Helene An’s signature dish, crab with garlic noodles, is ubiquitous in Asian-American cuisine. It’s imitated on countless menus across the country. You see it so often that you forget it’s not even a classic Vietnamese dish.
Rather than scoff at her copycats, Helene An, the venerable chef at Crustacean in Beverly Hills and AnQi at South Coast Plaza, welcomes the homage. This Vietnamese immigrant and communism survivor has achieved the status of culinary icon. In 2007, her family story was featured in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit, where the Ans were honored for introducing Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America. Then in May of this year, the Smithsonian recognized Helene An’s role as a pioneering chef of Vietnamese-American cuisine.
“I never dreamed of becoming a celebrity chef,” she says. Her posture is stick straight, and as she speaks her movements are graceful and nuanced like a ballet dancer. She exudes class – the result of years of exquisite grooming and etiquette training. Her life unfolds like a novel: a tale of loss and sorrow followed by renewal and triumph. The makings of a great American story.
“It wasn’t something I sought out,” she continues. “I learned to cook because I had to – to support my family.”
When the Vietnamese conflict divided her country in 1955, her affluent parents were stripped of their wealth. An arranged marriage to a decorated Vietnamese pilot brought her to America. However, An’s future was anything but assured. Her husband enlisted in the U.S. Army but struggled with starting over. “He didn’t like taking orders and he never reached his former rank,” she remembers. He wasn’t happy, and their life was difficult.
An raised their children and spent most days working with her in-laws at the family restaurant in San Francisco. “At the time, it was an Italian deli with sandwiches. But I knew that people would like pasta. So I asked my mother-in-law for permission and she let me try a few dishes. Then we changed the menu.” The only thought on An’s mind: “It has to work.” And it did.
Her recipes helped spawn the Asian fusion movement. Melding Italian pasta with aromatic Vietnamese-inspired ingredients sounds commonplace now, but was unheard of three decades ago. “I could not live without garlic,” she says. “Garlic is my go-to ingredient for not only good taste but also numerous health benefits.”
An’s years training in Eastern medicine continues to flavor her dishes. Ginger to aid digestion and lemongrass to lower anxiety and relieve pain, garlic to boost immunity, mint to improve awareness and purple basil to reduce stress – a plethora of ingredients that taste fresh and aromatic while simultaneously imparting subtle health benefits.
The chef’s next project – and possible final opus – is the opening of Crustacean’s second-floor dining room. There, the culinary team will launch An’s “gastronomic biography,” a term coined by her granddaughter Bosilka. The meal will chart the course of An’s life, from her childhood in 1950s Vietnam to her San Francisco immigration in the ’70s to her budding career in Beverly Hills during the mid-’90s, culminating with her current role as a globe-trotting grandmother accompanied by her food-centric family.
WHAT’S FOR BREAKFAST? My go-to is a traditional Vietnamese pho. I also love a great warm baguette, with extra creamy butter and paté – I think that must be the French culinary influence in our family.
CURRENT OBSESSION: My forever favorite is picking the herbs from my garden and creating herbal and medicinal tea. My daughter Elizabeth can be a bit apprehensive when it comes to taking Western medicine, so with my medicinal and herbal tea, I am able to make sure she takes care of herself through Eastern philosophy, while incorporating Western traditional supplements and medicine.
ON MY NIGHTSTAND: The bedroom is for rest and recuperation, so we like to keep our bedroom as distraction-free as possible. I keep my favorite Tiger Balm on my nightstand, as it helps with relaxation and increased circulation. I also have to keep a notepad on my nightstand for the menu ideas I dream of during the night, and of course, my mini good luck Buddha.
MY PERFECT DAY… would begin with tai chi with my husband, Danny, in our garden. I love checking on my herb garden, and gathering fresh herbs for the day’s meals. I would then follow that by enjoying breakfast with my grandchildren. Then pop by the restaurant to check on the kitchen and say hello to my guests for a few hours. Then my husband will meet me for lunch. We’ll go home for a swim, then take a nap! Towards the end of the day, I might try a new restaurant, then listen to my grandchildren play piano. I’ve loved to sing since I was a little girl, so it’s always nice to sing along with the piano.
PET PEEVE: Probably when my grandchildren come over and while making themselves something to eat, they move all my sauces and spices around in my kitchen cabinets! I keep all my various fish and soy sauces perfectly organized and know where each sauce is without having to look when reaching for it. So, when they get moved, it slows down my cooking exponentially!
REGRETS? At my age, I think you look back and realize life is too short to regret anything.
GUILTY PLEASURE: There is nothing better than a warm soufflé and fresh whipped heavy cream!
FAVORITE NIGHT OUT: A fun new discovery for us was Porridge & Puffs in Los Angeles, a fellow Vietnamese female chef. Minh Phan does a wonderful job showcasing all sorts of different porridges, which is one of my favorite things to eat. … Another favorite nighttime activity would be taking my granddaughters to a neighborhood restaurant and catch up. Since they were very little girls, I would take them to il Pastaio and Via Alloro for a good Italian treat.
ADVICE TO FEMALE CHEFS: When I came to this country I didn’t have time to think about what I could do “as a woman.” My only thought was that I must do, and I must excel in what I do for my family. Looking back, it was even harder then than it is now for women to excel in the restaurant industry — not to mention Asian chefs. I think by just working hard every day, I challenged the belief that most people had: “Women belong in kitchens at home, not professional ones.” So, I tell my family and the women who work for me, don’t forget you are equal and can do anything, but it’s up to you to believe in yourself, persevere and don’t give anyone the power to put you down.
When I first started in America, Asian food was not appreciated and being ethnic was not celebrated like it is today. I feel as though it is my duty to embrace and encourage more young talents to celebrate their heritage – whatever that may be – and incorporate it in their skills and talents.
I believe that you must always work your hardest. You must believe in yourself and find a reason to work hard. When you are feeling tired or need inspiration, you should think of that reason and think of your future accomplishments to come.