ATF2013: Miss Chu

by Jane

“It sounds like you’ve had a pretty heavy couple of days,” opened Nahji Chu, “so I think I’m going to change what I’m going to do.”

Every Friday on her facebook page, Chu posts a music mix.

“It’s like having a personal DJ in your home without paying $200 an hour for it.”

“Does anyone know what a Miss Chu is?” she asked. “A Miss Chu is a food brand called Miss Chu, and it’s all based around who I am.”

“I’m here to speak about breaking rules and what’s not possible. And I guess so far I’ve broken quit a few rules and I’ve gotten away with it and become quite successful.”

Chu came to Australia as a refugee in 1978, and now uses her refugee visa as her logo. In 2006 she started her catering business with $1500 – it now turns over $20 million a year. “I’ve tried to make it as an actor, I’ve tried to make it in rock and roll, and failed in everything,” she said, so she started working in food.

“I grew up in Australia and I loved the tuck shop system, and I always thought imagine if they sold Vietnamese food in the tuck shops?”

“I guess I’m here to talk about how is it that I broke so many rules and became so successful  [..] I’m just who I am. I was fortunate enough to be in this space in time where there is the internet, and I embraced it. […] And I took on all of these technologies and embraced them. […] It’s not that I’m cleaver or I’m a genius  I just saw opportunity and ran with it.”

“I opened up a catering business because everything could be on my terms,” she said.

When she moved into Miss Chu’s Darlinghurst premisses, Chu told us how she needed to spend a lot of money to do the space up. She served people out of the window, and people would sit on the sidewalk or on milk creates to eat the food. Over the weeks, the lines for the Tuck Shop grew, and in the fourth week they ran out of ingredients.

Chu told the story of a writer for the SMH who came to the store, and wasn’t ready to order. Chu told her to stand to the side until she was ready, and the woman threatened to tweet about Chu’s rudeness. Chu told her that was fine and  “out of swearing and being not so much rude, but efficient, I became an international — the New York Times wrote about this woman that had a feisty personality.”

“As a teenager I became rather cantankerous because of racism”, and she decided she was going to tell the story of Vietnamese people in this country through her restaurant. She started to market in Paddington by placing her visa card menus in letterboxes. She was embraced, she said, “not just for my food, but also my politics.”

For her, Miss Chu is about “Vietnamese food with a context and a design element as well.”

“A lot of people say why make a film when you sell Vietnamese food, and I say why can’t I? […] Some people say to me just stick to making food, please?” she said as she played us this promotional video:

“So it’s a bit provocative,” she said, as the audience applauded  “That’s my way of breaking rules, too, because I hate foot photography. Because it’s all the same now. […] I wanted to do something different and provoke.”

People told her videos like this doesn’t make them want to eat her food. “But it’s inevitable,” she said.

“Vietnamese food is probably the most popular food in Australia, in the world, at the moment, but it doesn’t have a historical context.”

From her days as a filmmaker, a designer, and a photographer, influences have helped create her brand.

She is currently a refugee ambassador. “Food is the most popular medium” in Australia, she said, so that is the medium she works through. She is in the production stages of a cook book, and it’s all self funded because no-one will put their money behind a cookbook that is so politically influenced.

Talking about their Darlinghurst store, “You know how there is always one annoying neighbour?” she asked. Chu was forced to remove the milk creates from the street in front of the store because a neighbour complained to council. She replaced these with children’s school furniture, and everyone loved it. They were also challenged on a NSW by-law that disallowed music being played on the footpath – she took the council on, and changed the by-law.

In the end, Miss Chu works because of the brand. “These days, unfortunately, without a strong brand you probably won’t get places” she said.  With the business today, she says, “I don’t need to work, but it’s just not in me to not work. […] I’m a refugee. […] I’m not built that way.”

Asked on the risks of balancing a business with her politics she said it is a risk she needs to take. She started with nothing and will be okay to leave with nothing, she’s prepared to wave the flag. “What I’d like to do with my brand is say to the mainstream of Australia […] ‘look, if you brought more refugees in you’d have a workforce, you’d have cheap labour, and you’d be building infrastructure that you need.'”

Someone else asked where the Miss Chu brand comes from. “It comes from the gut, and that’s why people love it. How refreshing,” she said. “It’s got personality and it’s authentic.”

Her ultimate goal is “to have a Miss Chu in every city in the world to get that political message out there.” You can make more money by concentrating your power in one city, she said, but for her the political measure is the most important thing.

“There is only one thing you can leave when you die, and that is emotion. And the emotions you spread to people. I’m a creator.”