As a child and grandchild of immigrants, I notice that in writing about food and culture I am repeatedly drawn to the stories of immigrants, their struggles and triumphs. And every time someone shares their journey with me, I feel I have been given a precious gift that I want to pass on. Here are the women behind one of my favorite restaurants.
Vanessa Dang briskly chops a pile of red and yellow peppers, speedily stir-fries chicken slices in a steaming wok, and tosses a tangle of rice noodles into a bowl in the compact kitchen of her Berkeley restaurant, Vanessa’s Bistro. Meanwhile, her daughter, Vi Nguyen, greets and seats customers, takes orders and shakes up a mojito while chatting with the regulars sitting at the bar. Both mother and daughter operate in a blur of continual motion, like two speeding comets whose orbits occasionally intersect.
The amazingly energetic Dang, 54, is executive chef of not one, but two bustling restaurants. (Her sons, Michael Nguyen and Jimmy Pham, run Vanessa’s Bistro 2, in Walnut Creek.) Loyal customers return again and again for her innovative and satisfying creations, such as tuna and salmon poke, Saigon noodle salad and warming claypot dishes.
Dang’s daily routine often starts at 8 a.m. when she goes shopping for ingredients.
“I’m a hands-on kind of person. I need to see what’s fresh in the market to help me decide on my specials,” she says.
After loading up her car at several stops in Oakland’s produce markets, Chinatown and Berkeley Bowl, she heads over to her Walnut Creek location to cook lunch before driving back to Berkeley to prepare dinner. “I put about 24,000 miles on my car a year,” she admits.
Dang’s accomplishments are all the more impressive when she reveals her background. “I grew up in Vietnam,” she says. “And when the Communists took over in 1975, life became miserable. I never knew my mom, and my dad was in the military. I stayed with my auntie and in a Catholic Boarding school. Thank God my auntie accepted my sister and me. She was the best cook! But I never learned how to cook in Vietnam.”
Dang moved to the U.S. in 1981 with her then-husband, two uncles and little Vi. There was already a growing tension between Dang and her husband when he opened a restaurant and named it Vi, after their daughter. The Chinatown restaurant, which specialized in noodle soup, is now closed, but Dang admits that her ex-husband’s restaurant served the best pho. “I still miss it,” she says.
Vi Nguyen, now 36, also remembers her father’s restaurant. She grew up working there as a server and supported herself through school. “But I don’t like working in kitchens,” she says. “It’s too hot.” So at Vanessa’s Bistro, which Nguyen owns, she works the front of the house, handles the books and tends bar.
When Dang was 27, she and her husband divorced, and Dang lost custody of Vi and her younger son. “I couldn’t speak English and had no marketable skills. I only got to see my kids on the weekends,” she remembers. “The problem was that I had no job and no place of my own for them to stay.” But the strong-minded young woman was not about to give up, not by a long shot.
“What could I do? I didn’t speak English. I didn’t know how to cook or anything, so I got a job at Denny’s,” Dang says. “And I learned the English words on the menu. But I worked the night shift, which was tough. The customers who came at night could be so mean. They picked on me, said nasty things and left me tips of 8 or 15 cents. So I quit, because I realized I had to work in a place where I could communicate in my language.”
Dang approached Le Cheval, the popular Oakland Vietnamese restaurant, and started there as a dishwasher. But soon she offered to help out when the kitchen got busy. Tuyet Bui, the matriarch of the family-run restaurant, took a special interest in Vanessa. “She was like a mother to me,” says Dang, gratefully. Dang started out peeling carrots and chopping onions. Gradually, she learned more skills as Bui gave her additional responsibilities.
That didn’t stop the assumptions about her lack of knowledge. “The bartender at Le Cheval used to laugh at me and call me names,” says Dang. Secretly, she enrolled in, and passed, a three-week bartending course, but didn’t mention it to anyone at the restaurant. Then one day a customer ordered an Alabama Slammer and the bartender was stumped. Dang volunteered the recipe: Southern Comfort, amaretto, sloe gin and orange juice. The bartender was dumbfounded. “How did you know that?” he demanded. Dang showed him her bartending certificate and finally earned some respect. “But no hard feelings,” she shrugs, smiling. “We still are friends.”
Dang was promoted several times at Le Cheval, but finally decided it was time to take charge of her life. She landed a job at Bridges Restaurant in Danville — the California fusion restaurant where a pivotal scene in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed. The self-taught chef did attend The California Culinary Academy for a few weeks, but had to drop out for financial reasons. “In the USA, you get respect from a piece of paper,” she says. “I had to earn my respect from hard work and determination.”
After six years at Bridges, a co-worker approached her with an idea and she formed a partnership with him to open La Rose Bistro in Berkeley. Later, after a falling out with her partner, she left La Rose and found herself over-qualified for most restaurant jobs.
Meanwhile, in 2006, her daughter, who had been working for the non-profit St. Mary’s Shelter, was also looking for a change. She saw her mother’s unhappiness and asked her to name her dream. “I dream big,” confides Dang, smiling. They decided to work together and open a restaurant on Solano Avenue called Vanessa’s Bistro, with the tagline “Vietnamese Tapas with a French Twist,” which quickly became a beloved neighborhood institution. The family affair had Dang, Nguyen and her two brothers all working together in the intimate eatery.
“It was too small for the four of us,” she says. “Everyone wanted to be a leader.” So in 2009, Dang opened a second location in Walnut Creek for her sons to run, just in time for a couple of tough years during the economic downturn. Things are looking up now, though Dang comments that “Berkeley and Walnut Creek have different personalities. Solano Avenue is very neighborly, and I’ve seen the same families coming in for eight years.”
Besides food that Zagat calls “imaginative” and “gorgeously presented,” part of the charm of dining at Vanessa’s Bistro’s is watching Dang in the kitchen — effortlessly maneuvering the space in her signature designer dresses and spiky heels, jewelry, long nails and elegant coiffure — looking less like a typical chef and more like a party hostess who is putting the final touches on the special dishes she has lovingly prepared for her guests. And that intimate warmth is communicated to her patrons when she enters the dining room to sit at the bar, enjoy a glass of wine and chat with her guests.
“I am very lucky,” Dang admits. “I enjoy my career and can work with my family. I could not have done it without my children. As a single mom, I got strength from them. I saw what working in corporate America was doing to one of my sons who had to get up at 3 a.m. and never got enough sleep. I wanted to give them something to inherit as a family business, even though we have to work extra hard to keep up now.”
Vanessa Dang and Vi Nguyen are also lucky that they can work together in relative harmony. “We get along so well. She’s my best friend; I love to see my mom happy,” says Nguyen. “As the oldest child and her only daughter, we share a special bond. We work well together, and when one of us is stressed out we know how to leave the other alone.”
They also play well together. “We go out to dinner dates at Café Rouge and Zut! on Fourth, and once a year to Las Vegas for a big blowout,” Nguyen adds. It is hard to imagine these svelte women chowing down as much as they describe. Then Nguyen mentions that, until recently, she was a competitive body-builder and that she and her mother both still work out and jog several times a week in order to enjoy to the food and drinks they love.
A version of this article first appeared on Berkeleyside NOSH on March 3, 2015