THE STORY OF AN
Diana An purchased a 24-seat Italian deli in San Francisco in 1971 on a whim. Little did she know, that deli would be the foundation of her family’s livelihood and legacy for four generations.
BACK IN VIETNAM
Helene was born and raised in the Imperial City of Vietnam. She is of Mandarin aristocratic lineage and was raised distinguishedly in a life of privilege.
Growing up, Helene enjoyed all her family home had to offer; the sprawling land, the security and privacy that came with being of aristocratic lineage, and of course the incredible meals created by her family’s Vietnamese, Chinese and French cuisine private chefs.
When she was in her twenties, she met her husband, Danny An. Danny was a pilot in the air force and came from a prominent family. Being the charming man he was, Helene quickly fell in love.
While living in Vietnam, Helene and Danny got pregnant with their eldest, Hannah, then came Elizabeth and Monique. However, growing their family quickly came to a stop with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
One Spring day Helene was home with her daughters while Danny was working, just like any other day when a family colleague came to alert her to the pending communist forces infiltrating the city.
Helene did not have any time to pack. She grabbed her daughters and Helene and her three girls fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Unable to locate Danny among the growing chaos of the city, they left on a C-41 cargo plane and shipped off to Clark Air Base — an American military camp in Manila. After a few weeks, they were sent to Guam and finally, the last refugee camp at Camp Pendelton near San Diego. In the blink of an eye, Helene and her family became war refugees.
After months of living in a refugee camp, they were finally able to make it to San Francisco where she and the girls would reunite with Danny and her mother-in-law, Diana An.
As strangers in a new and unfamiliar world, their new life was just beginning.
AN AMERICAN DREAM
A couple of years prior to fleeing and emigrating, Diana had purchased an Italian deli (later named Thanh Long) on a whim upon a visit to San Francisco. This 24-seat deli would soon become their family business and safe haven since fleeing to America.
At 31, Helene An, the matriarch of the family, found herself living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco with her in-laws, husband, and three daughters.
The deli had potential, but business was sluggish. She worked as an accountant by day and at the deli at night just to make ends meet.
With the recipes she grew up with from watching the three professional chefs, she recalled the styles from each cuisine and experimented with incorporating the styles into the menu at her new deli.
Little did she know, this experimentation inadvertently created the foundation of fusion cuisine.
However, it was a bumpy start. No one understood her food. Initially, it was given a 2-star rating from a prominent San Francisco food critic who said it “wasn’t Vietnamese food”.
He was actually right about one thing — it wasn’t Vietnamese food.
Helene knew the American palate was not ready for traditional Vietnamese food, so she created her own cuisine — Modern Asian and European fusion to bridge the gap between the flavor profiles of home, and something Americans would be familiar with.
She saw that Americans loved pasta, so she experimented with chow-mein noodles flavored with garlic and herbs. She knew she had a hit on her hands when customers started requesting the recipe.
Admirers started showing up in droves and the restaurant swelled to 40 seats, then 80, and finally 240. Then in 1991, the family opened Crustacean in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco. “We worked hard, always from the heart,” Helene said.
The family reinvested to open Crustacean Beverly Hills in 1995 and continue the legacy with House of AN.
HISTORY OF HELENE
Master Chef Helene An is heralded as the Mother of Fusion cuisine and was recognized by the Smithsonian Museum with a Pioneer Award in Culinary Arts as the first to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America.
Helene created more than just award-winning dishes; she created a movement.
“AN” IT GOES
The legacy continues with Helene’s five daughters:
Elizabeth at the helm as CEO; Catherine, founder of Tiato Santa Monica and An Catering; Monique spearheading our San Francisco and Northern California locations with husband, Ken Lew; Hannah overseeing events; and Jacqueline who co-wrote An: To Eat, Chef Helene’s first cookbook; and Bosilika, Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, managing business development.
It’s a family affair.