When I opened my restaurant sixteen years ago, the word “hospitality” was foremost in my mind. I directed my attention toward the customers coming through the front door. I wanted to greet them with tantalizing smells and friendly smiles, to make them feel welcome. My goal was simple: to have a friendly, comfortable place where my guests were warmly welcomed and appreciated.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, I have spent most of my forty-six years here. Since I was a little girl, I have always loved to cook, and this passion led me to open my restaurant. I change the menu weekly so that I can forage for the highest-quality ingredients and cook according to our seasonal cravings. I am deeply committed to using local and organic products whenever possible.
My restaurant has an informal feel, with high tin ceilings, soft peach walls, and lots of bouquets of colorful flowers. My clientele is an eclectic mix of business people, ladies who lunch, neighborhood regulars, families, artists, actors, and musicians. When I opened the restaurant, I envisioned a busy life of cooking, sipping wine, and making sure all the guests were happy and satisfied. My sense of restaurant hospitality was firmly rooted in the dining room. But it didn’t take long before I began to notice the back door, too. Although the customers are my audience, many of the dishwashers have become my teachers.
Early in my restaurant days I met a family of Hmong farmers, the Vangs, at the Minneapolis farmers’ market. I needed a dishwasher and asked if they knew anyone who would be interested in working for me. Yes, yes, they would be happy to come and talk to me. The following Monday, Mao, who was applying for the job, four of her children, two burly uncles, and a timid teenager showed up at my back door. They shyly came into the dining room. Only one of the uncles spoken English, and not very well. Offer them tea, I thought. I realized that here was a need for hospitality as important as any I could offer my paying guests. I slowly and deliberately explained what I needed. There was a lot of conversation among them, then the uncle turned to me and asked about meals, were they provided? Yes, I explained. Would Mao be paid weekly? More conversation. They talked animatedly for a good ten minutes before the uncle turned to me and smiled: “She says okay.”
As Mao became more comfortable in my kitchen, she began to teach me about her cooking traditions and tastes. She taught me how to make Beef Bal Soup, how to store cilantro, even in the summer heat, by wrapping it in cool, damp, paper towels, and how to harvest it with all the roots intact. She showed me how to cook better rice by rinsing and then drying it, and how to use some of the unusual Hmong herbs sold at the market.
The Vangs invited me to their eldest daughter’s wedding, where I was only one of two English-speaking guests. It was a formal ceremony with traditional costumes and rituals followed by a Hmong feast at the vfw Hall in northeast Minneapolis. We ate spiced pork in lettuce cups, crisp golden fried shrimp rolls with peanut dipping sauce, a giant leg of boiled boar with pieces of hair and fur still clinging to it, long green beans, and yellow flowering cabbage with fragrant rice balls. At the insistence of Mao and the older women, I sampled everything at least four times. The reason I still didn’t have a husband, they told me, was because I was too skinny and no man would think I could make a good, hearty wife. After much American beer and dancing with every uncle, I left, filled with food unlike anything I’d grown up with.
The original recipe for Concepción’s fish soup. Courtesy of Lucia Watson.
The next week Mao and I devised Hmong Market Soup for the menu, a delicious combination of sweet and hot ginger, coconut milk, peanuts, chicken, and red pepper. This recipe eventually ended up in my cookbook, Savoring the Seasons. In this way Mao’s influence extended well beyond her tiny dishwashing station, out into my dining room, and beyond.
My next teacher was Bihn, who worked for me for about two years. Bihn was a Vietnamese refugee who had swum to the safety of a pirate boat the night Saigon fell. A survivor, he was always scrounging for usable restaurant stuff at Goodwill stores and accusing me of being too wasteful.
One busy Saturday night I was serving trout. Our trout is raised in Wisconsin and caught and delivered the same day it’s ordered. Because it was so fresh, I wanted to serve the trout whole that night, with the head on. The cooks looked suspicious. The servers looked scared. And sure enough, the plates started coming back to the kitchen to have the “ghastly,” “unappetizing,” “offensive” trout heads removed. I went back to the kitchen to investigate the problem with the cooks. The glaring fluorescent lights, the blaring radio, and the roar of the dishwasher made a huge contrast to the quiet, candlelit dining room with its luminous peach walls.
There was Bihn, with a huge plate of trout heads from the customers’ plates. “Very good,” he smiled at me as he sucked out the eyeballs. “Very fresh, best part of fish,” he nodded happily. I suddenly realized how personal our taste is, how differently each of us perceives and appreciates what we are eating. Though on some level I had always known this about food, it took Bihn to make me more aware of just how subjective our tastes are.
On a typical Saturday night at my restaurant, I need about fourteen employees to feed one hundred and fifty guests. Ask any employee, and they will agree that the one dishwasher on duty is the most important person there, crucial to every other part of the production, the great link to the smooth functioning and teamwork of all the other areas. No silverware? No eating. No glassware? No drinking. No pots and pans? No cooking.
Most of the dishwashers in my restaurant are foreigners. Over sixteen years I have employed Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Tibetan, Chilean, Korean, Latvian, and Russian dishwashers. During this time my “local” Minnesota menu has been enriched by the following dishes: Szechwan Pork with Garlic Noodles, Black Bean Quesadillas, Feijoada, Ropas Viejas, Steamed Fish with Garlic, Sesame, and Ginger Sauce, Moqueca, and Beef Tenderloin Poached in Russian Borscht with Horseradish. I have learned how to roll poppadums, roast chiles, press out dumplings, feel scallion bread dough, press tortillas, spin noodles, and smell sauerkraut. This flow of new tastes has brought a richness to my cooking and a perspective on food that has deeply affected my thinking.
One sweltering summer day I was cleaning out the walk-in refrigerator. The local farmers I buy from had been dropping off deliveries all morning, and I had to organize giant stacks of fresh green beans, lettuces, tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, eggplants, chard, and corn. Everything had to fit into an already overcrowded cooler. I was cursing and wrestling with all the boxes and crates when Dhargyl, a recent Tibetan refugee, walked by. He paused to consider my situation for several long moments, then a huge grin broke out on his broad face. “We are rich, Lucia!” he exclaimed before moving on. I turned and appraised the stacks of food that minutes before had been driving me crazy. As if a Zen master had bonked me on the head, I smiled and went back to my task with a deep appreciation for the bounty and privilege that was mine, especially in this hungry world.
Webster’s Dictionary defines hospitality as “the friendly and liberal reception of strangers or guests.” By broadening my hospitality not only to the guests at my front door, but also to the strangers at my back door, I have received an international education filled with recipes, lore, friendship, and new perspectives on food and culinary traditions.