Meet your local independent... Noya's Kitchen
Written by Marianna Hunt for Pixie stories
I arrive in front of a tall Georgian townhouse and push firmly down on the bell labelled "Noya" next to the cornflower blue door. The entrance swings open and I suddenly find myself wrapped in a tight hug from the bouncing figure of Noya herself. A tiny pocket rocket ship of energy, Noya pulls me inside and starts bustling about preparing a pot of jasmine tea, chattering away as she goes.
The interior is not at all what I expected from Bath's most exciting new Vietnamese restaurant and supper club. There's no pared-back, minimalist decor here. Entering Noya's Kitchen is like stepping into the multi-coloured pages of a home & living magazine, with gorgeous summery prints on every wall, shelves teetering with delicately painted teacups and saucers, plants lining the window, and photos of Noya and her family smiling down at you. This really is Noya's kitchen.
She laughs, seeing me looking around in amazement. "I wanted to create something a bit special, something that's not your usual restaurant. This used to be a family home, and I want people to feel at home as soon as they walk in. I fill the restaurant with all the objects and colours I love - which means my actual home has ended up being quite bare in comparison!".
Noya's presence can definitely be felt in every aspect of her Kitchen - from the family recipes, each lovingly prepared by her own hand, to the drawings and paintings by Noya and her children which decorate the walls.
Despite her supper clubs being booked out till well in to autumn and the whole of Bath talking about her lunches, Noya is remarkably down-to-earth about her success. "I'm our only chef, so I'm in the kitchen all the time with no idea what's going on outside the door." Even on her days off (like today), Noya comes in to marinate ingredients for the following day. "But I do always try to pop up and say hi. I like to see the people I'm feeding, to ask how the flavours work. It inspires me to keep making changes and improving the food."
Noya began cooking when she fled war-torn Vietnam at the age of seven. When she and her family arrived in Hong Kong as refugees in 1979, her parents found themselves having to work long hours to make ends meet. So it was up to Noya to feed herself and her four siblings. She would go to the market, then spend the day at the refugee camp with the elderly refugees, learning to cook the traditional Vietnamese way through them. "I had a lot to learn - one of the first things I knew how to make was deep-fried doughnuts, so my brothers and sisters lived off those for a while."
Noya's family later moved to a refugee camp in the UK. She remembers how hard it was learning English from scratch and adapting to the new culture. "You couldn't get traditional Vietnamese ingredients near us. We'd go to London once a month to buy rice papers and special herbs. Because they were so hard to get hold of, they became incredibly precious to us."
This respect and love of traditional Vietnamese cuisine is something Noya still holds today. Many of the recipes have been handed down in her family for generations and every ingredient is treated with care. "My mum's chicken curry recipe is still our all-time best seller", she smiles proudly. Her husband, Daniel, nods in the background, confirming that it's his favourite. "I tried to change it once and everyone in my family was horrified. After all these years, mum definitely still knows best."
Having spent years working as a fashion designer, Noya explains how important the visual aspect of her food is. "We eat with our eyes, not just our mouth. So I dedicate a lot of time to planning the composition of the food, how the colours will work on the plate, when to use the bright, rosy colour of a pickled radish or the emerald green of fresh mint. I dream in patterns, imagining the food and how it will look. It's also important to me to have as little waste as possible. Ingredients are precious - we need to respect that."
What started out as an occasional supper club for friends (with Noya rushing to the kitchen after putting the children to bed to prep ingredients) has grown enormously in scale and popularity. When I ask Noya if she has any time to cook Vietnamese food at home, she admits, laughing: "Once I get home I just want to relax. More often than not I find myself craving a chicken pie and gravy."