This Toronto chef uses his grandmother's recipes to reconnect with his Vietnamese roots
David Huynh, owner of Vit Beo, says food helped him find himself and his culture
David Huynh wraps his dumplings in perfect balls, with precise pleats and at a rapid pace. But he'd be the first to say he's not as good at it as his grandmother.
"She would grab a ball of dough … and just really quickly make this bowl-shaped thing out of dough. It was a lot bigger and it was delicious and I loved it," Huynh recalled.
The co-owner of Vit Beo in Toronto's Bloorcourt neighbourhood, was born in Regina, Sask. to parents who immigrated from Vietnam. Soon after, he moved to Toronto to reunite with his large extended family, living in a multi-generational home alongside 13 relatives, including his grandmother.
"She was the boss. She was like the glue that holds everybody together," he said.
"And I think that memory of her and feeding all of us and sitting down for dinner every night with that many people on like an eight-person table — it meant the world to me."
In many ways, food was a central part of his close connection with his grandmother. He watched her cook for his family and make several Vietnamese dishes day after day like beef stew and dumplings. From her, he learned not to be wasteful and to take care of people through food.
But his relationship with his grandmother and her food was also the way he eventually connected to his roots. He recalls watching the way she made dumplings.
"She'd sit on her little stool on the floor. She had like a big metal tray laid...and she'd have like a big bowl of dough piled up. And she'd do this by hand by hand, not even with a rolling pin,." Huynh said.
Huynh says when he was younger, speaking Cantonese and Vietnamese in his home was the norm. But as he grew older, the languages were lost on him, the Vietnamese foods turned to turkey sandwiches, and slowly as people moved out, his grandmother felt as though she was losing her connection to her youngest grandchild.
"There are serious, clear seams that are sort of coming apart and unraveling without my grandma sort of holding it all together the same way she did before we were all living under the same roof," Huynh recounted.
"She had always tried to get me to respond to her in Chinese whenever we spoke and I would try ... but it's just not enough when it's not part of your everyday life," he said.
"I could tell it was really just frustrating her so much, so much. And I felt terrible, like I really felt bad growing up that I couldn't speak anymore."
Before she died, she had one wish, communicated to him by his mother.
"She said that she has so many good memories that she really cherished and... she said she wished she could talk about that with me before she goes. And then my mom… she's the one saying this to me, and it just broke my heart," Huynh continued.
"There was just no easy way for me to tell her that through my mom. And I never did, and I never apologized."
Huynh says when he thinks about his grandmother now, all he can think about are those big family dinners. That's what eventually drove him to the restaurant industry.
One way Huynh decided it was time to learn a bit more about his roots and culture was going back and visiting Vietnam, especially looking at his parents' homeland through the lens of food.
"I realized I didn't understand a thing about what Vietnamese people are like, what the food is like, why we are the way we are. I didn't have a clue until that trip."
Upon coming back from the trip Huynh dove into Vietnamese food, but with a Toronto twist -- evidently merging his two identities into one. He's made some adjustments to his recipes to appeal to a Canadian palette, while still keeping the cultural integrity of the dish in mind -- including his grandma's dumplings.
His grandma's traditional dumplings are now served at Vit Beo as vegan, gluten free dumplings, instead of with their usual pork filling.
Besides Huynh, only one of his aunts knows how to make these dumplings. He's also hoping to change that so the legacy of his grandmother's way of cooking stays alive.
"I got to teach one of my cousins how to do this so she knows how to do it now too. And that's put me at ease quite a bit. The fact that like this isn't going to be lost. This gets to keep going."
For the next step, Huynh wants to perfect his ability to speak the languages his grandma spoke.
"I think that that's really the last leg for me to take some time at some point in my life. The rational person in me is like, okay, I need to learn Vietnamese or Chinese and speak to my dead grandma and have this conversation."
Through his journey of cultural rediscovery, Huynh says there's a few important lessons he's taken away from it all.
"The roots that we have. They're bigger than us. And we need to find a way to [find] where we fit in that," he said.
"And I think it just brought so much more meaning into my life and like a reason to wake up. The sooner you find your place in it, the sooner you can start really making your way through it."
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