For many immigrants, the American Dream often starts with humble and sometimes unpleasant beginnings. The first wave of Asian immigrants that landed in the U.S. in the mid-1800s faced discrimination and even violence, but they paved the way that allowed others to chase the dream. Today, there are approximately 20 million Asian Americans, making up 5.6% of the U.S. population. Throughout history, Asian immigrants have continued to experience discrimination—but as a group often characterized as hard-working and diligent, Asians have overcome these obstacles and have achieved and contributed great things to American society. The culinary industry has especially embraced Asian heritage.
A History of Asians in Culinary
The earliest record of Asian food being distributed in the U.S. was in the mid-19th century during the California Gold Rush when Chinese immigrants migrated to San Francisco Bay. To satisfy their longing for a taste of home, some of these mine workers set up shop to serve food from the motherland. And so began the development of Chinese culinary restaurant culture in the U.S.
Over a century later, many Asian immigrants continue to do what they must to survive, which often means working within the culinary industry.
The trend started in the early 20th century when anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant in the U.S. The government had even passed laws banning Chinese immigration and created laws that made it difficult for those who lived in the U.S. to re-enter after visiting family back home in China. But then in 1915, an exception was made where Chinese restaurant owners in the U.S. could get a special merchant visa to travel home and bring back employees with them. This was a loophole that allowed Chinese immigrants to move to the U.S., but it also dictated what they could do once they got here.
Restaurant work is one of the few occupations that doesn’t require a formal education at the entry level. Hard work and a whole lot of grit will take you far in this industry—and if there’s one common trait that immigrants share, it’s grit.
Chef Lien Lin, a Chinese American of Vietnamese descent, shares her family’s story of grit with us. Lin’s parents paved the way for her to not only climb the ranks in the culinary industry but to become a leader, running her own restaurant, speaking on professional panels, and even cooking at the James Beard House.
Q&A With Lien Lin
Q: When did your family come to the U.S., and what did they do for a living once they got here?
A: My parents are ethnically Chinese but from Vietnam. They fled Vietnam with my older sister and a few other close relatives by boat and landed in a Hong Kong refugee camp in 1979. It was a treacherous journey, and I only know a few details––my parents don’t like to talk about sad, difficult things. I do know while en route to Hong Kong, my dad had to fight pirates, and my mom traded her wedding ring for a fish. Once they landed in Kowloon, Hong Kong, my dad got a job on the docks while my mom sold street food to help support the family. Our family group of five adults and one 3-year-old shared a single “bed” at the camp––really, it was a slab of plywood on a 3-tier bunk bed that they all slept side-by-side on along the width of the bed. When my mom became pregnant with me, our family got an extra bed/plywood slab.
Eventually, Saint Joseph’s Church, a Roman Catholic Church in Saratoga Springs, New York, sponsored my family to the United States. When we first arrived, my dad got a job as a construction worker for a little while, then landed a job at one of two Chinese restaurants in the area as a dishwasher. He worked his way up to be a cook, eventually learning and earning enough to open his own Chinese restaurant with my mom in the mid-1980s, and finally began to share his version of Chinese culinary culture.
Q: Do you feel your experience growing up working at your parents’ restaurant helped shape who you are today?
A: My passion for food started at a young age. I remember playing in the sandbox and making cakes using fresh chicken eggs I took from our family chicken coop. I have fond memories of being in the restaurant kitchen, I enjoyed helping my parents fold wontons and washing dishes. I loved going to the restaurant with them on Saturdays as it was one of the only days of the week I would be able to see them. They would usually be still sleeping when we would get ready to go to school, and we would be asleep by the time they returned home from the restaurant.
At an early age, I realized that I had a passion for cooking––I also got paid $10 a day, which was great for an 8-year-old! But most importantly, I witnessed the hard work and sacrifices that my parents had to make to support their family. As a business owner and parent myself now, I want to be able to balance work and family life. I know how important it is for my children to have their parents more involved in their lives, but I am balancing family with what I want to accomplish with my career. Modeling that for my children is important because I want them to strive for that happy balance in their lives.
Q: Before entering the culinary industry professionally, did you have any dreams or desires to be in any other industries?
A: I did attend college for a hot minute. It was the path I was supposed to be on––it was ingrained in me growing up that I was to go to college. Like many immigrant families, my parents came to America with dreams that their children could have the opportunity to be educated and live successful lives. My parents, like many people, feel that education and college is the key to that success. They were so proud of me when I was accepted to USC. I decided to study Public Policy, Management and Planning. I know I wanted to do something impactful for my community. In fact, while I was at Bricolage, I always jumped at the opportunity to give back to the community when possible.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced early on in your career in the culinary industry?
A: I came into the industry wide-eyed and eager to learn, but I soon learned that I didn’t fit in. It felt like high school. We had the cool line cook guys and the older Asian aunties and uncles prepping.
I felt shunned by the line cooks who were mostly Latino males. I just didn’t fit in. I confided in my friend in baking and pastries, who happened to be Mexican, and she spoke to the guys. Shortly after, they started being nice to me. I asked her what she had said to them––she had told one of the ringleaders that I “liked” him. I was not happy about that, but it worked. I was friendly back and innocently flirted. It was about six months later when I was sexually assaulted by the ringleader in the locker room. Fortunately, I was able to get out of the situation without it going too far, but I was shaken. I told my boss, and the person was reprimanded and once again I was shunned by all the line cooks because of it. The Asian aunties and uncles heard about it and one of aunties told me it was my fault for flirting. I was devasted.
The older Asians resented me. They questioned why a young, educated woman would choose to work in a kitchen. Those jobs were for the uneducated who couldn’t get a regular 9-5 job. The head wok cook said he wouldn’t teach me the wok because I was a woman––he said it was too physical and that he was concerned for my health.
