stepping up the culinary game: Trends in the restaurant industry

Nha Magazine | January – February 2006

Vietnamese America restaurants, food styles and dining experiences have come a long way in recent years.  Dining out at a Vietnamese American restaurant is no longer about ordering pho; there is a fine-dining side where cooking is an art.  A warm, welcoming interior design and good service are number one priorities.

With a large Vietnamese American population in the Bay Area, California, there is a great variety of restaurants ranging from fast-food style to fine dining, and plenty of cuisine choices from the very north down to the very south of Vietnam.  Sometimes it can be difficult to choose between traditional cooks and younger chefs, who are more inclined to cook Vietnamese fusion foods.

For many Vietnamese Americans, especially for those of the older generation like Susie Bui, owner of Nha Toi restaurant in San Jose, California, cuisines stretch back in tie through ancestors, through their villages and memories.  As a result of influences by many foreign cultures – Chinese, Japanese, French, American, Eastern-European and Thai – over centuries in Vietnam, the cuisine had been enhanced and diversified.  Furthermore, later generations have diversified traditional dishes as more chefs are attending culinary institutions based in the United States and other foreign countries.  Their vision and taste become a cross-cultural invention, targeting youthful and non-Vietnamese diners.

In addition to cooking styles, restaurant settings have also changed significantly.  Foods are prepared with more care and an attractive presentation is mandatory to attract customers.  With the increasing popularity of drinking wine during diner, more Vietnamese American restaurants are serving wine to compliment a meal.

“Pairing the right wine with food is like finding the right words to compose a perfect sentence,” said chef Trung Nguyen at the Bleu Ginger restaurant in Milpitas, California.

With rapidly growing  competition in the restaurant  business, restaurateurs are more creative  about marketing  their restaurants.  Restaurants have transformed into social and entertainment venues.  The Nha Toi restaurant hosts space for artists and musicians to promote their works.  At least one  Friday a month, Bui arranges an open mic – a great chance for musicians to get their voices heard.  She also allows painters and photographers to exhibit artwork in her restaurant in appreciation for the artists’ hard work.  Many of the pieces on display at Nha Toi are originally from Vietnam, which provides an educational opportunity for customers to learn about the culture.

It is time for restaurateurs and chefs to step up the culinary game and take initiative to expand the public’s perspective on Vietnamese food and culture.  Without having to sacrifice tradition and authenticity, Vietnamese American cuisine should embrace the diversity of our ever-changing community.

Bagging The Idea of paper or plastic

Nha Magazine | March – April 2008

Grocery BagPaper or plastic? I first heard of the question after my arrival to the United States when I was out with my brother for Thanksgiving grocery shopping.  I was confused and did not know what to say to the bagger.  We did not have such luxurious options in Vietnam.  We brought our own grocery bags to the market.  And while I was thinking which one would be a more practical choice, my brother yelled out “Plastic!” from behind.  I turned to my brother with a puzzled look on my face and without even asking, my brother whispered making sure no one could hear him, “they can be used as trash bags later.”  After all, it is not about which one is the stronger bag, but which bag has more uses after all the groceries have been unloaded.  If there were no temptation to be economically efficient by reusing plastic bags as trash bags, which one would you choose?

Hundred of years ago, there were “general stores” that sold practically everything such as meats, groceries, hardware and necessities in bulk.  Breaking up produce into smaller quantities was a chief problem.  Many people shopped using baskets or tote bags, and others asked for brown paper bags.

The first paper-bag producing machinery was designed and put to use in 1852 by a 35-year old schoolmaster, Francis Wolle, in Bethlehem, Pa.  Today the Union Bag and Paper Corporation, founded by Wolle, his brother and others, is the largest mill of its kind in the world.  Each day the company produces 35 million paper bags, which is around 9 billion bags per year.  Each family in the United States uses roughly 250 bags every year.

In 1977 the plastic industry introduced their version of grocery bags with carrying handles to compete against the brown paper bag.  Californians use only a little over 19 billion plastic grocery bags each year, among 380 billion plastic bags in circulation nationwide approximately 552 bags per person, which is twice the amount of paper bag usage.  According to the industry figures, 90 percent of all grocery bags are plastic.  Plastic bags are popular because of their light weight, convenience, water-resistance and reusability.

