A former science student, having emerged through the stagiaire ranks in Denmark to gaining popularity hosting The Chefs Camp on Swedish channel TV4, new sensation Vietnamese-Swedish chef Pi Thanh Lé is refashioning Scandinavian cuisine with his two-Michelin-star restaurant AIRA. Located on the Royal Island of Djårgarden in central Stockholm, he and partner Tommy Myllimäkis – a new judge on Masterchef Sweden – are making delicious waves in the culinary world. It’s no surprise that word-of-mouth  praise about AIRA is spreading like lit gunpowder.
It’s exciting to see chefs like these embracing seasonal produce, monitoring sustainable supply, and challenging the culinary norms. We sat down to celebrate Pi Lé’s breathtaking rise, riding towards a third star.
To be a top chef is not only about cooking with the best ingredients in the world but transforming the quotidian to a new, extraordinary experience. Pi Lé’s origins in Vietnam influence his passion for food culture. Despite his gastronomic success, he’s a smiley, talkative chap who still enjoys the odd McDonald’s, but his offbeat approach to Nordic food is taking him to the Mount Olympus of honourable Swedish chefs such as Björn Frantzén and Mathias Dahlgren. Among the countless luxury dishes on Aira’s seven-course tasting menu, Chef Lé’s ultimate master dish is the restaurant’s langoustine four ways. It exemplifies how a simple concept of bread and soup can reach new heights while triggering memories and emotions through the palate.
Moving from delicate halibut to rich reindeer, the menu creatively blends and balances seasonal, local flavours to offer an exuberant, textured, tenderly-crafted tour for the tastebuds. For the main seven-course tasting menu, guests move into the dining area, where smoothly scalloped seating areas frame a central, pitched space, set off by stylish sculptures creating a sense of art and serenity to allow the focus to be on the food. The calm atmosphere and harmony is enhanced by the intuitive and effortless service, choreographed seamlessly between courses. Similarly, the presentation is consistently immaculate. AIRA uses mostly custom-made tableware for each dish. Take as an example the Swedish squid, oyster, sorrel, caviar, served in a beautiful custom made porcelain dish with narrow indentation like a dimple, that helps to use your spoon to sink through the layers that forms the dish.
Along with the seven-course tasting menu, there are different levels of excellent wine pairings to accompany and complement each of the courses. The fact that the restaurant is located in a recondite corner alongside the water in Djårgarden – you can even arrive by boat – and yet still within central Stockholm, means even the journey to get there prepares you for this memorable experience, and also exclusive: only ten tables – plus the chef’s table and a private dining room – which seat between twenty to thirty guests.
Could you please provide a brief introduction about yourself?
I'm 34 turning 35 this year, still young, but not that young. I was born in Vietnam but moved to Sweden with my entire family when I was two. On my second birthday, actually, we arrived in Sweden. So basically I feel more Swedish than Vietnamese. But I have a very strong connection to my roots, obviously. And that inspires me a lot with my cooking.
What inspired your passion for cooking?
It actually started at a very young age. My mum and dad are two fantastic chefs, not professional. We used to always have a lot of family and friends over, basically every weekend.
There is a very strong food culture in Vietnam.
Indeed, in Vietnam when you invite people over, you don't just cook one thing, it's a whole buffet. It's a lot of stuff (laughs). Every weekend I was next to my parents standing by the stove. So my passion and my interest in food came from them, seeing them on the stove every weekend cooking.
When did you realise how to take it to a professional level?
My parents always wanted me to have a good education as everyone else. So I actually studied science in school.  I didn't go to chef school first. Then at 18, I moved to Denmark. That’s when I realised that I needed to follow my dreams,  not become something my parents wanted me to be so in Denmark I pursued my education at the Copenhagen Hospitality College. After completion, I was in Denmark for four and half years as a stagiaire and starting as a chef.
How did your parents take the change of direction?
I was a very good science student, so at first they were disappointed to see me throwing those grades away. But, now they’re super happy (laughs).
What does AIRA actually mean?
It doesn't have any meaning. Often you come up with a name which represents or needs to feel something. Instead, what we did was come up with a name that didn't mean anything in order to ourselves be able to fill the meaning of it, whatever we wanted it to be. That's the truth of what we created here, that’s AIRA. We were inspired by the four elements and then some other architectural elements came into account too.
Could you please tell me a bit about the building and the architectural design?
The house is designed by Jonas Bohlin, probably one of the most famous architects in Sweden. He has made other interior iconic furniture like the lamps for example. Basically everything we have in the restaurant is custom-made for us. The idea behind when he made this house, he wanted to make it anew, everything built from scratch but aiming with a feeling that blends with this royal side where all the houses are historical, so we wanted the house to look like it's been here since forever. For instance, the facade is covered with this special material that becomes rust and gives a protection layer. You have a feeling that [it] is old but still is brand new. He designed the house after the four elements. The kitchen is fire, of course. Everything in this island is owned by the King of Sweden, everything you do here needs to go through him, if he doesn't like it, there's not much you can do about it (laughs). The entire area lives up to the experience. It is barely twenty-five minutes walk to the center. It makes it very special, it is a destination to go to. It took about three years to build it.
