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Student Stories: Sam Dang

Accountant-turned-entrepreneur Sam Dang is the founder of Vietnamese street food brand Banh Mi Baby, currently operating on Sundays at Walthamstow Market in east London (follow him at @banhmi_baby for his latest news). Prior to setting up his business, Sam studied with both Leiths Online and Leiths School of Food and Wine to help achieve his career goals. Here he explains how this hybrid approach has worked for him.

Student Stories: Sam Dang

Can you start by telling us a little about what you do?

“I run a street food business called Banh Mi Baby serving Vietnamese baguettes with some of the fillings that I remember fondly from my childhood because I have a Vietnamese background from my father’s side. These are things that I enjoyed from his cooking, so there’s a slow-braised pork shoulder; there are dill fish cakes; and I’ve got a lemongrass tofu. They come in a baguette with lime mayonnaise, Vietnamese-style slaw, herbs, chilli, and chilli sauce.”

You have studied with both Leiths Online and at Leiths in London. Can you tell us what prompted you to start your first course with Leiths Online?

“I’ve always been interested in food and cooking and I’ve always taken responsibility for doing the meals at home ever since I was fairly young. In the lockdown, sitting at home doing my day job – my background has been in accounting for the last ten years – and staring at spreadsheets all day, I wanted something to do to take my mind off the stresses of the world at the time. I looked at Leiths Online and just thought ‘I’ll give this a go’. I downloaded the Workshop app, followed it, and just really got into it. I started off with Essential Skills, then did the in-person accreditation at Leiths, then the online Chef Skills course after that.”

How did you find the online courses?

“I enjoyed refining my skills. Before I’d just done things ad hoc; I’d followed recipe books but this was really good to follow a structured plan and learn to do things properly or in a more ‘cheffy’ way if you like. I’d never really been into baking as such but the courses got me into it which was really good and it opened my eyes to things I hadn’t been so interested in before.”

When did you start to think it could become a career?

“For quite a long time I’ve wanted to get away from the accounting and finance side of things. I’ve never felt it was me. It’s not something I imagined I’d do when I grew up. I’d always wanted to run my own business and I think doing the online courses and getting quite good feedback, having done the accreditation, I thought, can I do a business that involves food? It stemmed from there.”

You then took the Diploma at Leiths. What persuaded you to take the plunge? And how was your experience?

“Having been to the school for the assessment and having done the online courses, I had a good idea of what it was going to be like practically. Also, I got to the point during Covid, thinking about making a career change, that I thought if I don’t do this now I never will. It was a calculated risk in a way. The Diploma was really good fun. It was completely different to what I’ve done before and kind of like being a student again, going to college. It is quite intense, with long days and quite a lot of pressure on some days. It’s quite physical as well. Having been at a desk job for ten years or so, standing up for most of the day was quite a challenge! I did the shortened version of the Diploma [the Two Term Diploma] because I’d done the online courses. Having done the online courses definitely helped; it gets you familiar with how the Leiths teachers are and what they’re looking for.”

What have you done since graduating from Leiths?

“Straight after Leiths, I used Leiths to find catering opportunities, so did a few weddings and other functions. I did a mini stage at Som Saa, a Thai restaurant in Shoreditch, for a few days to see if I wanted to go into restaurant cooking. Having done it, I felt it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to focus on setting up my street food business, so I started looking for market stall opportunities and did a spell at Borough Market with The Black Pig, whose owner [Nick Willoughby] is a former Diploma student. It was a really worthwhile experience to see the nuts and bolts of how these things work from an operational perspective. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been volunteering at a food charity called Made in Hackney, preparing plant-based meals for needy people in the community. They’re preparing probably about 500 meals twice a week, so there’s a lot of prep. It’s good experience for me, cooking in bulk. I’ve been doing that whilst formulating Banh Mi Baby.”

What plans do you have for Banh Mi Baby?

“I want it to be a viable business for me that I can focus on solely. I’m back to doing accounting as something to pay the bills so it’s kind of my side hustle. I want it to be my sole focus. I’d like it to expand; I’d like to be able to do more markets, more events and festivals, and travel around promoting the brand, promoting my mixed-up Vietnamese food, and see where it goes. I think having done a course such as Leiths has been helpful and having that experience off the back of it. I don’t think I could start what I’m doing now without it.”

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