JL: How do you define sustainability?
MP: I don’t think I’ve done it well yet. I want everyone else sustainable at my own expense and possibly my team’s expense. That’s the next big bubble.
JL: Everyone else being the diner?
MP: The diner.
MP: Purveyors, but purveyors are hard too because farmers make so little money, so I don’t nickel and dime our farmers. I never nickel and dime our purveyors because they make so little. I’d never go to Robin Koda, our rice purveyor from Koda Farms, and be like, “This is so much!” “Oh, my god, Robin, this is so much work. Are you sure?” I know how hard to it is. That’s one bowl of rice, and to sell it at the cost she sells it to us, I know how much work goes into it and how much waste. It’s so hard. I know the farm eeks out a living. At the end of the day, the person getting the most value is the diner, but they don’t see that.
JL: What do they see? What’s the feedback?
MP: 99% of our diners see it, and they’re great. They’re so supportive and so wonderful and I’m so thankful for them, but there’s 1% that speaks so loud of how much they don’t think this is right. “It’s too expensive.” “My grandma does it better for free.” And I don’t know why instinctually I have to fight that. If I was smart, I’d be like, “It’s 1%. It’s such a small voice. Don’t address it. These people are going to come around. These people are not your audience. You don’t want to build a restaurant for everyone.” My gut instinct, I just want to give them an explanation.
JL: Do you respond?
MP: I did once, and I don’t know if I want to again. It breaks my heart.
JL: Some customers take you for granted.
MP: I think they take all food people for granted, but there’s something that Asians of a certain generation built that’s wonderful, and I’m so thankful for, but we have to change because it’s no longer sustainable for us. I’m Vietnamese, and my parent’s generation built restaurants – not my parents specifically – but their generation built restaurants for their own community to feed their own people at a price point that made sense. The price they paid for that is their kids had to work at the restaurant every single weekend. A lot of stress. A lot of suicide amongst my generation that I know of. Kids would go to Stanford and make sure they got into medical school and get straight As, go home and work in their parents’ business. Marry the right person. Of course there’s stress pain and there are huge statistics of people just losing their mind and having both of their feet in different worlds. No one addresses that, but there’s also abuse of elderly. You have your grandmother work for free – who’s worked her whole life – and she continues to be a martyr. They built this system that no longer works.
JL: And they’re grandma’s recipes.
MP: Yeah. And it no longer works. I’m trying to change it a little bit. “Wait, there’s something broken about this.” For me, I can look at it; it’s always the women. It’s always the women martyrs. To me, we need to change that. If I can’t up it to 2019, at least let me bring it to the ’70s. Let me bring it up to ERA standards.
JL: Proper value.
MP: Yeah, proper value. Proper respect…Our restaurant is about promoting and encouraging women and people of color and underserved people from the kitchen – LGBTQ – that’s who we’re looking for. That’s who we want to encourage. That’s who we want our team to be, but I don’t want to do it at their cost. I feel like you’re working in a restaurant, your workers and purveyors are doing a service. People are like, “Well, then don’t go into the business.” People say that to me all the time. “If those are your concerns, why are you in this business?” I say, “Because someone has to be. Otherwise it’s going to continue.” I don’t want my daughter and nieces and nephews growing up into this if they choose to artistically pursue this.
JL: Break the cycle.
MP: When you break the cycle and you’re the first, you’re always going to get beaten up the hardest, and I’m okay with that. If they end up beating up my team, that’s when it bothers me.
JL: You also have environmental and social values. How do you balance those beliefs with running a business?
MP: We can do it – because we’re teeny tiny, like a little sailboat – but I don’t know how to grow and do it. Right now we’re so good environmentally that the City of L.A. just gave us this big, congratulatory shoutout. We don’t say we’re a zero waste restaurant, because there is waste, but we have very little waste. We have literally one tiny black trash can a week. It’s really awesome. We recycle anything. We don’t have straws. We do have a few metal straws, but we don’t have [single-use] straws. The only paper goods we have are paper napkins, and we recycle those. We mostly recycle them or use them to pick up scraps. As my mother says, “That’s not done yet! I still have half that paper left.”
