In 1975, Helene An and her family fled Vietnam, leaving behind a life of wealth and privilege to begin anew in the United States. Today, the Ans own a multi-million dollar food and hospitality conglomerate.
Helene An was once a princess. After the 1975 fall of Saigon, her world collapsed. Helene, her husband, and their three daughters settled in San Francisco where her mother-in-law had purchased an Italian delicatessen four years earlier. Suddenly, Helene An says, the little food shop became the foundation of the family's new life. "When we came in 1975, thanks to that small cafe, the whole family worked together and from there we started the business," she recalls.
Helene's daughter Hannah was 12 years old when she came to the United States. After a lavish childhood in Vietnam, her new life came as a shock. "I was a little bit spoiled at that time," she notes. "When I came to America, I said, 'oh my God, here we are with this little deli and that's all we have.' It was a very big culture shock for me personally. In the way, now looking back, I feel that it was a great experience because we learned how to work as a family."
Helene, who had never really cooked before, recalled tips she was taught in childhood by her family's Chinese, French and Vietnamese chefs. Little by little, she developed her own cooking style and a philosophy she now calls "the yin and yang of cooking."
"I want to combine different ideas, different recipes, different herbs from Asia and from Europe," says Helene An. "I care about health. I don't like to use oil. I don't like to use cream. I want to apply herbs as much as I can. I believe they are very good for health."
Today, Helene An is the executive chef of four An family restaurants. All focus on seafood and Vietnamese cuisine. Her daughters manage the restaurants and, in the process, keep their Vietnamese heritage alive.
According to Elizabeth An, the main ingredients in the success of the restaurants are the family's jealously-guarded culinary secrets, prepared in the so-called "Secret Kitchen."
"Secret Kitchen is a very unique feature," explains Elizabeth An. "It is what I call a 'kitchen within kitchen' - a completely concealed kitchen where my mother prepares her signature dishes. As Coca-Cola has its secret recipes in the vault, our secret kitchen is the same for the An family. It is here that what is unique to our restaurant, what basically built the restaurant, is preserved."
The family's best-known restaurant, "Crustacean," became a hot spot in posh Beverly Hills shortly after it opened in 1997, attracting Hollywood's rich and famous. In addition to food, the family paid careful attention to the design. Elizabeth An, trained as an interior designer, believes one of the restaurant's main attractions is its famed "walk on water."
"Our customers and our friends say "come to "Crustacean" and walk on water," she says. "If they don't remember the name "Crustacean," they definitely recall the restaurant where you walk on water. It is an aquarium, embedded into floor. There is glass on top and fish swimming under your feet and you just walk on water."
The family is preparing to launch a complete retail line of Vietnamese-inspired home products and cooking sauces. Elizabeth An is convinced that the key to their success is the family's closeness. "The key, not the secret, but the key to our family success, it's family and the unity of family," she says. "In the restaurant business, which requires so much time and patience as well as loyalty, the family unit is so important."
The Los Angeles Times has called the Ans "women of enduring strength," who have managed to remake lives and fortunes that were destroyed by the war in Vietnam. Hannah An sums up their lives in one simple sentence: "I learned how to fall with dignity and to rise with humility."