Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Second-generation restaurateurs, back in the kitchen

Photo by Wonderlane/Flickr (Creative Commons)

For the children of immigrants, the traditional food one was raised on provided more than sustenance. Into adulthood, it remains a connection to our parents and grandparents. Its familiar tastes and smells take us back to homes that were a piece of the old country in the new.

But for the children of some immigrant restaurateurs, it represents much more.

In a great piece this week, the New York Times spoke with adult children of immigrant restaurant owners who have turned an upbringing spent in the mom-and-pop ethnic kitchens run by their parents into food industry careers of their own. Some returned to the kitchen after college or other careers, expanding and modernizing their parents' businesses, or starting their own.

Among those profiled is Diep Tran, chef and owner of Highland Park's Good Girl Dinette, where the comfort-food menu is inspired by Tran's upbringing. From the piece:

Diep Tran, 38, spent most of her childhood in the restaurant business. She came to the United States in 1978 from Vietnam, and was raised in the Los Angeles suburbs. Since the early 1980s, her aunt and uncle have run the Pho 79 chain, among the first Vietnamese restaurants in Southern California.

She got her first real taste of kitchen life one Saturday when she was 14, after a cook called in sick.

Her aunt put her to work making banh cuon, a thin rice-flour pancake. Ms. Tran had made them before, at home, in small batches, using chopsticks to flip the delicate crepes. There was no time for such niceties in the restaurant, though. “Use your fingers,” her aunt said. “After a while it won’t hurt anymore.”

“By the end of the day,” related Ms. Tran, “my fingers were all blistered. And I loved it.”

Among the others profiled - the rest of them New Yorkers - is Wilson Tang, a former Morgan Stanley employee who took over and modernized his family's decades-old dim sum parlor, and Jonel Picioane, the son of an immigrant butcher from Serbia whose father "always secretly thought he’d come and work in the shop” while his son was in college.

Picioane still makes the traditional salamis and hams his father made, but has expanded his charcuterie offerings to things like cured duck breast, French-style saucisson and hazelnut salami. Some of his items are now featured on the menus of exclusive restaurants.

Not surprisingly, many of these restaurant heirs have used social media and taken advantage of adventure-dining clearinghouses like Chowhound to expand their business in ways their parents could not have dreamed of.

A good example of this phenomenon in Los Angeles, though they weren't profiled in the story, are restaurateurs Bricia and Fernando Lopez, the twenty-something heirs to the Guelaguetza Oaxacan restaurant empire. In recent years the pair, both college graduates, have employed social media and networking to breathe new life into the chain founded by their immigrant parents, then gone on to open their own eateries.