Over the past few months I have been working to document the kitchen life and cooking of some of West Tennessee's ethnic restaurants. Most of the places that I have visited are places that I frequent and have come to know as my culinary 'homes' away from home. All of them are locally owned. Most of them are maintained by families who have immigrated to the good ole USA in search of greener pastures.
There's my friend Mister Joe. Mister Joe owns and runs the Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant in Memphis Tennessee. Mister Joe drives an old mini-van to work and is there sometimes 10 hours a day. He came to the U.S. back in the late Seventies amidst some very stressful conditions in North Vietnam. He is a sweet little guy who describes almost every item on his menu as 'very delicious, very delicious'. Everytime I visit his place, it takes a little while for the food to arrive. But the reason is...it is cooked fresh when it is ordered. His place is so 'kitch' decorated with faux ocean scene murals, the classic 'dogs playing poker' and mother of pearl wall hangings with scenes of Vietnam. Multicolored lights decorate Buddhist statues and vintage beer signs. While it looks like a mad mix of a college dorm and a Saigon lounge in the Vietnam era, it is homey, comforting and familiar.
Then there's Thurley and her mother cooking up hot delicious Honduran dishes at 'Los Amigos' in Jackson Tennessee. Piles of green plantains and bottles of homemade sauces fill their kitchen . Thurley's brother comes in a jokes with his sister and mother, all of them laughing and cooking as if they were home.
My visit with legendary Chinese Chef Lisa Lie at Asian Palace in Memphis Tennessee was surreal. She asked me "what do you like here?" when I answered " The chicken feet", she erupted into laughter and said "Oh I am going to take care of you!" She toured me into a room full of flaming stoves and giant size woks. A man walks by and opens a rack of Peking duck. She smiled and cooked and laughed. She began to crank out a number of dishes...steamed chicken buns, shrimp dumplings, hot and spicy prawns...and on..and on...The men and women working in the kitchen seemed to light up when I asked them about their work.
While working on my book on southern barbecue I discovered similar themes among families who own barbecue joints. Pride in their cooking, love for the business and most of all...a love for the food that they cook. There is a certain 'spirit' that flows throughout the hands and kitchens of all of these great eateries. The 'soul' of cooking is the love for food and the love in sharing these foods with the world around them.
May we continue to support the souls that prepare these foods...