When I opened Bricolage and conducted interviews, there were times—yes, plural—that the interviewee would come in and be surprised that I was a woman. I was told “Oh, I didn’t realize you were a woman and I’ve never worked for women chefs before.” My lead line cook would refuse to address me as “Chef,” he would address my husband Ed as “Chef” but would respectfully address me as “Miss Lien.” During the presidential elections when Hilary was running, he had made a comment that “women have no place in running a country”––I do believe it was a cultural thing for him.
Q: How did you make the leap to open Bricolage?
A: Ed and I moved to New York to open a restaurant with a partner that ended up not working out. We were at a point where we were figuring out if we wanted to stay or move back to California. We decided to explore our options for the summer and see if anything came up. In the meantime, since we had a truck, we became a “man with a van” moving things for people in the city––it was a team effort.
One day while Ed was doing his daily job search on Craigslist, he came across a listing from these two guys who wanted to open a Vietnamese restaurant and were searching for Chef partners. It screamed our names, and when we met the guys, it was an instant connection. It was fate. New York was asking us to stay a little while longer, and Bricolage was born!
Q: You recently left Bricolage—what prompted this decision? Do you plan to reenter the culinary industry in the future?
A: It wasn’t an easy decision. I had just given birth to my third child, and my sister, my support system (she lived between my apartment and Bricolage), had moved back to California. I felt I was missing out on my kids growing up because the restaurant consumed so much of my time, and I became resentful. I felt torn over my responsibilities and passion for my restaurant and raising my children. I was burnt out. I’m hesitant in admitting feeling “burnout,” I’ve deleted and retyped it several times now, feeling shame and failure. I couldn’t handle it––I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I realized a change needed to be made. Then the pandemic hit––fate!
I don’t plan on opening another restaurant, but I do want to stay in the food business. Before we opened Bricolage, while we were figuring out our stay in New York, my son encouraged me to sell my beef chips snacks that I would make for him. As a first-time mom, I made baby food from scratch from organic vegetables I grew or bought from the local farmer’s market. I wanted to make snacks that were healthy, nutritious, easy to carry, and, most importantly, something the kids would eat. I took his advice and started it back in 2014, but it was placed on the back burner once I got involved with Bricolage. Now, I’m starting that back up again with a partner who is running the business side of the operation while I focus on research, development, and production of the products. I originally named it Nom Noms in 2014, but now we call it Nosh Noms.
Q: Tell us about the Asian Food Mafia. Why is this group important to you?
A: I love my Asian Food Mafia group. They are my friends and support network. It is a small group created by super local Asian-American restaurant chefs/owners who provide a supportive outlet to discuss industry challenges and just to decompress. We strive to foster an environment in which we problem-solve, share ideas, and exchange information to encourage each other’s success.
Through our collaboration, we hope to develop a sense of community. Together, we aim to dispel the myths and stereotypes surrounding Asian cuisine. Our goal is to showcase our respective cuisines by highlighting unconventional dishes, traditional cooking techniques, quality ingredients, and the balance of textures and flavors. To help achieve this goal, we engage in outreach to give back to our local communities and to promote the incredible diversity in Asian cuisine and its current evolution. Together we cooked at the James Beard House a couple of times, did a Google Talk, and did other amazing community events to engage the community on our mission.
Q: What was one of the proudest moments in your career?
A: Hmm…I feel so lucky to have had quite a few proud moments. Cooking at the James Beard House, donating my time and talent, and even speaking on panels for some wonderful non-profit organizations such as Sprouts Cooking Club, Autism Speaks, Food Business Pathways, neighborhood schools, Feast Meets West, the MOCA (Museum of Chinese in America), Museum of the City of New York, Happy Family Night Market, and Google.
Being able to get involved and give back to my community gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment––I felt I was making a difference. However, I would have to say the opening day of Bricolage and serving our very first guests was the proudest moment in my career. All the hard work the team and I put into creating the beautiful space, the testing and retesting of recipes, the kitchen and service flow—it had all finally come to fruition. Every plate, glass, utensil, trash can, soap dispenser, light bulb, fixture, and ingredient was vigorously and thoughtfully chosen. Show time! It was a mixed bag of feelings—pride was one of the feelings, but also, I felt very vulnerable. Would it be enough? Would people like it? Will they like me? Will our business be successful? Will I be able to do this?
Q: What advice would you give someone who feels like an underdog in an industry in which they want to excel?
A: When first reading this question, I thought, “What positive, encouraging words can I offer to support someone in this situation?” Honestly, I don’t think I’m in the place to offer advice…I feel like I have been struggling with this myself throughout my professional career in all aspects. Now that I’m looking back at my career as a professional Chef and business owner, I can say that it has been the most challenging, beautiful, difficult, and delicious learning experience that I have ever had, and I continue to value this fantastic voyage that life has to offer.
I have met the most interesting, creative, and amazing people during this journey. It’s important to find your support network, people you trust whom you can turn to, whether it be emotional, mental, physical, creative, business, or financial support. Also, a good therapist never hurts if you can find the time. I’ve been so lucky to have Ed, my husband, business partner, and best friend, by my side for the past 18 years.
Asian Americans Lead the Way
Asian American cuisine has come a long way from its humble beginnings of being viewed as cheap and greasy takeaway. Influential chefs such as Ming Tsai, David Chang, Cristeta Comerford, Roy Choi, and rising stars like Kristen Kish, Leah Cohen, and Hong Thaimee are redefining Asian cuisine. Asian culinary leaders have elevated the cuisine to a new level while keeping its roots grounded in the flavors of home. We’re excited to see where these and other audacious culinary leaders like Lien Lin, take the cuisine next.
To learn more about Lien Lin and other female leaders in the culinary industry, visit storyplaterecipes.com.