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Tell us a little bit about your background:
I was born on a beautiful rice farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. But at a very tender age of 3 my father courageously decided to undertake a risky and perilous journey to escape political persecution our family was experiencing by leaving my birthplace. Luckily, we ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand and was granted asylum in the United States. I’m so grateful to have grown up in a country where we have protections and freedoms, and I never take that for granted.
It’s also important to have freedom in our minds, and to not let ourselves be limited by our own thinking and base our decisions on what other people may think about us. I really wanted to have a job where I could just show up and be myself every day and allow others to do the same, so I created my own company, Chi Kitchen. I am the leader of the company, but I show up wearing what I want, mainly what’s comfortable and what I feel good in. I am constantly running around at work and with my kids. We are a family-friendly company. Every day brings something new and different, but I have embraced the freedom to do what I love and what matters to me.
“It’s important to have freedom in our minds, and to not let ourselves be limited by our own thinking.”
What’s your relationship like now with your birthplace?
I have a huge family in Vietnam, with around 60 cousins and close relatives which is something I didn’t have growing up. So it’s like a big party every day with delicious and unusual things to eat. My family all live in the same area, which is on a rice farm in the Mekong Delta, that has been home to my family for generations. We have our own family cemetery in the rice paddy, where my mom and grandparents are buried so it’s a very special place to me. Even though I grew up in cities, my father was always gardening, growing our food, and I have always loved farmland, so having that connection to land is definitely in my roots.
What led you to becoming a chef?
I grew up in a food-obsessed family, but it was more than just the meal on our plates. It was the ritual of eating together at the same time every day no matter what was going on. It was the care that was put into the garden, and the hunt for Asian ingredients; lemongrass and fish sauce in Boston’s Chinatown, trading chili pepper seeds with friends, and fishing for fresh squid or digging quahogs in the summer in Rhode Island. Food was a 360 degree experience in my family and collectively we spent a lot of time cultivating, acquiring, preparing, and enjoying it. But I never thought I could or would be a chef. I didn’t know any chefs, especially any who looked like me. I wanted to be a writer, because I was a bookworm and my parents valued literature and books as well. Yet, in college I worked in restaurants as a server, and always gravitated towards hanging out in the kitchen and taking in all of the smells, sights and sounds, just like in my childhood. It felt like family, and the kitchen was a hub. I was working at a restaurant that had a female chef who had a very well-known vegetarian cookbook and for some reason they let me get into the kitchen, with no experience. I was in way over my head, but I loved the intensity of being in a loud, hectic kitchen working as a team and feeding our customers.
Can you give us a little background on Chi Kitchen and its mission? Why did you start it?
I was working as a chef for an amazing tech company in Manhattan Beach, but after I had my daughter in 2013 I really had the itch to start my own venture. When I met my husband he had really high cholesterol, and was pretty much eating like a truck driver. At home I started to cook Asian food the way I grew up, with lots of vegetables and lots of flavor, which he loved. We reduced his cholesterol back down to normal levels within months. I realized that people loved satisfying Asian flavor profiles, with its herbs, spices, and umami, and if I could create easy solutions for people to enjoy these flavors without all of the preservatives and additives, people would be able to eat healthier without sacrificing flavor—we could make a real difference in how people ate and ultimately their well-being & vitality.
Our ultimate goal at Chi Kitchen is to bring healthy Asian flavors without any preservatives, GMOs, or additives so our customers can have the well-being and vitality to enjoy their lives and create what they want in their lives!
Dana Curran, @henryandmac New England
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