This is a story of three generations of strong willed
women who rose from heartbreaking and devastating loss of home and
country to building a multi-million dollar food and hospitality
It is a story about a family who no only survived, but successfully
reestablished their new lives in a foreign country and in doing so,
found within themselves a commitment to a heritage and a passion for
a tradition, "A culinary Tradition" which is now the core of
Family Story. In the end, there truly is a "Happy Ending."
The Stuff of Legends. This is the story of fortunes lost and
fortunes found, of fate and the phenomenal power of family along
with the extraordinary strength of one woman, Helene An, who rescued
her family from despair and loss to create a restaurant empire that
is now operated by her daughters, the third generation.
It all begins in the unfolding drama and lost civilization that was
Indochina, a world once known for its exotic beauty, legendary
elegance and French glamour; it was in this world that Helene An
spent her childhood, indeed she enjoyed the title of Princess as her
father, his father and grandfather held the royal title of Vice
Consul to the Vietnamese Emperor.
In 1975 Helene An, now a mother of three young daughters, Hannah,
Elizabeth and Monique, and wife of air force pilot Danny An-answered
the door of her Saigon mansion and was given an hour to flee the
oncoming Communist army.
With no time to pack, her husband out of the country, and her three
children in tow, this once privileged daughter of royalty left her
entire life behind, all she had ever known and loved. Joining her
husband, an Air-Force Colonel in the Philippines, the An family
headed to a new world, to start a new life in the United States.
Certainly, when Helene and her family arrived in San Francisco it
seemed they had lost everything. Everything except for each other…
and the secret recipes that this brave and enterprising young mother
had treasured since childhood.
Raised in the bosom of Vietnam's royal family, Helene's father
regularly entertained dignitaries from all around the world, with
opulent dinners prepared by the family's three chefs, one
Vietnamese, one Chinese and the third French.
The menus created by these chefs became the inspiration for the
Fusion cuisine that Helene introduced in San Francisco, in 1975.
Indeed, Michael Bauer, restaurant critic, San Francisco, proclaimed
Helene the mother of Fusion cuisine in the U.S.
As a young girl, Helene spent many happy hours in the kitchen,
observing with passion and interest the three chefs. And so Helene
learned from an early age how to create menus, manage a kitchen and
entertain in a style that was spectacular in its elegance and
It was this authenticity and graceful "at home" ambiance that
has always insisted that her restaurants reflect, intent that each
guest truly feel as if they are dining at her family's home. Thanh
Long, the An Family's first restaurant had been open for four years,
when the family arrived in San Francisco in 1975.
As fate would have it, Helene's mother-in-law, Diana An, had already
opened Thanh Long, when she visited the city for the first time in
1971. She had impetuously purchased a 20-seat burger joint, thinking
that her life as mistress of a large home, responsible for nightly
entertaining, amply prepared her for the role of restaurant owner,
albeit an absentee one.
When Helene and Danny along with Diana and her husband arrived in
San Francisco, this small diner became the key to the An family
survival and later launched the An family restaurant empire. Helene
along with Diana toiled 18 hour days, seven days a week, these once
sheltered women of privilege giving no thought to their former lives
of luxury, now faced with providing their families well-being and
future in their new country.
Thanh Long's success was overnight - it didn't take Michael Bauer,
restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, long to discover
Helene's unique cuisine and to welcome Thanh Long as San Francisco's
first Vietnamese restaurant.
The Mom and Pop establishment soon incorporated Helene's secret
family recipes featuring the now famous Garlic Noodles and Roasted
Garlic Crab. Crowding the restaurant every night were restaurant
goers who were happy to wait in line for hours to experience the An
family's Secret Kitchen dishes, Helene's loving recreations of the
elegant, exotic cuisine of her youth.
When Helene realized the success of her special dishes she decided
to build a small kitchen within the main kitchen, where only family
members would be allowed, thus protecting the integrity of her
precious culinary legacy. And thus the An family Secret Kitchen was
Thanh Long's success was followed in 1991 by Crustacean Restaurant,
declared by Mr. Bauer as San Francisco's first Fusion restaurant.
And in 1997 the An women opened Crustacean Beverly Hills, one of Los
Angeles' hottest restaurant, reported by USA Today as the top spot
for celebrity watching. The restaurant was soon named by Esquire
Magazine as one of the country best 10 restaurants and has been
featured in People Magazine, Wall Street Journal, InStyle Magazine,
Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food & Wine as well as on CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC
and the Oprah Show.
Today the An family restaurant empire is a multi-million dollar
business, with plans to open two new restaurants this year, in Las
Vegas and San Francisco. Diana An, still active in the kitchen and
now a robust 85 years old, continues to marvel that her 20-seat
diner has launched what has become a burgeoning hospitality and
Now, Diana, Helene and her five daughters are taking this exciting
family legacy to the next step. To share the glamour, elegance and
lifestyle of French Colonial Vietnam, these remarkable women are
bringing their heritage, culture and traditions to life with The An
Family Collection that includes a food line and home décor. And
what is perhaps their finest and certainly most gratifying
accomplishment, Helene's daughters, Hannah, Elizabeth, Monique,
Jacqueline and Catherine have recently committed to the
establishment of the An Family Foundation whose goal will be the
preservation of Vietnamese artistic traditions and the support of
young Vietnamese artists.
The An Family, an inspiring story of riches to rags and riches
again, anxious to assume the role of unofficial Ambassadress'
sharing the beauty and wonder of Vietnam, past and future while
passionately working to insure that their country's vast and rich
culture and artistic traditions are not lost.
"My Secret Kitchen Sauces are my pantry staples. Because they are
versatile, I use them in many of my dishes."
