Walking into the light-filled, warmth-enveloped Onehunga bakery-café Mr T’s, you’re greeted with the comforting aroma of fresh bread complemented by an intriguing touch of chilli, the systematic whir of the espresso machine, and the kind smiles of Mr and Mrs T themselves as they bustle within the open kitchen; immediately evoking the feeling of being right at home.
It’s a stark contrast considering the road - or rather, boat journey – Dieu Tran (aka Mr T), and his wife, Trinh, took to establish their life in Auckland. On this winter’s morning, the customers who are trickling in for strong coffee and a generously topped almond croissant hot from the oven are none the wiser that Mr and Mrs T once didn’t feel at home here.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Dieu and Trinh were forced to flee their war-torn home country in the ‘70s, bound for a Malaysian refugee camp 1,000 km across the ocean. Faced with heaving seas and relentless raids by pirates, thousands did not complete the journey. Mr and Mrs T were among those who did.
Following a treacherous journey, during which Mrs T gave birth to their first son Duc within the confines of the refugee camp, the couple were faced with deciding whether to make their future in New Zealand or the United States.
The Tran family chose New Zealand. Landing on Aotearoa’s shores with little to their name, they had no idea they were about to begin a lifelong love affair with baking, which would see them sharing flavours of a home left behind with their new mother country. Ever since, the Tran’s have been quietly and studiously keeping their heritage thriving through the sharing of beautiful food.
I didn’t choose baking – baking chose me
“I didn’t really know anything about bread when we arrived in New Zealand, but I fell in love with the whole bread-making process straight away and knew I wanted to become a great baker. That was 40 years ago, so I like to think I’ve achieved that by now!”
Positioned road front on Onehunga Mall, the couple’s little café, which opened May 2019, serves a mix of classic bakery treats with a Vietnamese inspired breakfast and lunch menu and the welcoming embrace of Mr and Mrs T’s hospitality.
It’s not the first café Mr & Mrs T have shared with New Zealanders – after learning the art of baking through friends and family, Mr T honed his skills through opening a series of lunch bars and bakeries; first in Hamilton, then Auckland, including Tran Café in Onehunga and The Return of RAD in Mt Eden.
His newfound skill proved to be a labour of love for the whole family, with Mr and Mrs T’s children spending their weekends stamping pies and serving at the front desk, covered in flour from head to toe and sneaking bites of freshly-baked, still steaming chunks of bread and pastries when their parents weren’t looking.
“I’ve always wanted to have my own bakery and serve the very best bread and food for the local community,” says Mr T. “I found the best way to express my Vietnamese culture was through my cooking.
It allows me to integrate my past in Vietnam with my new life in New Zealand, and I am proud to share that with my customers.
A quick glance at Mr T’s tireless schedule confirms his dedication to that cause. The baking process begins at 6 pm, with Mr T finally heading home at around 3 am for a couple of hours’ sleep before getting back to his beloved bakery for 5.30 am. Once the shelves are bare for the day, it’s home for an afternoon nap before starting the process all over again.
Among the overflowing bread rack, the fat, golden loaves of sourdough stand out like individual works of art. Mr T dutifully tends to his sourdough starter each day, which at 16 years old and counting, is the secret to the beautifully crafted sourdough he bakes each morning.
With a twinkle in his eye, he also cheekily and proudly points out the thick crack in the surface of each loaf – the mark of a truly good loaf of bread, he explains.
“The older a sourdough starter is, the better the bread it makes,” explains Mr T. “Look for the crack – that means you’ve got a good loaf. It’s all in the timing of when you take it out of the oven.”
This famously good sourdough sits alongside Mr T’s other expertly crafted baked goods, including croissants, bánh mì bread, baguettes, green matcha eclairs – and traditional, to appease the purists – plus bulging cream buns, and flaky apple strudel.
Mrs T is equally attentive when it comes to Mr T’s breakfast and lunch menu. The sauces are all made from scratch and the spring rolls are prepared with authentic rice paper imported from Vietnam, meaning lighter, crispier fare. She tends the broth for her signature bún bò huế dish for eight hours before it’s finally ready to serve to customers.
Ladled generously in huge bowls, the tangy, salty broth is loaded with succulent pork or beef and thick rice noodles and topped with fresh mint, sprouts and lemon. This is one of the only places in Auckland you can taste this Vietnamese specialty, among other dishes that have been passed down through the generations.
Both Mr and Mrs T say they’re thankful they chose to settle here in Auckland. “We feel safe in New Zealand and we love the people of Onehunga and we’re so very grateful for what we have right now,” says Mr T.
“Baking and Vietnamese cuisine are very important to me and my family, and we love sharing our food with the community around us and the people of New Zealand.”