How does AIRA adapt during the summertime?
We have an outdoor patio, which is fantastic, and also our own garden where we grow flowers, vegetables, berries, and so on. It is completely different to come here in summer. It’s beautiful around here during spring and summer. We adapt the food and the experience is all around the season.
I'd love to get into that, but first I wanted to ask you about AIRA’s concept which revolves around utilising seasonal produce with a global influence. How do you navigate the challenge of seasonality in a place like Stockholm, where winters are long?
It's always a challenge. As you know, the season in Sweden is split, in particular, because the summer is very short, and the winter is very long. But if you dig a little bit more, we also have fantastic products. So for example, in the summer, obviously there are a lot of vegetables, birds, a lot of herbs and greens during the spring too. But then when it turns to autumn, we do a lot of game meat. When it becomes a little bit colder, it’s more fish and shellfish. So that's how we like to guide ourselves around all the seasons.
Indeed, Stockholm's proximity to abundant pastures and the Baltic Sea offers a rich array of seasonal produce. Does the fact of being in Stockholm affect your culinary approach?
100%. I wouldn't say it's easier somewhere else but if you compare it to a country where the seasons are more mild, take France for instance, the produce in France is so good, you have so many seasonal variations. In Sweden we become a little more specialised, and obviously the more abrupt seasonal change affects our approach and makes us stay agile.
Having interviewed some of Sweden's finest chefs since the early 2000s, I’ve had the great opportunity to discuss the evolution of Scandinavian cuisine – which has become more diverse with influences from Asia, the Mediterranean countries, and elsewhere. What are your thoughts on its growing diversity and global appeal?
That’s a very good question. I love the new Nordic cuisine with instigators like Noma in Denmark. It tells us how to be proud of our produce and the way we're cooking. I believe a lot of restaurants still do that, like the new Nordic cuisine. But we also realise that the base could be the same as before and then use other kinds of spices or whatever you decided to do from other countries. The new Nordic cuisine is a very acceptable cuisine for taking influences from all over the world. For instance, Scandinavian cooking is so similar to the one in Japan. We have a lot of fish like them. There is a strong base but we have chosen to take inspiration from all around the world.
Are there any Scandinavian chefs who particularly inspire you?
All of my colleagues are inspiring. I remember when I started as a chef, many of those chefs with awards are still working. They inspired me back then and they still inspire me now. As you know, there are many extraordinary Swedish chefs, can you believe it? I am very inspired by all of them, they have their own unique style. We all actually feel like colleagues. Because if this person becomes popular and successful, then all the other restaurants will also become successful.
When did AIRA receive its second Michelin star?
Last June. It was nice. So not that many months ago.
What’s the difference between having one and two stars?
Our main goal has always been to have three stars, that’s always been the main goal since we opened AIRA. So for us, having one star and two hasn't really changed that much. Because in the end, when we had one or two, we were still pushing for the third star. The only thing that might have changed when we got our second star, you can feel it on the staff, everyone was a little bit more proud. I like to watch boxing and UFC. When you become the champ, you automatically become 30% better. It was that for us, we got our second star that suddenly made us better. But there’s no other difference. We are still the same team striving to improve each day.
Is there truth to the legend of undercover Michelin inspectors who clandestinely evaluate restaurants before determining their award status?
It is. Once we had one inspector who said he was from the Michelin Guide. I say that because he was one of the head operators for the Michelin guide. His face is quite famous if you work in this industry, everyone knows. He must be the only inspector from the Michelin guide that we were 100% certain of when they were here. Because all the other inspectors, like you said, are undercover and you don't know; it could be a family, it could be anyone, you never know. That's why you need to have the same level and the same type of attitude for all of the guests no matter what. Sometimes there can be jokes within the staff about some guests, we have a great time too. I think the inspectors need to come at least a couple of times before they can make a judgment.
By the way, how was the experience with the show on TV4?
It was a lot of fun. It is called The Chefs Camp. They pick up the best chefs in the country, and then you compete against each other for different reasons. But it's more like a fun show. You know, it's not like who can cook the best food but more like who can chop the onion fastest, stuff that people at home can actually see and like, enjoy and understand. And so that's more like a fun show rather than teaching any culinary secrets to the audience. I only did it once, but Tommy he’s a new judge in Masterchef in Sweden, which is a very popular show here.
Over the years, television has significantly influenced the culinary landscape, elevating chefs to celebrity status and promoting a culture of good food. How has this affected you?