I prefer tastes that are simple, clean, and refined. I have always
been a fussy eater. How food feels on my palate is very important to
me. It can't be heavy, sticky, or overpowering, and definitely not
fatty or oily. Complex flavors and textures must always be balanced
with freshness and lightness. Most importantly, food must not only
taste good, but also be good for you.
My philosophy of cooking is based on the healthy principles of
Eastern medicine and the healing properties of herbs, spices, and
roots. The balance between the taste factor and its healthy
principle is what I call my culinary philosophy of "The Yin &
of Cooking. This philosophy is reflected in all my dishes, and
naturally, in all of my sauces.
For example, when creating my Orange Ginger Sauce, I was looking for
a flavor that would not be too sweet or too sour and definitely not
too salty. I balanced the sweetness and fruitiness from the orange
with just the right amount of zip and spice from the ginger. This
sauce wonderfully compliments the crispiness of some my seafood
dishes such as my Coconut Prawns. The fruitiness from the orange and
the zip from the ginger, balanced with the sweetness of the coconut
in the Coconut Prawns, not to mention the many healing properties of
ginger; one specific healing property being its ability to reduce
possible allergic reactions to seafood.
Through my study of Eastern medicine, I am very passionate about
using different herbs, and spices in my cooking. I depend on
shallots in my cooking to increase circulation, chives to help
respiration; dill to reduce high blood pressure, turmeric to
cleanse, detoxify, and reduce stomach gas; and other Vietnamese
herbs like Vietnamese basil, tia-to and rau ram to increase
Naturally, herbs and spices appear in all my sauces. Henceforth,
came the flavors Garlic Lime, Orange Ginger, Ginger Balsamic,
Mustard Peanut, Soy Miso, and Sweet Spicy Bean. With the vibrant mix
of ingredients, my sauces go with Eastern and Western diets, as well
as the blend of these styles. They suit our contemporary lifestyle.
My sauces help speed up meal preparation. I use the sauces both as
condiments and as ingredients in my cooking. I pour them directly on
vegetables, poultry, seafood, meat, or simply into little bowls for
dipping sauces. I pull them out of my pantry to marinate my favorite
foods or I use them as basic ingredients when making appetizers,
soups, salads, vegetables, and even desserts. As I have been told by
my granddaughter, Nina, "Grandma, I have never had a better sundae
than the one with your orange sauce!"
I have worked very hard to get these sauces to taste the same way as
they do in my kitchen without adding anything but natural
ingredients. I am proud and happy to be able to share my sauces with
you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do."
Beware, culinary spies, thanks to the Secret Kitchen, the An
Family's recipes are well protected!
The Secret Kitchen is a fascinating element of Helene An's culinary
legacy and the An Family success story. The Secret Kitchen is a
completely enclosed kitchen within the main kitchen, off limits to
all employees except An Family members. Here, Chef Helene and the
Ans prepare their secret family recipes: An's Famous Roasted Crab
and Garlic Noodles. These dishes are the key to the restaurants'
As explained by Helene, "We left Vietnam with nothing. I had neither
property nor personal wealth to pass along to my girls. When I
realized that my restaurant was going to succeed, thanks to my
family's recipes, I knew that I must protect their integrity." In
much the same way that Coca-Cola® company stowed their recipes for
Coke® in a vault, the An Family Secret Kitchen was created. In
short, her culinary legacy is her daughter's inheritance.
A Secret Kitchen exists in all An Family restaurants, and that is
why the guessing game continues. What makes the An's Famous Roasted
Crab so unique? The answers are in the Secret Kitchen.
An Family hospitality began in their homeland of Vietnam. When
looking at a map of Vietnam, one can see the age-old comparison
between the shape of the country and the outline of an ascending
dragon. 'Thang Long', which means 'Ascending Dragon' and was the
name of Vietnam's first capital city, was the name that Diana An
chose in 1971 for her family's first restaurant in San Francisco. As
fortune would have it, a simple printer's error resulted in the name
we all know-'Thanh Long', or 'Green Dragon'.
Knowing that the dragon is an ancient symbol of good luck, and that
green represents happiness and prosperity, Grandmother Diana
determined that fortune had bestowed the perfect name on her new
dining room. Good luck and happiness have indeed blessed Thanh Long
and the An Family. This Mom and Pop family restaurant operation has
transformed into a burgeoning hospitality and merchandising
conglomerate. A new generation of Ans welcome you and extend the
tradition of a simple, elegant lifestyle, blending the best of east
Southern California Living
Women of Enduring Strength
By MIMI AVINS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
When war destroyed their privileged way of life in Vietnam, the An
women remade their lives and their fortunes in California
Legendary beauties and past-their-prim divas, Oscar, Emmy and
Hollywood and pampered princesses of Bel Air sit beneath the
swirling palm-leaf fans at Crustacean, reclining on silk-covered
banquettes as if they were Vietnamese royalty. But the only
authentic descendant of Asian nobility in the crowded Beverly Hills
restaurant is Elizabeth An, a 33-year-old immigrant who went from
aristocrat to commoner overnight when Saigon fell to the Communists
a quarter-century ago.
She has fashioned Crustacean, with its stately columns, wooden
footbridges and painted backdrops of tropical gardens, from
recollections of her grandparents' lavish country estate in Kien An.
There, and at the other mansions, vacation villas and plantations
her family owned, she had only to ring a delicate golden bell and a
servant would bring her whatever she requested. On this evening,
poised expensively dressed and in command, she seems to the manor
born, because she was.
