Vietnamese chef creates jobs for domestic abuse survivors in Houston

March 27, 2023 - 12:22
While the healthy meal preparation service provides fresh and pre-cooked Asian dishes, it also serves as a beacon of hope for domestic violence survivors.

Minh Phương

HOUSTON — Lena's Asian Kitchen, the brainchild of Vietnamese chef Lê Quỳnh Trang, embodies the spirit of 'more than a working place'.

While the healthy meal preparation service provides fresh and pre-cooked Asian dishes, it also serves as a beacon of hope for domestic violence survivors.

With a firm commitment to helping those affected by domestic abuse start anew, Trang's kitchen has become a safe space for those seeking refuge and support.

Trang said: "My aunt and my mom suffered domestic abuse. That's why I always feel enthusiastic and encouraged to help the victims.

"Then, when I moved to the US and took a culinary school here, I decided to open a cooking business and devote my life to helping the survivors.

"That's how Lena's Asian Kitchen was born."

Lena's Asian Kitchen and volunteers prepare meals on a charity day. Photo courtesy of Lê Quỳnh Trang

A kitchen of hope

Trang's kitchen now has six staff, of which three are survivors of domestic abuse.

Lena Asian's Kitchen is open from Monday to Thursday, with Sunday as a day for preparation. The kitchen typically serves around 300 meals a day for diners in Houston and has customers up to 100 kilometres away.

Each day, the meals are prepared to order and then shipped to diners' doors.

Although her business model might not receive as many customers as a dine-in restaurant, it does provide a safe working environment for her staff.

"The domestic abuse survivors coming here have no experience in the kitchen, especially a commercial kitchen," Trang said. "They don't even have any work experience because some of them are locked up their whole life and never go anywhere."

"So it takes some time to train them and nurture them because the kitchen environment is really tough. Long hours of working and yelling might sometimes trigger domestic abuse survivors.

"If I open a high-end restaurant, it is going to be really hard for them to learn the skills or to be able to catch up with the work. That's why I open a meal prep service first. When my staff get more stable with the work and feel comfortable in the kitchen, I will plan to expand the business into catering.

"Furthermore, if their skills keep improving, I will consider doing more."

Trang has helped numerous survivors get back on their feet.

D.M, who has chosen not to reveal her identity, is a 22-year-old woman who has been working at the kitchen since its inception as a web developer. Despite facing various challenges, D.M. now has greater confidence in herself thanks to Trang's support.

"I experienced housing instability before, now I don't feel that I can live completely on my own, but I've improved my skills by figuring things out in a working environment instead of at school," she said.

"I'm glad that there's someone who is willing to employ people in domestic violence situations that don't look like the norm.

"I believe in myself now. Whenever I think I can't, I always keep going and Lena is always there to support us. She always tries to encourage me to keep moving."

Domestic violence has long been a problem; victims can be either gender and abuse can be physical or emotional. Often it comes from family members. Prolonged domestic violence can leave victims in a state of instability and cause trauma afterwards.

With the mission of helping out survivors overcome these difficulties, Trang set up the Lena Foundation, to deliver meals to survivors and provide them with the support they need to move forward.

Trang said: "I have Lena Foundation, which is a charity organisation, where we bring food to Houston survivors of domestic abuse and survivors of human trafficking.

"I really want to grow it so it can reach out to more survivors in Houston."

Spreading Vietnamese cuisine to the world

Cooking seemed to come naturally to Trang.

Spring rolls in Lena's Asian Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Lê Quỳnh Trang

At the age of 30, when Trang thought it was too late to start a new career, she bravely took her first steps in a cooking venture after settling down in the US two years prior.

Trang said: "The passion that comes to me the long way round. I was a banker and an English teacher in Việt Nam.

"I love my jobs, but deep down, I always feel something is missing.

"So when I moved to the US and ended up cooking a lot at home, I realised that food is always a true passion of mine."

Seven years later, she has won a James Beard Award, an award to recognise chefs in the United States, worked with high-profile chefs and even opened her own business.

She is proud that her dream to bring Vietnamese cuisine to the world has come true.

"Food is one big part of the culture of a country. The fact that we can bring original and authentic Vietnamese dishes from our kitchen to our customers is a really big deal.

"Through food, they can understand more about the country, more about the people and more about the cultures.

"My meal prep we offered to everyone, customers eat it, and they really love it. They love our 'thịt kho' (caramelised meat), they love our 'cá kho'(braised fish), and they love our 'gà kho gừng' (braised ginger chicken). It is wonderful."

Her creativity in cooking has carved a deep impression on diners, which makes them return for more meals.

Icy Koo, a customer from Texas, loves Vietnamese food because of its freshness.

"I've eaten Trang's meal prep quite often, it's very enjoyable and tasty.

"One thing I really love about Vietnamese food is the freshness and all the herbs and vegetables they add to it and different spices as well."

Her meals include macro counts, so customers know how many calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein are in each meal.

Lena Asian's Kitchen model has made a good impression on customers because of its delicious food and its compassionate mission.

Lauren Austin said: "She's so diverse with her cooking skills, that even if you're eating one thing, one week, you're going to eat something new and fresh. You're going to have new fresh experiences with her cooking. And there's honestly no place like that in Houston.

"The best thing besides her food is the fact that she has a foundation that helps domestic abuse survivors. So she hires people that have a hard time finding a job and helps them get on their feet. That's really admirable."

By combining culinary expertise with a dedication to social responsibility, Trang with Lena's Asian Kitchen has become a hope for those in need of support and nourishment.

Her plan is to expand the business all over Texas and then the US to provide more jobs to more domestic abuse survivors everywhere.

Trang said: "It's a big milestone for me to open Lena's Asian Kitchen because cooking is a really hard job, especially when you do it alone. So I guess I am proud of myself for overcoming challenges.

"At the same time, our kitchen concept is so rare because we provide jobs for the less fortunate. And we're really proud that because of us, they can have an apartment of their own, provide for their kids, and get back on their feet.

"And last but not least, I'm proud that I'm here to spread Vietnamese cuisine to more people. A lot of different people from different countries or different nationalities have ordered meals from us and cherished Vietnamese food, that is really wonderful." VNS