I remember when I started, we chefs were just chefs, but as you said, thanks to all this boost in the last years in the media, now we are like celebrities. People want to take pictures with you and so on. But in the end, the best way to actually attract guests and more people to come to your restaurant is actually by doing fantastic work. Any exposure in media and social recognition and all that is fantastic, but at the end, what genuinely counts is here in the restaurant, where you can actually make a difference to people.
How does AIRA incorporate sustainability and ethical sourcing into its operations, especially concerning the selection of ingredients and efforts to minimise waste?
Sustainability is a very important question for us. We work with sustainability, not for the PR, but because we feel like it's the right way to do it. People in Sweden, our suppliers, everyone knows we work with sustainable products.
Do you monitor your supply chain?
Yes, exactly, all our products are from farm growing. It's very important for us to know for example, if we buy something, even though it's maybe not 100% from Sweden, for example, you can take citrus fruit, and we use a lot of citrus in here, then we make sure we find a citrus which has been made and transported in sustainable conditions and gives us good quality.
Is AI offering anything new to your way of working today?
It’s hard to say. I foresee AI could probably offer more smart ways to work. Maybe give us combinations that we can work with. But I don't think they will ever come in and replace my job because you need to have a palette. It can give me tips, for example, you can pair fish with mint, or analyse new quantities. But when cooking everything is about tasting, you need to make small adjustments as you go.
Similarly, do you believe anyone can cook like a professional chef, or do you think inherent talent plays a significant role?
At a certain level, everyone can cook. It’s like playing football. I can also play football. But I will never be as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, right? It's the same with cooking. You need to have some type of talent. Obviously, you need to work hard as well. But if you want to be the best in what you're doing, you need to obviously work hard as Cristiano Ronaldo did. But you also need to have some kind of artistic talent, like painting.
Turning to the cuisine, what are some of your latest favourite dishes at the restaurant?
It's very hard to say what kind of dish is my favoyrite. When I work on a dish, together with Tommy, we've been having this dish in our mind for such a long time. I'm thinking about these dishes every day, how to make it better, how to do this, how to do that. So when it comes on the menu, I'm already tired of this dish (laughs).
I guess there is always evolution?
Yes, I’m always thinking about the next dish. Preparing a new dish might be very exciting for the staff but I've been seeing this dish in my head for a long time before I've been serving it. I've been cooking it 1000 times in my head already. I will say the favourite dish at the moment is our langoustine serving, which is based on a concept of bread and soup made in a luxury form. Even though it's like the simple concept of bread and soup – it's very simple, right? – but making it elevated into something exclusive. You still find this comfortable feeling that you're just eating bread and soup but just in another way, you recognise the feeling way, way back.
How would you put in your own words this idea of elevating the simple to a new experience?
It’s called recognition, you have this feeling when you remember you had something, maybe when you were younger, you recognise that feeling triggered by a memory.
Do you have a special technique that you like to use more often?
I think it is all about moods. Some weeks I may be very into cooking shells and fish, and some weeks I just love preparing desserts. Obviously, during the winter you want to cook heavier food, but as soon as the sun comes out, I take away the heavy flavours, working with lighter ones, vegetables. It's quite an artistic mood too.
For aspiring chefs, what crucial lesson have you learned that you would consider essential advice?
Yes, I have two. I say to my chefs, always stay curious, and stay focused. I’m not saying I’m done as a chef, so this helps me to elevate my career faster.
As they say, the shoemaker's children go barefoot. Is that the case for you?
Yeah, I know (laughs). No, it's not always like that. My girlfriend and I are very keen when it comes to having proper food at home. It doesn't have to be hard to make, especially when I come home after a long day of work, I like to have something in the fridge that I can reheat. I cannot go home and eat just a bowl of yogurt, or a piece of bread. It doesn’t work like that. But I am also keen on eating fast food. 100% (laughs) I love fast food. To be able to eat fine dining, you need to be able to eat burgers. It is important to have the entire spectrum. If you only eat one or another, then it’s going to be tough. I love McDonald's (laughs).
Finally, could you please recount three memorable restaurant or culinary experiences, regardless of whether they are currently operational, that have had a significant impact on you?
Without any doubt, Atomix in New York. The best hospitality I ever had in a restaurant. I never felt so special in a restaurant, so impressive. It is Korean fine dining. Saison in San Francisco; the food and everything was so delicious, stuff that you didn’t expect, that moment when you eat it like “oh, Jesus, this is so good”. Then I can give you a street food restaurant in Vietnam, I don’t even know the name. Many years ago, I was visiting my family there and after I landed my cousin asked, are you hungry? We drove to this random noodle place with plastic chairs, paper napkins, and classic street food in Vietnam. That noodle soup with duck is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten! (laughs).