One immigrant from Vietnam found safety and her fortune in the United States. Helene An has said it’s her American Dream come true. She now runs one of the most exclusive restaurants in California.
CGTN’s Phil Lavelle spoke to the chef to find out her recipe for success.
Helene An is in her 70s, and yet, this chef will probably never stop. She’s the owner and boss of one of Los Angeles’ swankiest restaurants: ‘Crustacean’. The restaurant is in the heart of Beverly Hills, and regularly hosts A-List celebrities coming by for some Vietnamese food. However, it’s the fear of having nothing that drives An. She’s been there before.
An arrived in the United States in 1975 as a refugee. She fled Vietnam with her family. She landed in California, penniless and in an environment where, she says, there was a lot of suspicion against Vietnam.
“From North Vietnam, to South Vietnam, we lost everything and from South to the United States, we lost everything too… no pennies”, she told CGTN. “I had a lot of difficulties and struggle. I had to learn English. I’d never spoken English.”
Regardless, An’s life was about to take a very different turn. Her mother-in-law had arrived in the United States just before her. She sensed a land of opportunity and made a bold decision that would impact generations of her family. It started with a trip to pick up lunch from a local Italian restaurant.
“She goes in to get something from the deli,” An explained. “She buys a sandwich and she asks them, do you want to sell the shop? He says yes and she asked how much. He said $45,000. She said OK. She came here, she saw freedom, she liked it. She just wanted to move here. She said easy, I can do that. At home, every day, I have to cook for 20 people, here the counter has only ten seats. Easy for me.”
It was there that An spotted an opportunity. She said she helped bring Asian fusion cuisine to the United States. She describes how it came about, slowly transferring the house Italian menu into something more exotic.
“I see the many Italian guys, they like pasta, so I say why don’t I create something more healthy? So I create garlic noodle because I believe garlic is very good for your body, it’s very good for everything – cholesterol, blood pressure, heart. So I create something light and very good for the body and balance the body also. So this is the story.. I create garlic noodle in 1976. So many people make a line to get my garlic noodles. Everybody, just heard by word of mouth. They talk about us and then slowly, I changed everything on the menu.”
An is now established and successful. However, she still feels the anxiety of arriving in a new country and not knowing where the money will come from. It’s something she fears when it comes to her own daughters.
That’s why An won’t let anybody into her secret kitchen: a cordoned off, metal fortress where she creates her signature foods. A corner of the restaurant has a strict family-only policy. Not even her closest staff members are allowed in. Oprah Winfrey asked about it when she stopped by, but Helene had to politely decline.
“It’s true.. nobody knows about what I’m doing in my secret kitchen.. even up to now, nobody knows about my secret kitchen,” An said. “I want to pass my knowledge on to my children, to my daughters, because I want my daughters to get a chance in case something happened to them and they can survive in case something happened to me, and I didn’t have anything left… no pennies.”