Why One of L.A.'s Best Restaurants Is Fighting for Human Rights
“Good evening, everyone. I am a refugee from Vietnam.”
In the next nine minutes, Luu-Ng explained why she shouldn’t be alive. She talked about how her soldier father stepped on a landmine that somehow didn’t detonate and how he later survived being captured and tortured. She revealed how her family fled Vietnam by boat, how her mother’s milk ran dry on the journey, how her sister almost starved to death, how both her parents later died young from extremely rare cancers that might or might not have been linked to chemical warfare.
Then, after she stopped speaking, Luu-Ng walked off the stage and started bawling.
The thing about Luu-Ng, though, is that all of the hardship she’s encountered has ultimately fortified her.
Cassia, the Santa Monica restaurant where her husband Bryant Ng cooks Vietnamese sunbathing prawns and Singapore laksa and cumin lamb breast laced with Szechuan peppercorns, is widely acclaimed for serving some of the best and most uncompromising food in Los Angeles. And Cassia, especially in 2017, has become a place that honors the immigrant and refugee experience and all the strife and striving that comes with it.
Luu-Ng, an immigration lawyer for 12 years, has done a lot of pro bono work. She used to represent low-income families at Legal Aid. She’s put together annual LA Chefs for Human Rights dinners at Cassia. The most recent one raised around $140,000 for Program for Torture Victims on September 25, when chefs Jessica Koslow, Jeremy Fox, Walter and Margarita Manzke and Zoe Nathan joined Ng in the kitchen.
Luu-Ng admits that putting together the dinner was difficult. She sold almost all the tables herself while working full-time as a lawyer during the day and also working some nights at Cassia.
Why did she do it?
“I think the most immediate answer is a sense of civic duty and responsibility that my dad instilled in me, because he was a public servant his whole life once he got here,” she says. “I am also very much driven by the belief that I have this responsibility to improve the human condition in some way.”
She knows that Cassia is a high-profile restaurant from a celebrated chef, so she has a platform to raise awareness of issues that matter. Ng was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2012 for his work at The Spice Table. Cassia was the L.A. food media’s consensus best new restaurant of 2015 and became the first restaurant outside the New York metropolitan area to get a New York Times starred review when Pete Wells wrote a three-star rave.
“What I really love about the desire to write about food and the immigrant experience is that I think it elevates the conversation to a national level,” Luu-Ng says. “It’s my hope that it helps break down barriers in terms of racism and discrimination. Food is a very important way to break down barriers.”
I recently had a dim-sum meeting with the Ngs in the San Gabriel Valley. Luu-Ng was stuck in court for five hours and showed up a little late. So Ng and I talked for a while about how he and his wife often eschew the spotlight, but also how they pick their spots because they realize they have important stories to tell.
Ng mostly avoids TV appearances. He says that being in front of the camera is sometimes incredibly uncomfortable for him. He’d rather focus on being in the kitchen at Cassia, where you’ll see him on the line or expediting on most nights. But he agreed to be in the upcoming season of the Emmy-winning The Migrant Kitchen (premiering November 8 on KCET in L.A. and on Link TV nationwide) because co-producer Stef Ferrari convinced him it was a chance to tell a story about his heritage—and let his wife have the spotlight.
“Quite frankly for me, I was happy because it was focusing on Kim,” he says.
While we wait for his wife to arrive, Ng and I discuss how his maternal grandparents in southern China used to own detergent factories. They fled Guangdong during the Cultural Revolution and moved to Hong Kong, so their children could get a better education. Eventually, they made their way to Santa Monica, and Ng’s grandfather got into the restaurant business because it was the most feasible way to support the family. Ng’s grandfather and uncle opened Bali Hai, a huge Cantonese-Polynesian spot with tiki drinks and a stage for fire eaters and hula dancers, in Culver City.
Decades later, Ng’s mother and father (who is Chinese but from Singapore) opened a Chinese-American restaurant called Wok Way in Northridge. They started it out of necessity. Redken, the shampoo company where Ng’s dad had been employed, moved out of California. Ng’s parents didn’t want to uproot their family.
“My dad’s actually a cosmetic chemist,” Ng says. “My mom’s a microbiologist.”
Ng went to UCLA and studied molecular, cell and developmental biology.
“I was a consultant for biotech companies and pharmaceuticals for a couple years and realized that’s not what I wanted to do,” Ng says. “Because I had been in a restaurant environment, because of my parents, I understood it.”
Ng, who used to peel shrimp and wash dishes at Wok Way, also understood something else: “No immigrant parents want their children to work in a restaurant because they know how hard it is.”
But his parents were supportive even while they told his brother they were worried about Ng’s future.
Ng is grateful for the sacrifices his grandparents and parents made. He knows this is what has allowed him to cook for a living on his terms. He points out that he and Luu-Ng don’t have children, but they’re surrounded by love every day.
“The people we work with and the people who come into Cassia, they are our family,” Ng says. “It sounds cheesy as fuck, but I don’t know how else to say it. This may be funny coming from a chef, but the food part of it is secondary.”
What’s primary is seeing his staff grow and learn life skills and move on to bigger things. What’s primary is making Cassia feel like, to use Luu-Ng’s words, “a community gathering place.” She remembers her childhood home in Echo Park, where her mom had “an open-door policy” and shared food with the neighborhood while simultaneously housing refugees.
But the Ngs aren’t here to preach, even when they’re trying to raise money for a worthy cause. If anything, Luu-Ng sometimes wishes she were more forceful in spreading the word about what she believes and supports. That would help sell tickets and round up donations for her LA Chefs for Human Rights fundraisers.
“You’re right; we’re horrible at self-promotion,” Luu-Ng says after I bring up the fact that they often seem media-shy. So much of what drives immigrant food in L.A.—and all around the world—are stories that are held close, stories that are largely untold, stories of darkness and despair that ultimately led to delicious dishes and transcendent triumph. These stories aren’t easy to tell, but Luu-Ng knows it’s vital to reveal them sometimes.
Sometimes, you just have to walk on stage and start talking.