JL: Do you compost?
MP: We compost. We have a relationship with GrowGood and LA Compost…They pick it up from us, but our compost is so little. We try and use everything.
[I focus on the pickle and salad plate on the table before us.]
JL: Talk me through this plate here. What do we have?
MP: It’s a fun plate. The carrots here are roasted. The ends get scrubbed down and put into stock. We have cover crop beans. Cover crop beans are not always optimal, so we need an optimal sauce. You know when you were a kid, you would eat everything with either mayo or ketchup? That’s what you need to try it. Cover crop beans – right now they’re delicious – but when they’re not delicious or not as optimal as they are, we cover it in sesame tofu cream, which makes everything delicious, creamy, and gives it an unctuous feel. We have two kinds of radishes. We have breakfast radishes and daikon that we pickle in ume. Ume is Japanese plum, and shiso. We have jicama that we pickled – when we make our stock – we drain it and take the juice and pickle daikon…California’s having an amazing grape season, so we roast grapes. We have watermelon rind. We use the good part, the red part, for another dish, and we use watermelon rind to pickle. Cucumbers, we use the guts – we use the outside, the good part, for another dish – these are the guts that we just salt and let them ferment. Chrysanthemum leaves, and some spring mix and stems. Some dishes we garnish with whole leaves, beautiful leaves, and we’re left with the stems.
Burmese tea salad is a famous tea salad, but every single Asian culture has it. There’s a Vietnamese tea salad, there’s a Chinese tea salad, there’s a Japanese tea salad, but no one knows about these tea salads. When they think of tea salad, they think, “Oh, I’ve had Burmese tea salad before at Burma Superstar.” Great, we love that one too, but here’s our version…It’s really an homage to any culture. It’s an homage to the environment. Why throw these tea leaves away when we can put it in a salad? How do we creatively not throw away pounds and pounds at $40 a pound?… We ferment tepache, which is with pineapples, and take the tepache and do a second fermentation with the tea leaves inside it. [Phan didn’t mention the plums, yet another component.]
[Phan picks up her most recent menu.]
MP: Our menu is built for change and movement and fluidity. Fluidity is important because the environment and nature are fluid, but nobody makes that connection…We’re honoring the environment, we’re honoring the farmers, we’re honoring sustainability. People ask all the time, “What type of restaurant are you?”
[She points out the mission statement on the front of Porridge & Puffs menu.]
JL: You didn’t have this mission statement on the opening menu?
JL: When did you write this?
MP: About two weeks ago. It took me forever. I finally just gave up on our team having to explain themselves all the time.
JL: This must have been a good exercise for you, just to frame it. Not that you haven’t thought about it.
MP: It’s still an exercise. I don’t think people are buying into it.
JL: The whole thing, giving people something to latch on to, if you change the menu all the time, it’s a challenge for people to grasp what you’re doing. I really appreciate what you’re doing, but you definitely make it hard on yourself.
MP: It’s so hard on us. We have the dumbest business model, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why did I open a restaurant? I opened a restaurant to share my values. Values as human beings, our environment, and sustainability for restaurant workers in the future. It’s not to make a shitload of money. It’s not to streamline. I feel like everyone’s streamlining.
JL: Are you making money here? Are you breaking even?
MP: We’re breaking even. We’re not losing money. We’re more sustainable than I thought.
JL: That’s encouraging.
MP: I knew our first year was going to be tough for us, but we met our first year numbers. Our first year numbers were never supposed to be in the positives. They were always supposed to be break even, but it’s still really fucking hard. I only have four workers. We’re not losing money, but are we sustainable in that we’re holding all the pieces together and not expanding? Is it true sustainability? Is it a momentary sustainability?
[Porridge + Puffs recently launched Thursday night Pinch dinners, which cost $20 per person (cash) or $30 (credit card). Minh Phan and her team also plan to debut breakfast service and add a retail component.]