By Joanne Sasvari
Long before they met, Lynn Le and Steven Lee knew they wanted to open a restaurant. But it took a long time – and an even longer journey – before they would see their dream become reality.
Reality it is, though. On Aug. 1, 2012, the couple opened Chopsticks on Pho in Surrey. They’ve since developed a loyal following for their fresh, healthy and flavourful Vietnamese fare. They’ve also become proud members of their community, even though it is a world away from where they started out.
Vietnam is where they started, back in the bad old days that followed the end of the war in 1975. Many Vietnamese, especially in the south, feared retribution from the Communist government of the newly unified country, and rightly so: It is estimated that a million Vietnamese were sent to brutal prison camps after the war and some 65,000 executed. And then, in late 1978, the Indo-Chinese region degenerated into wholesale conflict.
Hundred of thousands of people – some say as many as 1.5 million – fled the country over the next several years. Because it was illegal to do so, they couldn’t very well hop a flight to freedom. Instead, they boarded rickety boats and hoped for the best.
In 1980, Steven Lee was among them. “My family came in May of 1980. I was nine years old,” he recalls. His family left from the southern part of Vietnam, after a stint in a Malaysian refugee camp. “We applied for status and Edmonton accepted us right away,” he says.
Lynn Le’s family left in 1988, when she was 11, from the northern part of Vietnam.
“We were 31 days out in the China Sea. I remember a lot of throwing up. No food. No water,” she recalls. “We got to Hong Kong and I stayed in a refugee camp for about three years. We got status with Holland, but I came over here (to Canada) for school, and met Steve and stayed.”
“I saw this girl and I thought, she’s so small, but she loves to eat!” Steven recalls. Right from the beginning, their love for food was almost as important as their love for each other. Steven says: “When we first dated, we asked each other what we wanted to do, and we both had the same thought, ‘I want to own a restaurant.’”
“When we opened the restaurant, it was solely based on the passion we had, but neither of us had any restaurant experience,” Lynn says.
“When we were building the restaurant, especially the kitchen, we got the equipment in and didn’t know how to work it. We did it all by ourselves,” Steve says. “There were days we literally held each other and cried.”
That was then. Now things are completely different. Now they have a whole community that loves what they are cooking up.
Lynn, the cook, calls her food “fusion-y,” with some French and Thai influences, but in fact, most of the menu is fairly traditional Vietnamese fare adapted to local ingredients. Everything is as fresh as possible, and Lynn hand picks everything from the market herself.
“Everything on the menu is strictly my recipe, but it’s influenced by my mother,” she says. “The soup itself, which is a pho noodle soup, is traditional. What I’ve fusioned is the salad rolls and few other dishes.”
Not surprisingly, the pho is the most popular dish on the menu. “It’s the broth. They love it,” Lynn says. “My favourite dish, I think, is the salad roll, with just the rice paper wrap. You can make anything into the salad roll: chicken, prawn, pork.”
They’re not just feeding the community’s appetite for fresh food, though. Every Aug. 1, on the restaurant’s anniversary, half of everything they make goes to BC Children’s hospital; then on Thanksgiving, $2 or $3 of every bowl of pho they sell goes to the SPCA.
Still, they can’t forget their past, and how far they’ve come to be where they are. As Lynn says, softly, “We remember because it was so horrific.”
“We are so happy now. It took us three years, and we have good customers and loyalty, who have been supporting us since. We have been blessed in that way,” Lynn says.
Chopsticks on Pho
101 – 15325 56th Ave.