Well , the competition does not end there.  Many studies have shown that plastic bags are not biodegradable.  They can linger in the environment for more than 1,000 years, which means nearly all plastic bags used in earlier years may still be around.  The recycling process is quite energy intensive.  Recycling one tone of plastic bags is equivalent to using approximately 11 barrels of oil.  It was reported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that only 1 percent of plastic bags were recycled in 2000.  Aside from clogging storm drains, plastic bags are harmful and often fatal to unknowing sea turtles, whales and other marine life.  An estimated 3 million tons of plastic bags are floating in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles to the west of San Francisco.  This enormous amount of plastic bags can cover Texas twice.

What about paper bags?  14 million trees were chopped down in 1999 to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans in the same year.  The energy required to recycle paper is twice as much as the energy used in recycling plastic.  In response to this issue, the city of San Francisco took the lead and banned  large grocery stores from giving out traditional plastic bags.  Fine ran up to $500 for violating the ban.  Soon after, Oakland, California, passed a similar ban that went into effect at the start of 2008.  Two other big cities, London and Paris, followed San Francisco’s lead in the effort of going green.  On January 22, 2008, Whole Foods Market, a leader in natural and organic foods, announced that they will end the plastic bags era at their checkout stands by becoming plastic-free by Earth Day, April 22, 2008.  They will be the first supermarket to completely eliminate plastic bags in order to protect the environment and conserve natural resources.

Consequently, the grocery bags market is going through a design evolution, and the result is the cloth bag.  This time the main focus has its emphasis on being environmentally friendly.  Some of these bags are made of 100 percent natural, unbleached cotton.  The fabric is made from strong 10-ounce canvas and can easily hold 40 pounds.  The can be purchased for as little as $1 at convenient locations such as Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and even at mom-and-pop grocery stores.  They come in different sizes and styles; the choice is yours.

Your choices do not have to be restricted to paper or plastic – try cloth!  People in Vietnam have long contributed to the effort of going green by bringing their own bags to supermarkets.  We should apply the same habit and mentality elsewhere.  Going green is more than just an option; rather it is an action that every person is responsible for.  It just takes one person at a time to start a green revolution and others will follow.  If you can do one good thing for the environment this Earth Day, go get yourself a cloth bag!

no bed, a bath and “the wave beyond”

Nha Magazine | January – February 2008

The WaveWhen I talked about waves as high as 50 feet to a friend of mine on a peaceful and quiet beach in Singapore, he just laughed and referred to those giant waves as tsunamis.  Fortunately, Californians are proud to host and witness those monster waves every winter.

Mavericks, known as “the wave beyond,” is the world-famous big-wave break located one-half mile off the coast of Half Moon Bay in Northern California.  The Mavericks surfing contest is held between December 7 and March 31.  During this four-month waiting period, professional surfers and surfing fans are given notice of the wave break 48 hours in advance and live in a ready-to-go mode.  Mavericks is well known for its remarkably strong currents, dangerous rocks, shallow reefs and freezing water temperatures.

It all started with Jeff Clark – Mavericks pioneer surfer and legend – in 1975.  At the time, he was 18 years old and the first person to ever surf Mavericks.  For 15 years he surfed Mavericks alone until the surfing community discovered it.  Nine years later, the first Mavericks contest was held on Feburary 17, 1999.  Following contests  happened in 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006.  Sadly, the waves were not big enough to hold a contest in 2007.

Each year Mavericks brings in 24 elite surfers from around the world to test their courage and skills with its incredible challenges.  The competition is divided into three heats (i.e. rounds).  In each heat, surfers’ scores are based on the size of the wave, the critical nature of the drop, their success riding the wave and the duration of the ride.

This year’s competition, which began on January 12, drew about 50,000 spectators – double the crowd in 2006 – to Pillar Point beach off of Highway 1 (California State Route 1).  The crowd showed up as early as 6 a.m. to reserve the best spots because the real action is nearly a mile away from the shore and the first heat starts at 8 a.m.  Indeed, having binoculars can be very helpful to have a close-up view.

The wave this year ranged between 20 to 35 feet – not the biggest wave ever seen at Mavericks, but big enough for some spectacular train wrecks of a wipe-out.  Mavericks 2008 was all about 24-years-old Greg Long from Southern California.  He came in first place and defeated 2006 champion Grant Baker from South Africa.  Another surprise from this year’s contest was when the last six finalists made a pact to split the $30,000 prize.

“It is not about the money, but the love of it,” Long announced to the public.

When the word “surfing” is mentioned, many people can only relate it to shark attacks, but have never thought of it as a sport.  Being at the Mavericks event for the first time added value to my surfing knowledge.  It is the kind of sport that is not as popular as football or baseball.  Yet, surfing is a widely accepted sport around the world.  It speaks only one language and one rule, and the Mother Nature is the only one who sets the rule.