It isn't difficult to imagine her as a girl who was taught social
skills, including how to address the help. The picture that's harder
to conceive is of Elizabeth, then known as Ngoc, as a gawky teenager
in San Francisco, who was teased for having a funny accent, a weird
name and the wrong clothes. It's doubtful she would be here now,
presiding over the elegant party that happens nightly at the corner
of Bedford Drive and Little Santa Monica Boulevard, if fate hadn't
messed with the good life she knew in Vietnam.
Remember the moment midway through "Gone With the Wind" when
ragged Scarlett O'Hara, silhouetted against a fiery orange sky,
swears, "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again?"
Elizabeth An and her sister Hannah could play that scene perfectly
and mean every word. Except in their case, the oath would
be, "You'll never look down on my family again." Like Scarlett,
saw a society crushed, then used intelligence, determination and
charm to fulfill private promises made when times were hard.
The An sisters also had the example of two generations of spunky
women before them: their grandmother, Diana, who defied convention
and her husband by independently planting roots in America, and
their mother, Helene, who showed her five daughters that adversity
was no match for their bloodline.
Elizabeth An had never seen any of the An women shrink from a
challenge. Nor has she. But when she spent $2.5 million to open
Crustacean in 1997, she knew she was taking a risk and a sizable
portion of the money her family had spent 20 years saving from their
two restaurants in San Francisco. "I knew I could not let the family
down," she said. "We got a loan but there was no investor money
involved, and the family really trusted me. I was scared to death
and a lot of people told me I wasn't going to make it. I knew it
just had to work."
A good hostess knows how to work the room. An succeeded in a
competitive restaurant market by learning to work the town. When she
came to Beverly Hills, she quickly understood that charities were
the social engine that drives much of the city's commerce. Her
marketing plan for Crustacean, as custom-tailored as the Valentino
outfits she favors, involved becoming a presence in the community
that values philanthropy.
As she leads a man who looks like he was born in a suit, and his
wife, who was probably not born that shade of blond, to their table,
she reminds them to be careful stepping over the plexiglass-topped
stream, stocked with koi, that meanders from the bar into the two-
story dinging room. The dramatic décor serves as both tribute to
metaphor for its designer: If An could re-create the beauty and
grace of the Vietnam of her memories, then maybe the feelings of
safety and importance she knew as a child could be resurrected as
The restaurant seats 240. An's grandfather, who died three years
ago, loved being surrounded by people. Before the war, 20 guests
were at his dinner table nearly every night; elaborate celebrations
for 300 were frequent. His hostess, Diana, in now well into her 80s.
For many years, she was a dutiful wife, managing a number of large
homes and orchestrating the entertaining her husband's many
businesses required. When the food was exquisite, the flowers
spectacular and the service impeccable, a guest would often
remark, "You have the perfect wife, Mr. An." He would smile
never thought to show his appreciation by curbing his womanizing.
By the 1970s, her only son was grown and Diana's rebellion began.
She took a trip around the world with a cousin, stopping in San
Francisco. Enchanted with American informality, they picnicked on
carry-out food from an Italian deli near the beach, then, on a whim,
bought the place. As long as her husband was doing as he pleased,
she wanted something of her own and an excuse to visit California.
"Grandmother thought she was being a terrific businesswoman because
she talked the owner into letting her pay him in installments,"
Elizabeth said. "But in 1971, $44,000 was a lot of money. It was
that man's lucky day when these two little Asian women walked in and
bought his decrepit, no-business deli in the middle of nowhere."
Diana wired home for the money. She succeeded in getting it, along
with her husband's attention. Owning an American businesses made it
easier for the couple to get visas to visit. As the war at home
continued, she'd spend half the year in Saigon, then six months in
California. No one expect6edc that the deli, only a counter and 20
stools, would be the family's future.
Her son, a colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force, was on a mission in
April 1975 when the South Vietnamese government fell. An American
officer came to the An home and told Helene that North Vietnamese
troops were in the city and he would help the family escape. She
woke her three daughters, saying they were going to visit their
grandmother in America.
"Mother wanted us to be good, to be quiet and to gather our things
together," Hannah remembered. "Elizabeth was upset because she
couldn't take her favorite doll and I had to carry my little sister
Monique and help pack her bottles."
Helene had led a sheltered life. She was unaccustomed to handling
money; she didn't know where her husband's bank accounts or
important documents were kept. "She did what she knew best, which
was to wait for my father, " Elizabeth said. "But this time
didn't come. So we left everything behind. The American helped
Mother with the paperwork at the airport and we were shoved onto a
Remembering Final Goodbyes
As was customary in wealthy families, each of the girls had been
raised by a nanny, to whom they were more closely bonded than their
own mother. Elizabeth recalls having to say goodbye to hers and
missing her for months after the American cargo plane brought them
to a holding area at Camp Pendleton. She had never left her home
without a bodyguard before. Suddenly, she was playing with other
children in a chaotic tent city. Hannah, two years her senior,
understood that the novelty of their surroundings wasn't anything to
be happy about.
"I was 11, old enough to realize that Vietnam as we knew it was
gone," she said, "that Id never see my friends or my nanny or
of my relatives again. I knew that we'd had a very privileged life
and things would never be the same again.
It was dumb luck that Diana and her husband were in San Francisco
when the war ended. Their son joined his family a few days later in
the refuge camp and soon the family of seven was living in the one-
bedroom apartment Diana had rented near her deli.
They stayed there together for two years. Helene taught French,
worked as an accountant, then helped Diana in the restaurant at
night. Her family's patrician roots ran as deep as her husband's. At
60, she has perfect posture and speaks slowly and softly with a
"I was raised in a very traditional family," she said. "We
guests in my parents' home, and even before I became a hostess for
my husband, I had to learn how to supervise a kitchen and to create
menus. When I married, we had three chefs at home—Chinese, French
and Vietnamese. It was my duty to make sure that we always had
wonderful new meals to serve to our guests."
