How These Restaurant Families Actually Eat at Home
THIS STORY BEGINS in the shtetls of Strzyzow, the small towns of Oaxaca, and the noodle shops of Luang Prabang. It's about parents who wanted a better life for their children and families who moved across the world in search of opportunity. In America, these families made a living by cooking for others. For the Russes from Poland, that meant bagels and pickled lox. For the Lopezes from Mexico, it was tlayudas and tamales. For the Nolinthas from Laos, papaya salad and congee. As much as their businesses—Russ & Daughters in New York City, Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, and Bida Manda in Raleigh, North Carolina—were tied to financial necessity, they were necessary in another way, too: as a means for each family to bring a taste of home to their adopted homeland.
As the families earned acclaim for their food and grew their businesses, the demands on their time increased. The realities of running a restaurant blurred the line between job and life-outside-of-a-job. Today, each family approaches the negotiation between work and home in a different way, yet they all make sure to spend time together away from the business, cooking and eating the foods they love most.
For the current owners of Russ & Daughters, cousins Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, holidays and family gatherings are an opportunity to step back from work. Niki and Josh are the fourth generation to own Russ & Daughters. In 1907, Joel Russ immigrated to the U.S. and sold schmaltz herring out of a barrel to Jews on the Lower East Side. He made enough money to buy a pushcart, then a horse and wagon, then a storefront. In 1920, Joel moved his shop to Houston Street and later renamed the business for his daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne. The daughters ran the shop until Anne's son, Mark, took over. Niki, Mark's daughter, and Josh, Mark's nephew, succeeded him in 2009.
The cousins have expanded their family's business to three other locations throughout New York City, and they've learned that the key to success is respecting each other's time away. "If it's Josh's day off, it's all on me," Niki says. "And vice versa."
For the Lopez siblings of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, the willingness to separate work and home has grown as they've become more comfortable running the restaurant. Their father, Fernando, came to L.A. on a tourist visa in 1993. He went door to door selling Oaxacan ingredients that weren't available in the U.S., like mole paste. A year later, Fernando opened Guelaguetza in Koreatown, and the rest of the family immigrated to the U.S. Business was stable until the financial crisis in 2008, when Fernando and his wife, Maria, lost their home, their cars, and their other restaurants. They had decided to sell Guelaguetza when their three oldest children, Bricia, Fernando Jr., and Paulina, asked to buy it. Because the siblings didn't immediately have the money, they paid for the restaurant via a five-year promissory note.
"I remember when we first took over there were entire days when we'd have no customers walk in the door," Fernando Jr. says. That changed over time, partly because of a 2010 Jonathan Gold review calling Guelaguetza one of the best Oaxacan restaurants in the country. A steady customer base brought opportunities for growth, like publishing a cookbook and starting a direct-to-consumer business selling Guelaguetza-branded mole and michelada mix. And with growth came an even more urgent wish to spend time together, not as business partners, but as a family.
"We could have a disagreement at work but then go have dinner together," Paulina says. "We try to get away from work so that we can connect and just be us." Whether this means sharing a meal at one of their homes or traveling abroad as a group, food is always involved. "Being together around food is natural for us," Fernando Jr. says. "Food is our love language."
Siblings Van and Vanvisa Nolintha, who own Bida Manda in Raleigh, don't only work together, they live together. The house they share is the first place they've called home since moving away from Laos as kids. Van's parents sent him to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1998, when he was 12. Vanvisa, who's two years younger, came in 1999. The siblings were sponsored by the same host family. They shared a bedroom and stocked their mini fridge with ingredients they missed from home, like fish sauce and Thai chiles.
After nearly two decades living apart from their family, the siblings traveled back to Laos as adults. It was then that they decided to open a restaurant honoring their parents. They called it Bida Manda, which means "father mother" in ceremonial Sanskrit.
Since their restaurant schedules are opposite, Van and Vanvisa rarely sit down to eat dinner together. Instead, one will cook and leave leftovers on the stove—a way of caring for the other. "Van took care of me since day one here," Vanvisa says. "Now, I feel like I'm able to return the favor by cooking for him."
Here, the three families share recipes that speak to their cultures and their cuisine, each dish a representation of what the family loves to eat when they spend time together away from the restaurant—a celebration of home.
