My Personal Story
I’ve been around the block when it comes to hardship, so starting a new career as a chef without any formal training or experience didn’t deter me. Every door that was closed made me work harder to open another. Every struggle taught me resiliency and strengthened my work ethics. I had my first taste of hardship when my parents and their eight small children escaped our country during the fall of Saigon, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, on that fateful day of April 30, 1975.
We siblings were too young to know what was going on and just thought we were leaving for a trip. The whole city was in panic mode as my dad piled us all in his car and drove to Bach Đặng port, where seas of people pushed and shoved ahead, climbing on one another to get onto the few docked ferries. The details are blurry, but I just remember being passed over to awaiting hands to lift me over the barb-wired fence. And from there, hundreds of Vietnamese were squished together like sardines in that tiny ferry, trusting our fates to God, the open sea, fending storms, fears, starvation, overexposure of heat during the day and cold at nighttime. I even heard commotion from suicidal jumps in the water from distraught Vietnamese officials, while our parents were praying for the goodwill of any passing ship to rescue us. Their prayers were finally answered after floating at sea without food or water for four days, by a sympathetic American ship. As horrible as our experience was, at least it had a happy ending. Many of our fellow Vietnamese refugees weren’t as lucky, as some of them either died at sea, or captured by pirates who raped, beat, and trafficked them.
This life-changing experience has taught me so many things, but the most important thing was human’s willingness to sacrifice everything, including their lives, in the pursuit of freedom. Therefore, we don’t take this second chance of life given to us in the least lightly.
I’m grateful for my journey, good and bad, because it shaped me into the person I am today. As with most immigrant families, we were instilled the importance of being financially self-sufficient. If you read my ABOUT page, I did what I was supposed to do, picked the right major in college, had the right jobs, all for the name of practicality. But now that my daughter has graduated from college and has a career of her own, it’s time for me to finally do what I have always dreamt about – to nurture people with my cooking, to share my culture through my food, and to elevate Vietnamese cuisine to the acclaim that it deserves.
The Power of Food
It was the summer of 1975 when we settled in New Orleans, after escaping from Vietnam with nothing but the shirts off our backs and starting our lives all over again. So as my aunt, along with my parents and thousands of other Vietnamese refugees, was facing the reality of trying to survive by making ends meet during the weekdays, she had a side gig of operating a pho noodle shop during the weekends in her tiny one-bedroom apartment. I remember as a kid helping her serve water to guests, I watched how lively her otherwise quiet apartment was, with her five plastic tables and folding chairs crowded her living room, seeing happy faces slurping steaming bowls of pho noodle, and conversations rolling among strangers who came together to commiserate or sometimes to share a few laughs. There were moments of sadness or anger on their faces when they reminisced about their journeys, moments of sighs and tears when they talked about who and what they left behind. But even through their emotions while sharing their traumatic, personal stories, as soon as the hot bowl of pho arrived in front of their face, a broad smile would immediately break out on their face, followed by complete silence even in mid-sentence. It was as if they forgot where they were or what they were talking about, and just be intoxicated by the irresistible sight and familiar aroma of this bowl of comfort food that they couldn’t wait to dig in.
It was then that I first learned the power of food, not only as nourishment but also as a vehicle to bring people together. It is a powerful medium for storytelling and connecting people together and share common ground. I chose to be a popup dinner chef instead of the traditional route of working my way up in a restaurant because I’ve already devoted most of my adult life climbing the ladder and achieving the American dream. Now that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone anymore, I want to spend this next chapter of my life doing something that I truly love, in a meaningful way.
I want to be the chef who creates but also who inspires. I want other global chefs to embrace their heritage and celebrate what’s unique about them and their cuisine rather than trying to fit in and do what’s popular. I want budding chefs to see other routes than the traditional chef’s career path. My VIGLO (Vietnamese with global influences) food is an homage to traditional Vietnamese home cooking, mixed with global flavors, a trend that has already changed Vietnamese cooking locally and internationally. This is just the beginning for New Vietnamese cuisine, and I want to be a part of this movement.
I believe that in order to do well, we’ve got to do good. My husband and I have been going back to Vietnam annually for over 20 years for our mission work in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he and his family created a nonprofit foundation called ProjectTVD.org (TVD stands for Team of Volunteer Doctors). Since its modest beginning in 1999, Project TVD has recruited physician friends and colleagues to donate their time and expertise to local hospitals in Da Nang to work alongside their Vietnamese colleagues to improve the knowledge of local healthcare professionals and provide direct patient care to indigent patients.
In 2015, I started my own part of Project TVD by organizing daily arts and crafts projects for hospitalized children in Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children; at first, as a way for my daughter and I to bond and make ourselves useful during our mission trips. However, over the years as other volunteers’ spouses and their children started to join us, Project TVD Arts & Craft has grown into an entity of its own that has now included a trip to the Pediatric ICU to give gifts for the children who are too ill to attend arts and crafts project held in the hospital foyer.
And I often use proceeds from my VIGLO popup dinners to donate to various charities such as First Coast Relief Fund for Irma Victims, and ProjectTVD.org.