Diana and her daughter-in-law had been trained, in a way, to run a
restaurant. But everyone in the family was used to being waited on.
Their new circumstances abruptly transformed them.
"Mother and Grandmother decided the best thing to do was to
cultivate this little restaurant that we had, but their husbands
weren't proud of the situation," Elizabeth said. "They were
arrogant and thought to be in the service business wasn't
prestigious enough. My father went into a depression and it was the
women who held the family together. When everything changed, they
had the strength to accept things the way they were and build from
there. The men could never get over their loss of power and status."
Vietnamese dishes were gradually added to the menu. The girls worked
after school, making dumplings in the kitchen. They'd come to this
country not knowing how to boil water, but soon they were preparing
food, taking orders and busing tables, doing homework when they
The restaurant's name was changed to Thanh Long and, by 1980, Diana
had invested some profits in remodeling, removing the counter and
adding tables for 22. It expanded to 40 seats, then 60, then 80. The
family grew too, with the birth of Jacqueline in 1979 and Katherine
the following year.
By 1987, the Ans had bought a six-bedroom home. By 1991, Thanh Long
had 140 seats, and they decided it was time to open another
restaurant in San Francisco.
It wouldn't be another little ethnic place, Elizabeth decided. She
had graduated from college, married and divorced her college
sweetheart, with whom she had a son, and traveled to Europe as a
buyer for a stylish boutique. "I wanted to package Mother's food
a chic atmosphere that would attract a fashionable crowd." She
called it Crustacean .
Hannah, newly married to a high school friend she had begun dating
while they were attending UC Davis, was working as an engineer and
taking night courses in management. She put together the business
plan for the first Crustacean, negotiated the lease and a bank
loan. "I'm analytical and practical. Elizabeth is more creative.
the cautious one; I do more of the grunt work. She's out there doing
the PR and I'm fine with that."
Customers didn't flock to the new restaurant at California and Polk
streets right away, and some early negative reviews were damaging.
So Elizabeth called loyal fans of Thanh Long and invited them to
Crustacean as her guests. "For a month, I gave meals away,"
said. "We \'d come such a long way, I figured I had to give it my
best shot. I told people who liked the food to tell their friends
about it. And they started coming back."
In six months, Crustacean was breaking even. By the time Elizabeth
had married an Italian banker and was commuting between their home
in London and San Francisco, it was solidly in the black, serving
800 dinners a night.
She gave birth to two daughters before the marriage ended in
1996. "My family didn't want me to marry him anyway because he was
foreigner," she said. "No one had ever divorced and now I'd
twice. I didn't want to move back to San Francisco and have to
hear `I told you so,' so I thought, where can I go that I won't have
to deal with all the aunts and uncles and the questions from
Grandfather? I decided to move to L.A.
"After a divorce, you want to be busy and in an environment with
lots of people around, to keep your mind off things. Crustacean in
San Francisco was doing well so I thought it would be a good idea to
open in Beverly Hills. I found the location in December of '95,
Hannah negotiated the lease and we opened after a year of
The renovation budget ballooned from $800,000 to more than $2
million. Elizabeth wanted to create a showplace and in fact, when it
first opened, its striking design was a greater draw than its food.
While construction progressed, she visited every popular restaurant
in the city, research that yielded three important conclusions.
First, most hot restaurants were headed by personalities who became
celebrities—Wolfgang Puck at Spago, Piero Selvaggio at Valentino,
Michael Chow at Mr. Chow. She would have to bet that kind of icon.
Second, people eat where their friends eat. They want to see and be
seen, activities that have nothing to do with the food or their
plates. Fabulous food did matter, but it was the third least
Drai's provided An with her most useful epiphany. She was surprised
that the place was always so packed because in her opinion neither
the atmosphere nor the food was distinguished. Then she learned that
the restaurant had 60 investors. That's 60 owners who would come to
dine and bring their friends.
`I Would Become a Friend to the Community'
"I didn't have the luxury of having investors," she said, "and
only knew one family here. I knew I needed 60 new friends because if
people didn't know me, they wouldn't come to my restaurant again and
again, no matter how good Mother's food was. My grandfather had
taught me that people do business with you if you're a friend. I
decided that if I wanted to have friends, I would be a friend. I
would become a friend to the community."
That meant connecting with different cliques through their
charities. An contributed money, offered to give fundraising dinners
at Crustacean and donated gift certificates to silent and live
auctions for nonprofit groups. She also gave her time—and now serves
on the boards of the Artists' Rights Foundation, the Asian-American
Film Institute Associates and the Young Musicians Foundation. She's
a member of Les Dames de Champagne and the Blue Ribbon Committee and
is involved with the Thalians of Cedars-Sinai Hospital and the
Motion Picture Fund.
Susan Chalek, chairman of the Young Musicians Foundation board,
said, "She is so generous, not only financially but with her time
and support. She's so gracious in such a subtle way, always there to
help, if you need her. She never turns us down for anything."
Crustacean isn't the only restaurant with a reputation for largess
but there are others that are notorious for ignoring their
customers' causes. "Among the fine restaurants in L.A., Crustacean
is one of the most philanthropic," said Jacqueline Furer, who sits
on the boards of a number of high-profile charities. "It isn't that
easy to break in to Beverly Hills as an outsider but Elizabeth is
Crustacean now receives so many requests to underwrite dinners or
give money that Elizabeth must carefully plan where her $156,000
annual charity budge will go.
"I try to do as much as I can," she said. "You have to
to make money. I do believe that some of the people I see at the
restaurant wouldn't be there if I weren't involved. Knowing me as a
person has made a difference. I was warned that getting known in the
community wasn't going to be easy, but I did it by really, truly
being involved. It wasn't just about writing a check. It was really
proving that you're a friend. If you want to make a money from this
community, you need to give something back."
