The Next Level In Taste
Born into a Vietnamese family in 1944, Chef Helene An was born into a life of privilege. Her family was always entertaining guests as her parents were advisers to the king. Each day they would entertain at least 10-12 guests. Since she was the youngest of 12, she didn’t have the responsibility of her other siblings, but her mother told her that she must learn to supervise a kitchen. So for many years Helene An supervised their family’s 3 chefs, one Chinese, one Vietnamese and one French and she would talk with them, taste their food, and give them menu planning ideas. All at the ripe old age of 9.
Her mother was a very strong woman and believed that behind every man is a good woman. She believed as does Chef An that women have to be strong, smart and always the head of the household. This was why her mother wanted to train her to learn to cook for her husband and take care of the family. “She spoiled me,” Chef An said with a gleam of remembrance in her eye.
Then a cruel twist of fate changed Chef Ans life forever. In 1955 the North Vietnam was taken over by communists and their family lost everything when they were forced to move to Southern Vietnam. Her mother quickly learned the lesson that they had to do something to survive and made sure that Helene focused on school and left life in the kitchen alone.
At 20 Helene married into a family with only one son, so there too she was spoiled and not allowed to go into the kitchen at all. Her mother in law, much like her own mother, wanted her to study and focus on school but still she would oversee and taste and enjoyed the lifestyle afforded her at that time. Her father in law was a big business man and had to entertain many guests, so again, she eventually found herself planning menus for the guests and managing the kitchen.
Years later Chef An’s mother in law began traveling around the world, and in 1970 she found herself in beautiful San Francisco, California. She decided she wanted to stay in the U.S. so again the family left everything behind, moved to San Francisco and bought a small Italian café in on 46th and Judah.
While living in San Francisco, Chef An worked as an accountant in the day time and at night she would help her family by working in the kitchen. Slowly she would change the menu in her mother in law’s restaurant to incorporate traditional Vietnamese flavors including shitake mushrooms, tiato and garlic noodles. This was the beginning of turning Helene An into Chef An or Mama as she is known affectionately by those around her.
With a background in Eastern Medicine that Chef An described to me while asking me to stick out my tongue, Chef An began to transform her knowledge to the dishes she was creating as she slowly took over her mother in law’s kitchen. She wanted to apply her knowledge of health and wellness to help people and to this day refuses to use heavy oils and butters or creams. Her famous garlic noodles were born out of that desire to create something tasty yet healthy. She saw Italian pastas on every restaurant menu but they were heavy and unhealthy, she added garlic to a lighter noodle because she knew the health benefits associated with the herb.
Aside from a few additional dishes, the restaurant stayed the same until Chef An’s first daughter Hannah graduated from Davis and decided that she wanted to take over the over the family business. Hannah turned a 10 seat café into a thriving 180 seat restaurant. Their second restaurant opened soon thereafter in 1991 which they named Crustacean. At that time seafood was the big thinning and everyone was talking about their incredible dishes including their roasted crab. 1995 Chef An’s other daughter Elizabeth moved from London to Beverly Hills and thought it would be a great space for their next venture. By then Chef An had many movie stars who would venture up north just to try her cuisine. And so Crustacean Beverly Hills was born.
Chef An’s latest creation, Tiato, named after the Vietnamese herb opened in June of 2010 to rave reviews. Her daughters (there are 5 if you have been counting) Hannah, Catherine and Jacqueline help run the day to day operations as Mama keeps coming up with new and inventive dishes. Tiato is green and lush and they grow their herbs right in the open air garden, one of Mama’s dreams finally realized. And after speaking with Chef An, one of my dreams was realized. Being able to sit down with a world renowned chef not only said to be the founder of Asian fusion cuisine, but more than that, a survivor, a strong woman full of love for her family, and most importantly a passion for all the flavors of life.
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