IT'S THREE IN THE AFTERNOON, and Niki Russ Federman has forgotten to eat lunch. She washes down a bite of latke with a swig of lemonade. Through a mouthful of bagel chips topped with cheese that her cousin and business partner, Josh Russ Tupper, brought back from Holland, Niki says, "That's the irony of working in restaurants. You're around food all the time, but then you forget to sit down and have a meal."
Niki calls herself a shop kid. Though she didn't eat smoked salmon and caviar for every meal, she grew up helping her parents around Russ & Daughters. Yet for Josh, who grew up on an ashram in upstate New York and wasn't as exposed to the shop, pickled herring and Gaspé Nova were special-occasion foods. As a kid, Josh used to get so excited at family gatherings that he would pile every kind of fish and every flavor of cream cheese on top of one bagel.
Now, Niki and Josh use the downtime of holiday meals to dream up new dishes, like Babka French Toast or Egg in a Bagel Hole, which involves a griddled half bagel with an egg fried in the center. It's become so popular among their family that Niki and Josh are considering adding it to the menu at Russ & Daughters Cafe.
Niki and Josh care for Russ & Daughters as though it's a member of their family. "You sacrifice for this thing," Niki says. "You want to secure its future." They also see the community around Russ & Daughters as family and understand the meaning that their shop holds. "Russ & Daughters becomes their place," Niki says. "When this baby was born, when this person got married. The food is their vehicle for memory."
THERE'S ONE DISH that brings the three Lopez siblings back to their childhood in Oaxaca: enfrijoladas. This simple black bean enchilada made with chile de arból, avocado leaves, epazote, and queso fresco "screams being Oaxacan," says Paulina. "I have never eaten enfrijoladas anywhere else. That taste of beans is such a part of who I am."
Paulina makes enfrijoladas all the time, and her three daughters love them. No matter how busy things get at Guelaguetza, Paulina always comes home for dinner with her family. "Sometimes I don't get to cook it myself," she says, "but we at least sit together and talk about our days."
For Bricia, cooking at home is all about leisure. "When I'm cooking outside of my home, even though I really love it, it's always work for me," Bricia says. "But when I'm at home, it's such a beautiful thing to do."
Unlike his older sisters, Fernando Jr. doesn't have kids, but he loves cooking at home with his wife. They just bought a sous vide machine and like to experiment together. "We'll choose one recipe and do it five times in a row to perfect it," Fernando says. "Then we'll find another one."
Although the siblings live separately now, the bond they formed as kids has stayed with them. When the Lopezes first moved to Los Angeles, both parents and all four kids crammed into one bedroom. "My brother always says that it was because we were in such a close space that we were forced to be close to one another," Bricia says. "Now as adults running a business together, we realize that there is nothing else but family."
WHEN THE NOLINTHA SIBLINGS first opened Bida Manda, there wasn't a model for what a Laotian restaurant in America could be. Van and Vanvisa felt they had a responsibility to make sure their version of Laotian food was truthful to their memory of Luang Prabang, so they asked themselves, "What do we eat when we miss home?" They eat mok pa, which is sea bass baked in banana leaves, and khao soi, a rice noodle soup.
In the farming community Van and Vanvisa grew up in, land is traditionally passed from one generation to the next. The siblings asked their parents, Amphone and Sompheng, to consider gifting them a piece of their land while they were still alive, and then selling that land so that it could become the seed money for Bida Manda. They said yes. "In a way we are still tending to their land," Van says. "It just happens to be in Moore Square in Raleigh, 8,000 miles away."
It took 17 years for Amphone and Sompheng to be granted a visa to visit their children in Raleigh. Yet even when they weren't physically present, they were always there in spirit. A giant black-and-white image of Amphone and Sompheng, taken on their wedding day, hangs above the hostess stand at Bida Manda, greeting everyone who walks into the restaurant. "It's a symbolic gesture of coming into this foreign cuisine," Van said. "It's a moment of humanity."
The first time their parents came to Bida Manda, the most natural thing to do—after years of waiting for this moment—was to sit down together for dinner. "They cooked for us, and we cooked for them," Van said. "And that became the medium of connection."