Hannah understands the public relations strategy her sister has
followed but, sitting in Elizabeth's six-bedroom Beverly Hills home,
where family members from San Francisco stay when visiting L.A., she
speaks about the value of helping those less fortunate. "What we
have right now, materially, is enough. We lost everything and we got
it back and we learned along the way."
Sounding like a more sensitive Melanie to Elizabeth's pragmatic
Scarlett, she said, "I learned how to fall with dignity and to rise
THE AN FAMILY (1997)
This past year, the Los Angeles food scene was decidedly livened up
by the opening of Crustacean.
With its unforgettable interior (complete with koi pond) and one-of-
a-kind Vietnamese/French Colonial food, Crustacean has won a loyal
clientele in a short time.
"Business is going very, very well," says Elizabeth An, the
restaurant's owner, and daughter of executive chef Helene
An. "Dinner is phenomenal, and we've introduced a wonderful
entertainment night on Wednesdays, featuring jazz music.
"Also, we're featuring Martini Madness and Asian tapas sampling,
which has really developed the bar and lounge business. We've made
all the numbers we've wanted to make and more so. We're still
working on lunches—it's not as busy as I'd like it to be—but
with the opening of the patio, we should be attracting more
customers for lunch."
Such success is the result of a lot of hard work, and was never
When Helene, her husband Danny, and their daughters Elizabeth,
Hannah, and Monique, left Saigon after the Communist takeover in
1975, they left behind a life of royal privilege for an uncertain
Growing up in a wealthy, influential family that ruled over the
Tuyen Quang province in North Vietnam, Helene and her family lived a
privileged life of prominence and prestige. Three chefs—French,
Chinese, and Vietnamese—worked their craft in the family's kitchen,
and it was not unique to entertain more than 300 people at a time.
"Watching all the chefs," Elizabeth says, "my mother and
would think, "What can we create next for the same guest who had
just been here a week before—something he did not have?" It
order to keep the honor of our tradition that was so important to
our culture, and to keep the respect of `What a wonderful wife and
daughter-in-law this man has!'"
She recalls the stories with amusement and appreciation.
"My grandfather was a politician and entertained a lot," she
says. "On a regular basis, grandfather would have 15 to 20 people
over. He'd just bring them home unannounced. In those days it was
very common, and grandmother had to accommodate that, and, being a
daughter-in-law, that was a big part of my mother's role: watching
things, how they fell together, how to set up a menu, how to be
creative, how to be organized."
The fine art of superior entertaining rubbed off on Helene. Her
mother, Diana, had come to San Francisco previously, and bought a
small Italian restaurant. She renamed the location Thanh Long, and
soon after arriving in America, Helene was putting her culinary
skills to use.
"Helene took all the traditions and all she knew about food and
refined the business and kitchen aspects," says Elizabeth.
Success built upon success, and in 1991, the Ans opened another
restaurant in San Francisco: the first Crustacean.
"After we had grown up, and done our own things, I basically took
Helene and grandmother's restaurant and contemporized it," says
Elizabeth. "But the food is all mom's."
Helene takes extraordinary pride in her culinary creations. For her,
they represent far more than just good food. They represent her
"Some parents leave their children wealth, or money, or a dowry,"
says Elizabeth. "My mom says, "What I'm leaving to you girls
culinary traditions and the heritage that I grew up with." She's
leaving us an inheritance, but what we do with it is all up to us."
Adds Helene, "Our family has created our own recipes, and I want
keep the family closer through our traditions. I want to save
something just for my children, and if they are smart, they will be
able to build on the tradition."
One of the unique ways that Helene protects her legacy is through
her secret kitchen, an entirely separate area in the restaurant that
only she and a select few have access to.
"We've split the kitchen in half, and boxed out one part
of it in sheet metal," explains Elizabeth. "One side is open,
different chefs running through, but the secret kitchen is boxed
out. No one is allowed in except mother and other family members:
myself (she's training me), my aunt, and a cousin."
The secret kitchen allows Helene to prepare her special dishes in
total privacy, without fear of her treasured recipes leaking out to
"We have four recipes unique to the Ans, that have belonged to us
for generations," says Elizabeth. "The An garlic noodles, roasted
crab, a lobster dish, and the royal tiger prawns. And only the four
people allowed in the secret kitchen know these dishes.
"It's my mother's pride in the food. If she saw another roasted
in another restaurant, calling it roasted crab and making it
completely different than the way it should be done, it would upset
It is this devotion to the integrity of her food that sets Helene
and Crustacean apart from the myriad other cookie-cutter restaurants
that dot the landscape.
"These dishes belong to the An family, and were served to the King
of the An family," says Elizabeth. "We don't think about it
but there's culinary espionage, and if you go to a lot of
restaurants, you know that when one thing hits, the rest go out and
"Certain things should remain unique, certain dishes should remain
what they are, and since she cares so much and has so much pride
about her food, she created the secret kitchen because she wanted
the dishes to be the way they should be, not made by someone else,
who would destroy the dishes' integrity."
And Helene and her daughters share a mutual appreciation for that
"My mother grew up in a household where food was really important,"
says Elizabeth, "where the wealth of a woman in the happiness of
family and in how she orchestrates the house and makes sure
everything is happy when the guests visit the home.
"You keep a customer with uniqueness and food, and you create your
Adds Helene, "They come to you because they're happy."
Although the food is Helene's arena ("Mom is the brain behind the
kitchen," says Elizabeth), her daughter has spent a lot of time
learning the business from every angle.