Surfing at Mavericks is a solitary sport.  The big waves are surfed by few and mastered by even fewer.  It takes more than just skills to become the champion.  Courage and determination are essential.  For many years, I have been riding waves in Norther California; but I can only imagine what it would be like to be inside the Mavericks tubes – the best place to be on earth.

exploring the motherland

Nha Magazine | January – February 2009

The MotherlandI was born in Viet Nam and lived there for over a decade.  I still have fond memories of m motherland – the culture, the government, the humble nha que lifestyle, the people and even the fresh fragrance of mang cut (mangosteen).  Over the last 10 years I have traveled to Southeast Asia on many occasions and I have spent time backpacking throughout Europe – both for work and leisure.   Somehow, the thought of visiting Viet Nam never crossed my mind.  It was a place where thousands of people, including my family, had risked their lives to escape.  Why would I want to go back?  What was left for me to see?  Everyone I knew as a child had probably forgotten me by now.

Despite my spiraling thoughts, I made the trip home to Viet Nam – by myself.  After all, Viet Nam is a place where my childhood belongs, a place where many people had played an important role to transform the little boy I was into the man I am today, a place where I can learn about my ancestors and meet my extended family for the very first time.  It was  a homecoming trip that would allow me to once again discover the beauty of Viet Nam, reconnect with people I left behind and recover lost memories.  It was a trip to uncover the truth about Viet Nam and my past on my own.

I travelled around the country and visited the bustling and crowded cities of Sai Gon and Ha Noi.  I met the people, tasted the food and experienced the rich culture.  I then travelled down the unbeaten path, for a more adventurous experience and a breath of fresh air.  This is the beauty of Viet Nam.

Sapa – the city of fog

In the northwestern province of Viet Nam near China border lies Sa Pa.  The people of Sa Pa are fascinating.  The area has the largest population of Hmong, including Hmong den (Black Hmong), Hmong hoa (Flower Hmong), Dao Do (Red Dao).  The Black Hmong receive their name for the deep color of their clothes and the Flower Hmong for their colorful clothing.  The landscape in Sa Pa is breathtaking, surrounded by Fansipan Mountain and fields of rice.  If you have the time, I suggest taking the 2-3 days guided trekking tour into the Fansipan.  Amazingly breathtaking, it is one of the highest mountains in Indochina with an elevation of 10,000ft (as high as Half Dome in Yosemite).  The winter in Sa Pa is cold, so I would recommend visiting before the harvest (March-September) in order to see beautiful green and golden terraced rice fields.

Hue – The Imperial City

Hue, located in central Viet Nam, is best known for its historic monuments and offers a rich history of Viet Nam’s Imperial period.  Near the Forbidden City, along Perfume River, Song Huong, you can visit the city’s historical monuments including the ancient tombs of several emperors: Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, Tu Duc and others.

Ha Long Bay – Thousand Islets

Venture out tot he northeastern region of Viet Nam, and you will be surrounded by hundreds of small islets sitting above the calm blue waters of the Gulf of Tokin.  The views alone are breathtaking and worth the trip, but the visit’s not complete without kayaking around Ha Long Bay or climbing to the top of Ti Top island.  In the evenings you can enjoy dancing and karaoke on the passing cruise ships.  This tranquil beauty is the perfect escape.

Nha Trang – White Sandy Beaches

About 279 miles northeast of Sai Gon is Nha Trang.  The beautiful white sand beaches provide an ideal spot to gaze out on the stunning blue ocean and soak up some sun.  Your days will be filled with relaxation.  You will sip coconut straight from the source and live like royalty at one of the areas luxurious five-star resorts like Ana Mandara, Vinpearl or Yasaka.  For the adventurous, the scuba diving is amazing, better than Hanauma Bay in Oahu.  There is an unbelievable variety of coral reef and see anemone with the occasional visit from a roaming octopus, reef shark or sea turtle.

Hoi An – City In The Water

If you are looking for a $20USD custom tailored wool jacket, make Hoi An your next stop.  Located on the coast of the South China Sea in the Quang Nam province, Hoi An is famous for its selection of fine custom tailors and large collection of fabulous art galleries.

Pack light clothes for the most part and prepare for beautiful weather.  If you plan to visit Sa Pa or Da Lat, you may run into  a chill, so pack a warm layer.  It is almost impossible to avoid mosquito bites so pack some anti-itch ointment.  Until next time, happy travels.