Los Angeles Times
April 9, 2000
When war destroyed their privileged way of life in Vietnam, the An women remade their lives and their fortunes in California
By MIMI AVINS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
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 a 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, they 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 and 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 well.
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 but 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 he didn’t come. So we left everything behind. The American helped Mother with the paperwork at the airport and we were shoved onto a military plane.”
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 many 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 French-tinged accent.
“I was raised in a very traditional family,” she said. “We had many 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 very 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 could.
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 in 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. I’m 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,” she 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 a foreigner,” she said. “No one had ever divorced and now I’d done it 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 remodeling.”
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 important element.
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 I 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 everywhere.”
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 spend money 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 with humility.”