"I do the front of the house," says Elizabeth. "I do the
development, and the interior design aspects. I love to create the
restaurant design. It's a passion with me. I also do the public
relations and marketing."
And, although she has a degree in management and finance, it hasn't
stopped her from doing a few of the less glamorous jobs.
"In the earlier days, Mom had me working as a dishwasher,"
Elizabeth. "And I spent a lot of time in the kitchen cutting
vegetables. When you're the boss's daughter, you don't get it any
And while she knows all the secret kitchen recipes by heart,
Elizabeth has turned her attention to managing the operations of all
three of the An's restaurants. Furthermore, there are plans to open
"We're expanding," says Elizabeth. "By the end of the
year, we plan
to have a restaurant in Newport Beach, and we're looking at several
As for now, though the Ans have enough to handle with the success of
their Beverly Hills location. Business is flourishing with no signs
of letting up.
And that's no secret.
From Royalists to Restaurateurs
by Kathy Nguyen
Behind every family recipe is a good story. Take for example the
saga of the An family, which owns the wildly popular Crustacean
restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills. Crustacean is famous
for its giant roast crabs and garlic noodles, made from secret
family recipes. Yet the restaurant began as a tiny deli on the foggy
banks of the outer Sunset near Ocean Beach. The family matriarch,
Diana An, purchased the deli on a whim during a trip to San
Francisco in 1971.
When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the Ans, descendants of
Vietnamese royalty, lost everything. Like thousands of others, they
were forced to flee the country. The entire family, from
grandparents to grandchildren, ended up settling in a one-bedroom
apartment near the deli, their only remaining possession. With a lot
of hard work and imagination, the Ans transformed the deli, a
counter top with 20 stools, into a popular family restaurant named
Thanh Long, meaning green dragon -- a symbol of good luck and
From its humble origins in the Sunset, Thanh Long has grown into a
multi-million dollar corporation incorporating three restaurants and
an expanding import-export enterprise. Three generations of An women
anchor the family business: founder Diana, her daughter-in-law
Helene, who is executive chef, and Helene's three daughters, Hannah,
Elizabeth and Monique.
As proprietors of the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco
offering signature Euro-Asian cuisine, the Ans are considered the
pioneers of Asian fusion cooking. Crustacean is also one of the
first Asian restaurants to break into the mainstream. Hannah An, 35,
attributes the company's growth to marketing strategies geared
toward diverse communities.
"We understand the market and don't limit ourselves," she says.
think we've been able to break through barriers because we don't
cater exclusively to the Vietnamese community." She adds, "Although
we're a family business, we have a corporate structure and do things
according to solid business principles."
The eldest of five daughters, Hannah holds a B.S. in Electrical
Engineering from the University of California at Davis and an M.B.A.
from Golden Gate University. She and her husband, Danny Vu, are the
brains behind the restaurants' business planning and corporate
structure. Her sister Elizabeth is the creative director and head of
marketing and public relations.
Monique does the accounting and is in charge of food and
beverages. "We have a strong sense of family unity, and because we
came from difficult circumstances, it was our duty to help out the
family," says Hannah. "But none of us was forced into the restaurant
business. My sisters and I have all explored different venues and
pursued separate careers, and this is what we've come back to. We
were given a choice, but if we had continued to work individually,
we wouldn't be here today."
For Diana and Helene An, the plunge into the business world was not
so much a choice, but a twist of fate. After all, Diana and Helene
were privileged women raised in the bosom of prominent families.
Before coming to the United States, they led sheltered lives,
managing the servants and maintaining domestic harmony in a large
household dominated by their husbands. But when the family lost all
its worldly possessions and had to start over, it was left to the An
women to take the helm and reinvent themselves.
The men, despondent over their loss of power and status, were not
interested in working in the service industry. Yet the Ans will tell
you that throughout Vietnam's history, it is axiomatic that women
rise to the occasion in difficult times. The An women hail from a
long tradition of leading female figures: the aristocratic Truong
sisters who defended the country against Chinese invaders, the
beloved woman warrior Lady Trieu, and Vietnam's most famous exile
and literary heroine, Kieu.
Helene, whose family ruled over Tuyen Quang province in north
Vietnam for centuries, was introduced to the world of haute cuisine
long before she became a restaurateur in the United States. Her
father, the vice-consul to the king, often hosted large banquets for
visiting dignitaries and international guests.
To entertain their guests, Helene's family employed three cooks --
Vietnamese, French and Chinese respectively -- each specializing in
his native cuisine. Helene draws much of the inspiration for her
culinary creations from them. Growing up in a privileged household
in which she learned to plan exquisite menus for discerning guests
prepared her for a career in the restaurant business. While the
family cooks were her mentors in the kitchen, Helene's mother-in-law
taught her the art of entertaining, setting her on the path to
becoming a chef and hostess.
Over the years, Helene has honed traditional family recipes to
perfection, turning them into her own signature dishes: whole crab
roasted with garlic, butter and spices; drunken crab simmered in a
broth of three wines, cracked black pepper and scallions; and
tamarind crab in a sweet-and-sour sauce of tomatoes, fresh dill,
chili and fresh herbs. Other favorites include charbroiled royal
tiger prawns served with An's special garlic noodles, and angel hair
pasta with Maine lobster flambéed in a delectable brandy and ginger-
Helene's ravioli consists of shrimp, minced garlic and fennel
wrapped inside delicate rice crepes in a soy and sesame white wine
and butter emulsion. All the dishes reflect Helene's diverse
culinary roots. But her family's treasured crab recipes, passed down
through the generations, are her most prized possession. To
safeguard this inheritance, which she considers the secret of her
restaurants' success, Helene created her own "secret kitchen."
secret kitchen is a second kitchen within each restaurant, sealed
off to everyone but the An family.
