photography Ed Schofield
Restaurant owner and supper club queen Noya Pawlyn on her favourite dish – chicken pho – and bringing Vietnamese food to Bath
I was born in Vietnam, in a seaside town called Quy Nhon. It was at the tail end of the war and a terrible time for people in southern Vietnam. My parents made the incredibly difficult decision to escape by boat to Hong Kong when I was seven years old. It was here, in a refugee camp that, as the oldest daughter, I started cooking simple dishes for my siblings while my parents went to find work. When we eventually settled in England, Vietnamese food was the main link to the country we’d left behind. I learnt dishes from both my parents, and my mum’s Vietnamese chicken curry (cà ri gà) is now one of the most popular dishes at Noya’s Kitchen.
Chicken pho really encapsulates the balance we have in Vietnamese cuisine. The broth lends depth of flavour, and the mix of spices make it aromatic rather than hot, with star anise showing through. The fish sauce adds salt, there’s sweetness from the lime and sugar, and all are topped by the fresh herbs and chilli to taste. In Vietnam, people mostly eat pho at specialist restaurants. The broth takes a long time to make, so when we came to England we’d make pho on special occasions or when friends came to visit. It was a special treat during my UK childhood.
Eating is such an important part of family and social life in Vietnam. It is quite different to eating in the UK as there’s such a huge range of eateries, from street-food stalls, where diners perch on low plastic stools to enjoy the stall’s speciality dish, to restaurants with a broader range of food. When eating out together, friends order a selection of dishes that are delivered together to the centre of the table and shared. There are no courses as such, and no-one orders their own dish to themselves, except for soups like pho, where it’s ‘hands off!’. I’ve gone with English dining ways at Noya’s Kitchen, as the Vietnamese style gets pretty messy.
I’ve always cooked for friends and family, and one day they encouraged me to do a pop-up supper club at the Bear Pad Cafe (now the Good Bear) in Bear Flat, where we live. My kids were old enough that the timing seemed right to say yes. It was a success, word-of-mouth spread and the supper clubs turned from monthly to weekly and bi-weekly.
I’m not a trained chef at all – just a food lover with a passion for sharing moments and flavours with friends. My degree in textile fashion means I love the visual side of food, so I aim to create delicious dishes that look beautiful, too. I ran the pop-up supper clubs, as well as cooking classes at my house for almost four years before I found my own place in town. It’s been an amazing first year. Such hard work, but people seem to love it and that makes it worthwhile for me.
I think people love supper clubs as it gives them a chance to try a range of dishes that they might not normally order. My five-course menu is always a secret until I reveal it on the night. Diners love the anticipation and a bit of theatre with the ‘reveal’. I’ve purposely created a homely, welcoming atmosphere, and diners enjoy the feeling of sharing an experience together. We seat groups on their own tables rather than communally, but everyone at supper club eats the same dishes together and that’s a good feeling. Oh, and I think they love the flavours, too.”