TOM BARLOW - Whaam Banh Mi

TTF Interviews - TOM BARLOW - Whaam Banh Mi


So tell us about the concept and how it all began

I used to eat Bánh mì every morning with my Vietnamese Iced Coffee before heading into work. It was a lifesaver especially on very early mornings! I’ve always had a weakness for sandwiches, creating weird and wonderful door stoppers with various pastrami’s, green leaves and Italian dressings. It clicked last year that the Vietnamese had gone one step further and basically created the most amazing bread filled with delicious Asian flavours.


Whaam was a play on the original Batman TV show with the ‘whaaaaam’, ‘zoom’, ‘bif’ and so on.  I almost called it Batman Bánh mì with a plan to go around the UK in the Bat mobile selling Bánh mì.  In hindsight I am glad we didn’t…! The colours we use are loosely associated with the reds and yellows in the Vietnamese flag but more importantly during Tet (Chinese New Year) people in the South (Saigon – where I’m from) people give yellow flowers as gifts whereas in the North they give red flowers to one another.


The bread is the most unique and hardest part to master.  There are a lot of bánh mì joints here in London that simply use a French baguette as a substitute.  It’s ace but not quite the same flavour.  It took me 13 months to perfect our Bánh mì with 2 months of baking with the Saigon bakers, a week in Laos, 6 bakeries in the UK, a day spent in a test laboratory in Bicester and final tweaking with my baker here in London.


I returned from Vietnam back in March 2014 and had an awesome summer of doing pop-ups at festivals all across the South of England.  People seemed to love what we did and we had quite a few requests to open restaurants in Brighton, Bath and other places.





What was your very first job? 

Many moons ago I went to culinary school and ended up landing a job as the second chef for a hotel in the French Alps.  I later went to work as a waiter/barman at the acclaimed St Enodoc Hotel down in Cornwall that’s recently been taken over by Nathan Outlaw.



What's your favourite cuisine and what drink would you have with it?

Well obviously Vietnamese is my favourite cuisine but controversially I wouldn’t have a Saigon export but I’d go for Beer; Laos, if I could get my hands on it.  If you haven’t tried it, go get some.  It’s a life changing beer and I reckon it’s something to do with the purity of the water you get in Laos, which is second to none.



When you’re not dishing out your tasty treats, what do you like doing to let your hair down?

It goes slightly against what I’m about but I’ll generally be trying out some new recipes from Tom Kerridge (massive fan), wake boarding or trying out some new restaurants.  I’m a bit ashamed to admit I’m slightly obsessed with what we’re trying to do which is to get more people eating Vietnamese food so if it’s not Whaam Bánh mì I’m probably plotting the next product I want to launch.  I’ve got a “Dumbledore wall of Ideas” at home which is basically a pin board where I can stick all my ideas and worry about them later.




Which ingredients do you have a love/hate relationship with and why? 

I have a serious Hobnob problem. I generally get through about 3 +packets a week. I can’t seem to figure out whether to eat them the right way up or chocolate side down. 


Hate is a tough one but I’m not a massive fan of whole oysters. I find its basically like licking the skin of a fish.  I also struggle to understand why so many people like them.  Is it just because they’re an aphrodisiac?!



Which Chef inspires you the most?

I have a huge amount of respect for Luke Nguyen and Andrea Nguyen. I consider the latter the authority on Bánh mì and I was considering asking Luke whether I might be able to come and cook at his restaurant before I started Whaam Bánh mì.  English chef’s I like are Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti as you get to see them so much on Master Chef and really understand how they come to produce these amazing creations. I’m also a massive fan of Tom Kerridge.




What would be your last supper and who would cook it? 

Ribeye steak with mash and Béarnaise sauceI’d ask Heston to cook it for me simply because I once saw his 24 hour steak and I’ve never had the privilege of dining at one of his restaurants. I’m inquisitive to see what texture, moisture and taste you’d get from something so carefully constructed!



If you had not started Whaam Banh Mi, what would you have done? 

This is a tricky one as I’ve had a look at Media, finance and now hospitality. I would have loved to be a helicopter pilot.



What’s your favourite kitchen utensil? 

Micro grater. It came into my life unrequested and now I can’t live without it.  Grate your ginger on this and you’ll never go back.  It’s also an eye watering way to use fresh wasabi so be sure to keep some distance between your grater and your eyes when grating!



Who would you love to cook for? 

I’d love to cook for David Attenburgh.



Favourite junk food/ guilty pleasure?

 Hobnobs or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  I looked into starting an ice-cream company in Australia at one stage but bottled it.  Tom and Jerry’s didn’t quite sound as catchy! Or does it??



Who would be in your fantasy dinner party? 

The Avengers, Arthur from Batman, James Bond, David Attenborough (of course), Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. 




What does the future hold?  

I’m excited about this real buzz of Vietnamese food that’s going round.  I’ve had a number of Vietnamese restaurant entrepreneurs come into the restaurant already connecting with me as a mutual lover of Vietnamese cuisine.  2015 will mark the start of the Vietnamese food revolution and it’s great to see so many people that have already been out there and have also fallen in love with the food. 


Once the excitement of the launch of the first site has calmed down a little, I’ll be looking to open the next one and then it’s onwards and upwards from there, really.  I’ve got loads of ideas centred around Vietnamese food and beverages that I want to launch here in the UK. I’ve got an awesome team behind me, and I could not be more thankful.  We’ve now also launched our breakfast menu, coffee and mini Bánh mì plus for lunch, you can now get a Bánh mì bento box for £5. 


Whaam Banh Mi Venue Page Here

Written by Lateef Okunnu

About the Author

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Lateef Okunnu's TryThisFor page

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Founder of - An 8 year stint as a food writer not only waged a constant war between Lateef and his waistline but resulted in daily requests for restaurant recommendations. Something had to be done about one of these, and considering a life without food was unthinkable, creating a food-guide was the next logical way to go. Having worked for numerous food-magazines, night-life guides and websites; it was time to create his own. 


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