"We left Vietnam with nothing. I saw that my restaurant had a good
chance to succeed, and I realized that I had to do something to
guard the recipes for my children. The secret kitchen has become my
daughters' inheritance," says Helene, 60. "No one sees how we
prepare the roast crab and garlic noodles. Employees can't take the
Whatever their methods, the Ans' creativity and teamwork have
brought them phenomenal success. By 1991, Thanh Long had expanded
to140 seats, and in 1997, the family remodeled the entire
restaurant, adding a 75-seat banquet room. Hannah sees the
renovation as a way of revitalizing the original source of her
family's culinary success.
"It's a wonderful chance to do homage to where it all started 29
years ago," she says.
Thanh Long is still a down-to-earth family restaurant, as opposed to
its more glamorous sister establishment in Beverly Hills. Although
Jimmy Buffet has been coming here for the last 20 years and Jack
Nicholson and Harrison Ford have stopped by, "It's still one of the
best-kept secrets in town," says Hannah.
In 1991 the Ans opened Crustacean on Polk Street, offering elegant
dining in a contemporary setting with patio seating and a full-bar.
Crustacean Beverly Hills, which opened in 1996, has a French
Colonial atmosphere with footbridges connecting wide verandahs and
lush bamboo gardens. Gentle tropical breezes generated by overhead
ceiling fans nostalgically evoke colonial ambience. Carved teakwood
furniture upholstered in silk brocade, with linen-covered rattan
tables, recreate the elegance of prewar Saigon circa 1930.
One of the restaurant's highlights is an 80-foot serpentine aquarium
sunk into the floor and filled with tropical fish and coral, giving
visitors the illusion of walking on water. Crustacean's dramatic
atmosphere and refined East-West cuisine quickly became the toast of
Tinsel Town and a place to hobnob with everyone on Hollywood's A-
list, from Steven Spielberg, Eddie Murphy, Warren Beatty and Annette
Bening to Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Jaida Plunkett. Esquire
magazine named Crustacean one of the best new restaurants of 1997.
Crustacean has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles
Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News,
People magazine, Travel & Leisure, USA Today, CNN and Entertainment
Tonight. In 1999, the Ans received the Jacqueline Kennedy Women of
Quite apart from dishing up an average of 300 crabs a night per
restaurant, the Ans are actively involved in their communities.
Crustacean Beverly Hills doles out $156,000 annually to local
organizations. But despite their ties to Southern California, home
is still where the heart is.
In 2001, the Ans plan to open a new flagship restaurant in Union
Square -- their most ambitious project to date. The 30,000-square-
foot, multi-level restaurant will also serve as a showcase to launch
their new product lines, including custom-designed furniture and
signature dining ware. The new restaurant will combine Old World and
New World concepts with a French Colonial theme.
"Our ideal goal is to create an elegant lifestyle that hearkens
to a bygone era, but with modern conveniences," says Hannah.
With their innovative approach to dining and entertainment, the Ans
offer a feast to satisfy even the most regal palates.
Prana offers Euro-Asian cuisine in a feng shui atmosphere
The An family knows what the American dream is all about.
Theirs is the story of an aristocratic South Vietnamese family that
came to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975 with
practically nothing, except for a small restaurant in San Francisco
bought on a whim four years earlier by a family member.
Through hard work and family recipes, that little restaurant, called
Thanh Long, helped spawn two other acclaimed restaurants, both named
Crustacean, with outlets in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, Calif.
Now, the An family has opened its fourth venue, Prana, a Euro-Asian
restaurant and supper club at Desert Passage, 3663 Las Vegas Blvd.
The restaurant's cuisine is overseen by family matriarch Helene (née
Tranh), a gracious woman who was raised in a royal family in the
Tuyen Quang province in what became North Vietnam following Ho Chi
Minh's Communist revolution in 1955. The Tranhs fled to South
Vietnam, and Helene learned French, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes
from the family cooks.
She married Danny An, a South Vietnamese air force pilot in 1965.
But the seeds of the family's future success were sown when, during
a trip to the United States in 1971, Danny's mother, Diana, visited
San Francisco at the height of the feminist movement. Perhaps
spurred on by a desire for independence, Diana bought a small
Italian eatery for $40,000, and informed her husband she was staying
Diana later returned to Vietnam, at her husband's request, but
luckily left the restaurant to be run by a family associate.
With only an hour to spare before Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in
1975, the Ans dropped everything and left the country for the
Philippines, then came to the United States.
They settled in San Francisco and lived above Thanh Long, developing
the 20-seat diner into a top Vietnamese restaurant in the city,
often written about by the well-read San Francisco Chronicle
columnist, Herb Caen.
Today, the An restaurant empire is still headed by Helene, but her
daughters have gotten heavily involved in the business. Elizabeth,
for instance, is the designer of Prana, which brings a touch of
French colonial Vietnam to the city. And Hannah runs the business
operation with her husband, Danny.
Prana is designed using the principles of feng shui, the ancient art
of placement that regulates the flow of ch'i (energy).
Elizabeth's design features bamboo water gardens, original art from
Vietnamese artists and family antiques.
The main dining room looks out onto a dance floor, but it can be
closed off for private parties.
On the second floor, reached via a VIP elevator, the design includes
unique antique opium beds from Vietnam. The floor also includes
private dining rooms.
"We wanted to bring to Las Vegas that part of the history and time
that has not been brought here before, French colonial Vietnam,"
Hannah says. "There is a lot of Asian feel to it, but European, too.
It's a marriage of the two cultures."
