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  • Asela Lee Kemper

Hết Sẩy: A Pop-Up Restaurant Exploring Stories Through Food

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Bringing their stories and experiences to their dishes, Hết Sẩy delivers their platter with style. Residing in East San Jose, California, home cook couple Duy An and Hieu Le started Hết Sẩy, a pop-up store that offers a variety of delicious food from baked goods to savory dishes such as Crab and pork ‘chả giò’ fried rolls, all combined with seasonal California ingredients and traditional Vietnamese flavors they grew up with. Distinguished by its bright, colorful food, Hết Sẩy stand out as a place to share stories through love of food.

I chatted with Hết Sẩy about their passion for food, how they started their pop-up, and why it’s important to tell their stories through food.

Can you tell the readers about yourselves?

DuyAn and myself (Hieu), we’ve been married for a few years now.

How did you two meet?

We first met each other in the suburbs outside of Toronto Canada. I was visiting family and DuyAn was tagging along with her family. We first met at my cousin’s house.

How did your passion for food begin?

DuyAn: When I was around 5 to 6 years old, I loved playing with the toy aluminum pot and pan and cooking. I created different types of dishes by using fresh or leftover ingredients. Ông ngoại, my maternal grandpa, told me: "If you love cooking, you should pursue it. Focus on each individual ingredient as much as putting them together to create the flavor.” My mom always said: "Ngọc muốn sáng thì phải năng mài dũa.” If I want to sharpen my skills, I need focus and practice constantly. That’s why my pantry is always full of products.

Hieu: I was always interested in cooking. My mom was a wok cook for over 30 years, and my grandmother, aunts and uncles were always in the restaurant business. My earliest memory was running around the kitchen of our grandmother’s restaurant in Vietnam, tasting what’s on the menu and the leftovers from dishes. And I was in a household surrounded by opinionated cooks, constantly arguing over and debating certain dishes. It was very commonplace for us to talk about and plan for the next meal while we were eating.

How did you both start Hết Sẩy? What does the name mean?

Hết Sẩy means “awesome.” It is a slang word often used to describe food or anything delicious. We started Hết Sẩy because we wanted to highlight dishes that are not represented here in San Jose. And most importantly, we wanted to have food that we would enjoy eating.

Based on the pictures I’ve seen from your menu, they all look delicious. I wish I could taste them in person! How do you come up with these amazing meals?

We think about the dish and how to approach it based on what flavors we want to highlight, what would work well together, and which lasting flavors would pull you back. Certain dishes bring us back to childhood, and with other dishes we want to explore where we want to take our Mekong Delta flavor, making it with California’s ingredients.

I read that you wanted to bring out traditional Vietnamese regional flavors with locally sourced produce in your dishes. Why do you believe it’s important to bring these traditional flavors into your menu?

We believe regions are an important factor when it comes to food. Vietnam has many different regions, all with their own mannerisms, customs and cultures. We are focusing on the region where we are from. In different parts of the country, people eat different types of food at home. Same for us. We want to introduce our hometown flavors to others because it’s hard to find them in a restaurant.

You have a strong social media following, especially on Instagram. Did you expect that you would gain so much support through Instagram?

Our goal was to share with like-minded people our passion, the food we enjoy, and dishes we often cooked at home. We are very appreciative of folks who have followed our journey from the very beginning when we were still figuring out how to hashtag and tag. Even today, we are still learning how to share our story, showcase our wares, and effectively communicate to folks.

I’ve also noticed how stylish you two are! Do you bring that kind of vibe and energy to your pop-up store as well as your food?

We bring style to the pop-up as much as we flavor the food. We figured we are showcasing our food, which on its own is a personal endeavor, and while we are at it let's express ourselves completely—what have we got to lose?

DuyAn: I started to dress Hieu a few years back because looking around, it was hard to find a style for someone that is short and chubby—specifically for Asian men. I have a personal belief that if you can’t find a style to suit your body, then you create a style to suit your body. When it comes to our food, I follow the same personal belief. We mix and match, integrating different styles between the Mekông delta and classic American to create our own.

How has your pop-up changed since COVID outbreak?

Completely! We had to push back a lot of plans and give ourselves a chance to look deeper in ourselves. We've been fleshing out concepts and dishes we want to try when the world is back to what it was.

Do you have plans to open Hết Sẩy as a permanent restaurant when the pandemic is over?

That is our dream… one day.

You linked an open letter about Black Lives Matter on your Linktree site. Why do you think it’s important to address a movement like Black Lives Matter, especially as a small business?

We can’t speak for everyone but only for ourselves. We believe in love, sharing and helping others when they are in need. To see things happening specifically to Black people, it’s hurtful and it’s unfair for them. As much as we want to think that racism does not exist, it does. As Asians, we have to stand with Black people to fight racial injustice. There is a saying in Vietnamese that we heard when were younger, and it has shaped us: “Một cây làm chẳng nên non. Ba cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao.” It roughly translates to: "Together we’re stronger and everyone has a voice in this world that needs to be heard."

What do you hope to see for Hết Sẩy in the future?

We hope to see Hết Sẩy as a place that can be a generational and cultural bridge where the younger generation can take their parents and their children to eat, enjoy conversation and share stories.

What is your advice to home cooks who are thinking about starting their own pop-up restaurant or store?

The hardest thing is to accept that it is not all rosy. You are going to make mistakes. Find ways to make mistakes as quickly as possible so you keep learning. And not everyone is going to be your customer. Keep going and don’t compromise on your food.

What is your current and/or most exciting project? Can you tell me more about it?

When we first started the pop up we collaborated with QuynhMai (@quynhlatifah) to create a pop-up community to showcase local arts and food events that feature the work and perspectives of young Vietnamese artists as well as artists in East Side San Jose.

Popping up in spaces like Thanh Lan (our former Pop Up location) gave us an opportunity to normalize our art experiences as appreciators and as artists in everyday spaces that we grew up going to with our parents.

Now with the changes of the pandemic, we are focusing on creating that similar space to celebrate community. This time has given us opportunities to explore how we can celebrate and showcase the art and cultural perspectives of the younger Vietnamese generation online. We hope to return to pop-up events as soon as it is safer to do so.

On Saturday, October 24 at 10 am, we will be featured in the first episode of "Flavors of San Jose," where Chopsticks Alley's executive director Trami Cron will highlight San Jose’s underground Vietnamese food scene where home cook culture brought directly from Vietnam is the norm.

"Flavors of San Jose" is produced by Veggielution and sponsored by AARP California. We are excited to share a simple, yet popular dish called Bò bía with the San Jose Community. Tune in on Facebook and Youtube at Veggielution.

Where can readers find you and support you?

They can follow us and check out our journey at our IG: @hetsay.cali. Our menu is updated every Wednesday afternoon for pre-order and food pick up is every Sunday afternoon during lunch from 11:30 am to 1 pm.

Flavors of San Jose - Episode 1 featuring Het Say

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Asela L. Kemper

Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Co-Editor

Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Marías at Sampaguitas, Silk Club: QUIET!, Reclamation Mag and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature, engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.

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