The small Vietnamese woman behind Andy Nguyen’s restaurant smiles almost all the time. She uses her hands formed in prayer to say thank you – or hello. At home, a room is turned into a Buddhist shrine with altars, incense and cushions.
My name is Lien. Lien Thi Nguyen.
I don’t want to eat the meat and I don’t want to kill.
[Lien in Vietnamese…]
Lien became a vegetarian, then a Buddhist nun after a divorce that caused suffering for the whole family. Lien’s daughter Jennine Tran interprets the story of her mother’s need to stop making a living by harming other beings.
If you eat someone’s flesh now, next life you have to become some flesh for someone to eat back. You might not believe that, but Buddhists, they believe in the law of karma.
To her, the importance isn’t about making the money or accumulating wealth, It’s about peace and lovingkindness inside your heart.
I go to India, visit the master, the Dalai Lama.
And we had a private audience with His Holiness.
She got to go the place where Buddha became enlightened. And she got one master to shave her head underneath the Bodhi tree at 5 am in the morning with people surrounding her making prayer.
We cried, we cried a lot. It was just like losing a part of our mom, the old mom. She wants to live her life, the new, the true her...
At the restaurant, Jennine cooks, serves and takes care of business. Her younger brother Andy Nguyen Jr. is the new face of vegetarian cooking. He’s all attitude with his baseball cap on backwards and chef pants that sag.
I didn’t think we had the whole picture leaving for India what we were heading towards.
But I did notice Mom becoming a really deep, deep vegetarian, more religious at the time.
It was a surprise. When we were a meat restaurant, Mom wasn’t happy.
I supported the family and she kind of made a family decision. So it was really cool.
When we reopened, we didn’t have a menu for a day. We served whatever was Mom’s special.
[Lien in Vietnamese]
There was a great fear of not able to maintain our business and paying the rent when we changed the menu.
And we really didn’t know what we’re up for, or what we were supposed to do. We didn’t have any plan. It just kind of happened, although there was risk.
The customer come, and they go out. And they come, and they go out. Nobody sit down!
[Lien in Vietnamese] And they left because they expected the old menu. They didn’t like vegetarian [Lien in Vietnamese…]. Family members, friends, advised my mom to change back to the old menu. My mom say no. My mom stick with her decision.
Yeah, after only 3 or 4 day– the people come. A lot, lot, lot. Very busy. VERY BUSY! Five people. Ten people. [Vietnamese…]..Lien: I say no, no, no. I say, ‘I not the meat, I only the vegetables!’ They say, yeah, yeah, I know!
That brought mom happiness, it brought our family happiness,
I had faith. Especially coming back from India and meeting the Dalai Lama and I came back changed. I had a lot of faith in what we were going to do
We’re going to make a Good Karma Sample, a Peaceful Existence Clay Pot and a Dragon Clay Pot. ... two o
rders, so…. vegetables in the sauté pan, lemon grass, garlic... This is
what we call our pork. It looks like bologna, um, they call it soy ham. This is our regular tofu that we deep-fry and that we marinate after we deep-fry.
o I eat meat still? Yes, I do. I tell my customers I do. My mom does it because it’s her belief. I mean, I believe, too. I try to practice being … kind. I know I do practice! Just being good. Just being good!
Lien Nguyen’s conscience is clear. She points to her heart as Jennine translates.
[LIEN IN VIETNAMESE ] ..she no longer be handling blood. [Lien in Vietnamese] It makes her feel very light, very happy, very peaceful.
And that’s how spiritual and culinary journeys became one at Andy Nguyen’s. Today, the restaurant draws customers from all over the world for cutting edge vegetarian cuisine and for rituals performed by Tibetan monks. You might say it’s something of a Buddhist temple of gastronomy. I’m Elaine Corn, Capital Public Radio News.