The concept was born 3 1/2 years ago, and construction took one year
to complete because "it's so detailed, so involved," Hannah
says. "It was a very difficult project. So many elements had to be
Helene's menu for Prana is based on her culinary traditions, Hannah
says, with everything from traditional Vietnamese dishes to fusion
cuisine and favorites from Crustacean.
Prana's tapas menu includes sashimi of salmon with a garlic-lime
vinaigrette ($10); chicken or beef satay marinated in lemon grass,
soy and curry and served on a bamboo skewer ($7); crab puffs with
crab, peanuts and cream cheese flash-fried in a won ton shell ($8);
ginger chicken won ton ravioli finished with porcini essence ($9);
and duck confit risotto with lemon and house-dried tomatoes ($10).
Soups and salads include pho noodle soup with rice noodles, chicken,
green and white onions, and cilantro ($7); jumbo lump blue crab
salad with shaved fennel, celery, papaya salsa, red and gold tomato
coulis and ginger vinaigrette ($9); mango seafood salad with
scallops, shrimp, red peppers and raspberry vinaigrette ($13);
roasted baby beets, grapefruit and arugula salad with star anise-
blood orange vinaigrette ($9); and chilled white asparagus soup
finished with crabmeat and parsley oil ($9).
Among the entrées are seared herbed salmon roulade with pancetta
corn relish and herb-vermouth sauce ($27); herb-crusted Colorado
spring lamb with fricassee of spring vegetables and rosemary lamb
jus ($40); tamarind glazed lobster with potato leek ravioli and
roasted summer squash ($42); sake and maple-marinated halibut with
citrus salad and orange-soy reduction ($26); and potato-wrapped New
Zealand sea bass with braised leeks and tomato-ginger coulis ($28).
The dessert menu features white chocolate macadamia nut and banana
mousse cake with orange-caramel sauce, strawberry consommé with
spiced cake madeleine and strawberry sorbet, a five-spoon créme
brlée tasting, lemon torte with huckleberry sauce, pineapple
brioche bread pudding with rum sauce and vanilla ice cream and
poached pear Napoleon with pear chips and créme fra"che sorbet
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Prana
encourages reservations (650-0507). A tapas menu is served until 2
a.m. The dance club opens at 10:30 p.m. and closes at 4 a.m.
The restaurant's main entrance is on the Harmon Avenue side of
Desert Passage. Valet parking is available.
Appetizers is a weekly informational column about new developments
on the Las Vegas dining scene. Items should not be considered
reviews or recommendations and none is a paid advertisement.
Richard Sakai's Milestones
** Began working with James L Brooks at John Charles Walters
** Produced and directed episodes of the sitcom "Taxi" (ABC,
** Joined Brooks' Gracie Films as president.
** Produced the limited run of the comedy "Shaping Up" (ABC).
** Served as producer of "The Tracey Ullman Show" (Fox).
Feature debut as executive in charge of production on
Brooks' "Broadcast News".
** One of the producers for "The Simpsons".
** Produced the short-lived sitcom "Sibs" (ABC).
** Was producer of the short-lived sitcom "Phenom" (ABC).
** Served as producer on the animated series "The Critic".
** First features as executive producer, "Bottle Rocket" and
Maguire"; shared in Best Picture Oscar nomination for the latter.
Was executive producer for Brooks' Oscar-nominated "As Good As It
RICHARD SAKAI (Produtor Executivo) is the President of the Gracie
Films since its beginning. He produced all the films of the Gracie,
including In the Embroidery frames Of the Notice (Broadcast News), I
want To be Great (Big), The War of the Roses, Pure Adrenalin (Bottle
Rocket), Say Anything, Jerry Maguire - the Great Turn (Jerry
Maguire) and More good Impossible (the Good the It Gets).
RICHARD SAKAI (Producer) started working with James L. Brooks in
1977 as a go-fer at John Charles Walters Productions, eventually
producing and directing episodes of the television series Taxi.
In 1984 Brooks formed Gracie Films and asked Sakai to run the
company, where The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons were two of
the earliest shows on the newly-formed Fox Network. Gracie Films
also produced Broadcast News, War of the Roses, Say Anything, Big,
I'll Do Anything, Bottle Rocket and Brooks' forthcoming Old Friends.
Sakai's association with Cameron Crowe began in 1984, when Crowe
started writing the screenplay and subsequently directed Say
Anything. After many fishing trips to Cabo San Lucas where Crowe
caught a marlin, and the formation of the Richard Sakai Fellowship
which had a minor association with Crowe's Singles, they joined
together to work on another film which turned out to be Jerry
RICHARD SAKAI (executive producer) began his long association with
James L. Brooks in 1977 when he was hired as a gofer. After
directing several episodes and producing the fifth year of the TV
series Taxi, Sakai was named president of Gracie Films. There he was
involved in the production of the films Broadcast News, Big, War of
the Roses, Say Anything and I'll Do Anything. He also produced the
TV shows The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons, Sibs, The Critic and
He is a producer of the upcoming motion picture Jerry Maguire from
Executive producer Richard Sakai began his career in 1977, working
as a gofer for James L. Brooks at John Charles Walters Productions.
Before the decade's end, he had become a producer and director on
the popular comedy Taxi. He continued his affiliation with Brooks in
1984, when Brooks invited him to helm his newest production company,
Gracie Films, which at the time was producing two popular series for
the newborn Fox television network, The Tracey Ullman Show and The
Gracie Films was also responsible for a number of major features.
Those produced by Sakai include the Oscar-winners Jerry Maguire
(1996) and As Good As It Gets (1998). ~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie
• Bottle Rocket (1996)
• Riding in Cars With Boys (2001)
• Jerry Maguire (1996)
SOUTH KOREA NEWS
UNITED NATIONS NEWS
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