Viet-Cajun seafood and painted nails – how to start two new ventures during lockdown

“I never thought that seafood boils is something that I’d end up selling.” Pic: Thuy Pham

Many people have began small businesses selling from home during lockdown, but one enterprising Hackney woman has set up two wildly different ventures. 

Thuy Pham (pronounced Twee-fam), who lives on the same street as fashionable Broadway Market in Hackney, has been spending her time cooking up a seafood stew based around a combination of Vietnamese and Southern American Cajun cuisine, all while also designing press-on nails.  

The 25 year-old had been on furlough from her job as a nail technician in a London salon. “I’m a workaholic, I can’t sit still.”  “Within a week or two of being in lockdown, Get Set Nails was already created,” Pham told Eastlondonlines.

Pham already had 10 years of experience in the nail industry, after learning her trade in her family’s nail business during summer holidays in secondary school. After that, she enrolled into beauty college and graduated with qualifications that had launched her nail career.

The idea sprouted from social media where press-on manicures, individual acrylic nails that simulate a trip to the salon, are immensely popular in America.   “When we went into lockdown, a lot of women couldn’t get their nails done,” Pham said, so she embarked on a venture that was new to the UK.

“It was also an opportunity for me to level up on my skills. In the salon, I’m limited to how much artwork I can do on a client due to time and bookings.” With creating press-on nails at home she could work around her own time making money and improving on her technique. And her employers agreed she was within furlough rules to work from home on her business.

Pham hopes that one day, she can get to a place where she can have a full team behind her. Right now, with it is something she does entirely by herself, admitting that she is a real perfectionist about her creations.  

While Get Set Nails feels like a natural extension from Pham’s profession, her seafood boil business, The Cajun Boil, was a bit of an outlier. In fact, although an avid food blogger, Pham had no idea what a seafood boil tasted like before last year.

“I fell into it, it wasn’t something that I planned.” She never thought it would be something she would end up selling from her home, let alone predict its success. If you asked me before, seafood was never my favourite food to eat.

All of this changed when Pham watched seafood boils being devoured on ‘Mukbangs’, Korean internet eating shows where a YouTuber or streamer consumes large quantities of food in front of a camera. Similar to the act of scrolling though food pictures on Instagram, audiences ‘eat with their eyes’,  feasting vicariously.

In the American South, the spicy boils are usually consumed communally.  Cajun cuisine developed in the 18th century when the Acadians fled Canada to modern day Louisiana. These farmers adapted their traditional French peasant-style recipes – which involved thickly stewed meats and vegetables in a single pot – to the crab, alligator, crawfish, shrimp and catfish they caught in the Bayou.  ”It’s basically boiled shellfish smothered in an amazing butter sauce.”

Spices like black pepper and cayenne are commonly used in Cajun cooking, as well as a recipe base of onion, celery and green bell pepper – dubbed the ‘Holy Trinity’. Over time, influences by Spanish, Native American and African cuisine were also instrumental in the development of Cajun food. 

Pham had a revelation watching a Netflix documentary about how Viet-Cajun boils were a big business in Houston, Texas, where the Vietnamese population is the largest in the US outside of California. This iteration of the Southern classic involves fish sauce, lemongrass, scallions and ginger – traditional Vietnamese flavours that meld perfectly with the essence of the dish

“So I thought, why not bring that over here? Why not use my Asian heritage and Asian influence to elevate this dish?”  Pham, who is ethnically Vietnamese, pinpoints this as the genesis for ‘The Cajun Boil’. 

She gathered elements from all the recipes she could scour online, but for someone who hadn’t tasted a seafood boil before, it was difficult to determine if the final taste of her creations was accurate. She then began cross-referencing the dish from restaurants and other home cooks.

While Pham was inspired by Viet-Cajun cuisine, she did not replicate those exact flavours into her seafood boils. “It’s definitely not traditionally Cajun, because I’ve never had authentic Cajun food before.” For instance, her seafood boils have frankfurters and spam instead of andouille sausage, which can be hard to find in the UK.

Pham was then confident enough to play around with her own boil recipes which infused secret spices into a butter sauce. She came to a satisfying conclusion when her friends and family approved.  

To say that food is her passion would be an understatement. Her Instagram page is a myriad of picturesque cuisines like homemade cream cakes, Iberico pork katsu sandwiches and dim sum and she had been obsessed from the moment she got onto the platform.  

She had always enjoyed the different aspects of food blogging – whether it was reviewing or photographing – but wanted to do more. The Cajun Boil was her contribution to the food community.   “Here’s a chance for me to get my foot into the food industry, I’ve always wanted to somehow be involved with food.” Pham said.  

On lockdown, she said: “You see everything as means to survive. Being on furlough is not enough. I want to be able to make sure that my family is OK, that I can support them.”

“I try not to plan so much ahead especially during this pandemic because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. We all had a rollercoaster last year.”

The Cajun Boil’s menu can be found on @thecajunboil on Instagram, with four serving tiers from the mini boil (£28), which feeds one person, to the large boil (£115), which feeds four to five. Halal boils are also available, and Pham is working on a vegan version.

Seafood boils are only available on Fridays and Saturdays and can be delivered or collected from her home location in Broadway Market (not a stall), on a day of their choosing. 

Pham’s luxury nail designs can be found on @getsetnails.

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