Smithsonian Honors L.A. Restaurant Icon Helene An with Pioneer Award
On Saturday, May 18, chef Helene An was recognized for her pioneering work at Crustacean, the chic Beverly Hills institution that helped bring Vietnamese cooking to the spotlight in California. The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center awarded An with the Pioneer Award in Culinary Arts during a ceremony held at the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown Los Angeles. The chef, a Vietnam war refugee who arrived in San Francisco in 1975, gave a moving acceptance speech, thanking her family and celebrating the contributions of Asian immigrants to American culture.
"Thank you very much for this humbling award," she said. "In my life, I have experienced many ups and downs, but coming to America as a refugee was the hardest. I did not know the culture or even the language. I came with no pennies in my pocket. But I worked hard to give my daughters the best life I could."
Crustacean, which first opened in 1997 and reopened in 2018 after a six-month renovation, spawned a mini West Coast empire, with other family-run concepts (AnQi, Tiato) opening in the L.A. area. (The original Crustacean opened in San Francisco in 1991.) At the Beverly Hills outpost, An works side-by-side with her successor, executive Chef Tony Nguyen.
The House of AN restaurant group's executive team includes Helene An, her daughters Elizabeth An (CEO), Catherine An (founder of Tiato & An Catering), and Monique An (managing director of Northern California locations), and her granddaughter Bosilika An, who is director of concept development.
"When I created the Secret Kitchen, it was to protect the little I had, my recipes, so one day when my daughters had an education they could do something with it," continued An. "It was not until I opened Crustacean Beverly Hills that I realized my food was not just a labor of love for my children, but also a voice for my people and the many Asian American immigrants in this country. I hope that every young and aspiring chef continues to tell their story and heritage with their cuisine. On behalf of immigrants in this country and the amazing patrons who have supported my family and me, I accept this award with so much gratitude.”
In 2016, An published a cookbook entitled An: To Eat: Recipes and Stories from a Vietnamese Family Kitchen, sharing some of there restaurant's most guarded recipes (including “Mama's” Beef Pho and the Drunken Crab.)