In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) month, No Kid Hungry's champion engagement intern Paige Brown sat down with Chef Qui Tran of Nudo House and Mai Lee in St. Louis, Mo., to discuss his experience as an immigrant in the restaurant industry. Qui serves as co-chair of St. Louis’ Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry, which is currently on pause due to the pandemic.
Could you tell us about the story of how you and your family came to the US?
Growing up in Vietnam, we were really poor. My dad was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army, so when Saigon fell in 1975, we knew we had to leave the country as soon as possible to protect him. We left in 1978. Fortunately, I was too young to remember, but I always heard horror stories of most Vietnamese refugees not making it to their destination.
We spent a few years in refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. During this time, I contracted polio.I am a survivor who supports efforts to eradicate the disease like the March of Dimes.
In 1980, we finally made it to the U.S. When we came here, we were lucky to have sponsorship and support from various churches and the community. I even remember going to my first Cardinals game in 1982!
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
Well, I grew up in the restaurant business. We were the only Asian family in an area of St. Louis called The Hill. My mother worked at various Chinese restaurants to learn how to cook and run a restaurant. I remember going with her if the restaurant allowed it.
My mom opened Mai Lee in 1985 ‒ we were the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis. I’ve always worked there, whether it’s washing dishes, wiping off tables or being a mini-translator. I’d see the cooking and think, ‘you know, I want to try that,’ so I picked up a wok for the first time. I think I made a tofu lemongrass garlic dish. I don’t know how well it turned out, though ‒ but it got me cooking! That’s really my earliest memory of the restaurant business ‒ cooking.
Did you always aspire to become a chef?
I still don’t see myself as a chef, but I do like to cook. We were first-generation immigrants here in the U.S., so it was very difficult because none of us could speak English. I was at the restaurant constantly. I actually resented my life growing up because I couldn’t do the stuff normal kids did. My whole life was in that restaurant.
For a while I thought I wanted to do something else, so I ventured off and did some financial consulting. But I began to realize that all the relationships and people that helped my family along the way ‒ and also me and my growth ‒ have come from the restaurant. Something clicked. I realized cooking is what I was meant to do. So looking back, I wouldn’t change anything really ‒ it really made me who I am.
How do you remain connected to Vietnamese culture?
I grew up inside St. Louis’s Vietnamese community, which was really small in the 80’s. But now, St. Louis has grown so much that I really identify more with the international community here. One of the most beautiful things ‒ something that I’m proud of about my restaurants ‒ is that there are people from all backgrounds cooking my cuisine. That’s what food does, right? It brings us all together. It gives us a common bond, no matter where we come from.
What challenges did you encounter as a member of the Asian community in St. Louis? Where did you find the strength to overcome them?
Growing up, I was often the only Asian kid in many situations. And I experienced bullying and racism from a few kids in my class. I didn't understand why.
Because of those uncomfortable situations, I try to appreciate people’s different cultures. That's why I love what I do. Food brings us all together: everyone can gather around fried chicken or a bowl of pho. We find our commonality, our love, and respect for one another because we have that thing in common.
How have you navigated the pandemic as a business owner and member of the culinary community? Have you been able to support your community during the pandemic?
Honestly, I don't know how we made it through the pandemic as a business. I have relied heavily on the power of people and my community. During this time, I’ve had to deal with more stress than ever in my life. So many people depend on me. I feel responsible for the livelihood of my employees and their families.
Fortunately, I had the support of people who were there to listen and who were going through the same challenges. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you need people.
I was also happily surprised with the response from the restaurant industry, not only in St. Louis but in the entire country. Even though we were so close to losing it all, we knew we had to do something because we were in this together. We fed doctors, nurses and first responders. We donated food to the community. A single act of kindness can go a long way.
What inspired you to get involved with No Kid Hungry’s work?
It's an important cause. When kids don't know when their next meal is going to be, they aren't productive. Kids should be able to focus on school.
For me, it’s personal because I was one of those kids. I’d look forward to lunch time at school. I was part of the reduced-price lunch programs growing up. It was a meal I could rely on to give me energy in school as one of those hungry kids back in Vietnam. I don’t think it’s cliche to say that kids are our future. Part of taking care of each other is feeding and nourishing one another, so I’ll always do that.