June 8, 2012
At Vietnamese restaurant, a Honduran does all the cooking: Generational shift brings more Latino chefs
| By Luz Lazo |
When German Sierra gets an order for a plate of bun cha hanoi, he knows exactly what to do.
He has cooked the pork dish — with noodles, greens and pickled vegetables — many times, and knows exactly how much fish sauce, salt and spices to add.
Outside his kitchen, the customers who are mostly Vietnamese are expecting to eat authentic Vietnamese cuisine. And Sierra makes them just that.
“When I left my country I never imagined that I would be cooking this food,” Sierra, 39, said in Spanish. “You come here ignoring all about other cultures and foods.”
A native of Honduras, Sierra has mastered the art of Vietnamese cuisine while working at Asian restaurants in the Washington region. As head chef of Viet Taste at the Eden Center in Falls Church, he cooks, reads and even speaks Vietnamese.
He is one of many Latinos working in the kitchens of Eden Center, a place where most of the shops are owned and ran by Vietnamese refugees. Known as the place to get traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, banh mi subs, and other Vietnamese foods like the noodle soup Pho, Eden Center is also a shopping and eating destination for the area’s nearly 80,000 Vietnamese-Americans.
And in some businesses, it is not uncommon for the owners and employees to interact in languages other than English and Vietnamese. A supervisor at the popular deli Song Que, is Hispanic and his boss speaks fluent Spanish. The manager of V3 Lounge, the Vietnamese nightclub at Eden Center, is also Latino. Some of the bakers at Huong Binh Bakery & Deli are Hispanic women.
“A lot of Latinos, when they want to do the job, nobody can beat them,” said Bihn “Gene” Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington. “If you take a Latino person to come as a waiter, they’d be so good. They learn fast, they are very strong, and they don’t betray their boss.”
Nguyen, who owns four businesses in Northern Virginia, including V3 Lounge and a restaurant elsewhere in the Falls Church area, said the two immigrant communities have been able to work well together, overcoming a language barrier and meeting each others’ needs.
A Pew Hispanic Center report this year revealed that the leading source of jobs growth for Hispanics was the eating, drinking and lodging services sector. Hispanics, now the largest and fastest growing ethnic community in the country, have a strong presence in that industry, according to U.S. Department of Labor reports.
Some local business leaders say the work relationship between Asians and Latinos address needs for both communities. For Vietnamese business owners, it provides access to workers that fill gaps left by generational shifts and declining in-migration in the Vietnamese American community. Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s, escaping the-post-war Communist government, are retiring. The new immigrants, many from Latin America, are willing to take the low-paying jobs.
“It is hard to find a chef now — a Vietnamese chef,” said Thi Quach, the owner of Viet Taste. “Most young Vietnamese people now, they tend to stay in school and they do professional jobs so they don’t want to stay in the kitchen and the older generation are getting old already.”
Quach, 41, came to America in 1985 when he was 14. Coming from a family of cooks, he had always wanted to run his own business and after high school and six years serving in the U.S. Army, he opened his first restaurant and brought Sierra along.
For Sierra, the job, which requires him to work six days a week and 12 hours a day, was a chance to discover a cooking skill he didn’t know he had. He started as dishwasher, moved to be prep chef, then assistant chef until he got his current position as head chef.
“When I was a dishwasher, I used to tell a co-worker that one day I wanted to at least work the grill. He used to tell me it would be difficult to learn the orders in Vietnamese,” he said. “But everything is possible to learn in life.”
Sierra had no cooking experience when he left Honduras in 2000, fleeing the increasing violence and tough economic conditions in his country. He didn’t finish grade school and had to work from an early age to help his family. He worked as taxi driver in his hometown of San Pedro Sula until he was violently robbed three times and left the country.
When he arrived in the United States, he tried several jobs including construction, and not long after met Quach, who at the time owned another restaurant.
It didn’t take Sierra long to get the flavors and learn the food terms in Vietnamese. Everyday, Sierra studied the orders using English, Spanish and Vietnamese dictionaries.
Then it all became natural to him, he said.
Quach, who doesn’t speak very much Spanish, taught Sierra all his recipes. When he couldn’t quite explain in words, they communicated through signs and gestures. When cooking, he said, he just let Sierra taste the food so he would capture the Vietnamese flavors.
“I said, ‘this is how it’s supposed to be. This is how it tastes’ and day by day he learned everything and he knows exactly how it’s supposed to taste,” Quach said.
Now his restaurant is a place where the interactions are in a mix of English, Vietnamese and Spanish. His waiters are from Vietnam. The five kitchen workers are Central American.
“They understand Vietnamese,” he said, referring to his kitchen team. “The order is in Vietnamese so they just look at the order, they read it and they know what to do.”
And while the customers listen to waiter Hoang Nguyen play the keyboard and sing popular Vietnamese songs in the dining room, back in the kitchen, the cooks are listening to bachata, cumbia and salsa.