you eat it'?'' recalls Chu, standing in the laneway behind the Richmond cottage she shared with her parents and five siblings when they first came to Melbourne in 1980.

It was here the Chu family finally called home, having arrived in Sydney as refugees several years earlier, before finding labouring work in the Hunter Valley.

It was also here, the self-styled queen of the rice paper roll, who turned the humble Vietnamese snack into a thriving food business, ate regularly with her neighbours, with each family taking turns to cater.

''Con, who actually was a fruiterer, would do a lamb BBQ,'' recalls Chu, who owns the popular chain of MissChu tuckshops in Melbourne and Sydney. ''We'd do rice paper rolls and spring rolls, soups and curries.''

It is a fond memory at a time when 10-year-old Chu had precious few. In 1975, her family fled the harsh communist regime in Laos, where she grew up, crossing the Mekong River by pretending to fish. Aged only five, she and family members were caught, jailed and sent to a Thai refugee camp for three years, where they subsisted on rice, soup and whatever they grew.


With 30 packed into a tiny, damp room, she contracted tuberculosis. ''I was so frightened and skinny … quite a sick child,'' she remembers.

The torment didn't end there. Growing up in Richmond, she was bullied by other kids because she was Asian and forced most days to run home from school.

''A lot of the time, we'd come home with a blood nose and black eye,'' she says. ''We were physically abused … quite a few times on the tram, people would say, 'go back home, you Nip'.''

The impact was profound. In her teens, Chu admits she was ashamed to be Vietnamese. She rebelled against her parents, dressing like a punk and dying her hair red. ''I disowned a lot of my culture. I'd do anything to be Australian.''

Her attitude stymied her mother's ambition to open a Vietnamese restaurant and, after deferring her tertiary studies, she pursued an interest in fashion, working as a seamstress.

Later, while working for a bank, she got a transfer, and escaped to Sydney to ''clear her head''. ''I wanted to be a new person in a new city,'' she says.

All the time, though, food was never far away. She had grown up waitressing for her aunty, who ran an underground pho noodle soup kitchen out of what is now part of Niagara Galleries in Punt Road, before moving to Box Hill where she opened Tien Dat and Indochine restaurants.

After a 10-day meditation course, Chu hit on the idea of supplying caterers with authentic Vietnamese rolls. In 2009, she opened her first tuckshop in Darlinghurst, followed by the Sydney Opera House, serving up reinterpreted rolls, like duck and banana flower, and dumplings.

Last year, she opened her first Melbourne outlet in the city (and in Sydney's Bondi) and has another planned for South Yarra later this year. But she's only just getting started. Chu has commissioned a video of a ''body architect'' wrapping herself in rice paper, has a cookbook and her own fashion label in the offing. She has also hired a communications firm to help spruik it all.

While her tough upbringing made Chu resolute to make something of herself, embracing her food culture has reignited her Vietnamese identity. She hopes, too, by making Vietnamese trendy and mainstream she empowers the next generation to celebrate their culture. ''If someone were to ask me who you are, I'd say, 'I'm Vietnamese'. But I live in Australia.''

This rediscovered passion, with her no-nonsense attitude, has earned her the tag of ''rice paper roll Nazi'' - after Seinfeld's soup Nazi - summarily waving away customers who ask idiotic questions (like, ''what's a rice paper roll?''), are indecisive or don't have correct change during peak times.

''Some Australians expect Asians to be so polite and quiet and subservient all the time,'' she says. ''I'm not that kind of person.''