She learned everything she knows from her mother and grandmother. Growing up in a household where dinner parties were an almost everyday event, she became accustomed to hosting and entertaining people. Her grandfather was a dignitary, so playing a role in throwing extravagant events has always been a part of her life.
Her most relevant and cherished childhood memories are working alongside her grandmother, Diana, in the kitchen, where she learned the Yin and Yang of cooking, as well as the importance of balance. At the age of 11, Hannah An moved from her native Vietnam to California, where she worked side-by-side in the kitchen at Thanh Long, the first authentic Vietnamese restaurant established in San Francisco. In case you’re wondering, it’s known for the roasted crab and garlic noodles.
“I was very close to my grandmother and she always inspired me to learn new things and experiment in the kitchen. My grandmother was very pioneering and always tried to do something different. I remember when she would be making some of my favorite dishes and she would show me ways to improve the dish with a unique presentation, while maintaining the authentic Vietnamese flavors. She always wanted to make things better and improve them,” the oldest of chef Helene An’s five daughters said. “She taught me to think outside of the box and to be fearless in doing something that has not been done before.”
From a very young age, she learned about restaurant operations and front of house. The family business grew so rapidly that she was forced to become skilled at dealing with employees and customers at various levels — from casual diners to influential leaders.
“We had everyone from our neighbors coming to eat in their sweats to high-profile celebrities and politicians,” she added.
Thanh Long may have been her family’s first restaurant, but it wasn’t long before they were managing the multi-million dollar House of An empire. In 1991, the first Crustacean seafood restaurant also opened in ‘Frisco. Then came Orange County’s Anqi, Santa Monica’s Tiato, and Crustacean in Beverly Hills.
So, it comes as no surprise that Hannah would follow in her family’s footsteps and “aspire to host the most elaborate dinner party for our family and friends every night.”
In February 2015, she debuted The District by Hannah An off West Third Street in Los Angeles, which has become one of the top five places in West Hollywood, and probably throughout Southern California, to enjoy remarkable Vietnamese cuisine.
As you can imagine, the menu is delectable: Dungeness Crab and Uni Noodle, District Wok Lobster, Bo Luc Lac (Shaken Beef), Buddha Delight Clay Pot, Coriander-Crusted Lamb, and Bo Kho (Braised Short Ribs). Those are just a handful of the dishes offered at the two-story, 320-seat culinary sensation. And you can’t forget the cocktails, such as Face Down in Saigon or Side Car to Vietnam, both made with fresh squeezed lime juice and organic agave.
It was surprising for me to learn that the trend of a “balanced” meal is the traditional way of cooking Vietnamese food.
On a recent to trip to Vietnam, alongside Cheryl Jennings from ABC, the mom and restaurateur visited Quang Tri by Hue (The Imperial City) where she tried the “Spicy Beef Soup” at a small, fresh street market. It was so delicious that she decided to add it to the restaurant’s Spring Menu. It’s called Imperial Spicy Beef Soup Bun Bo. This holiday soup contains spicy beef lemongrass broth and spices.
On the Spring Menu, you’ll also find Oven Roasted Oysters with Vietnamese Herbs, District Lobster Flatbread, Foie Gras French Toast, and Fresh Grilled Atlantic Octopus with Miso Sauce.
“Our menu changes seasonally at The District, as we only use fresh seasonal ingredients in each of our dishes,” Hannah adds. “I was inspired on my recent trip to Vietnam for a charity I hold dear to my heart called Roots of Peace. I was moved to incorporate the native peppercorn spice into some of my new dishes. Roots of Peace removes landmines and plants peppercorn trees in their place.”
When asked about the best compliment she has received since venturing off on her own, Hannah explained how rewarding the experience has been. Now that she has successfully launched her own restaurant, and she has the freedom to employ boundless imagination and creativity, she is being recognized more often and on a larger scale. Aside from being contacted by women’s groups throughout LA to speak on their panels that support women in business, she has also been congratulated on her approach to cooking.
“Recently, I spoke at UCLA to a group of young entrepreneurs, LAVA, and also at the Asian Business Summit, where I received an honor from the United States House of Representatives,” she replied. “I used to only be known as operations. Today, people can see more of my creative side and they enjoy the new flavor I’ve added to my mom’s cuisine. I often hear, ‘We love the garlic noodles and crab, but had no idea how many new flavors there are, and creative dishes in Vietnamese cooking.'”
That’s not to say her triumphs were without a few struggles. During The District’s first year, Hannah had to learn what it was like to deal with investors and non-family members while running a business. With her family members, she knew that they always had the best interest of the company at heart. Now, she must oversee and double-check everything. “In the past, I could trust my mother to oversee the food and my sisters to oversee the marketing and PR aspects of the business. Being on my own, I’ve definitely realized the challenge of managing everyone and every single detail.”
But at the end of the day, it’s all about harmony and balance. It’s about the Yin and the Yang that her grandmother taught her. These are two aspects of living that Hannah swears by, whether it’s the food she’s preparing, cooking, and sharing with her family and guests, or the way she tackles her personal life.
“You must have harmony and balance in your life to be happy and successful. In life, I believe it’s not healthy to only work hard; you must play hard, too.”
The District by Hannah An 8722 W. Third St., Los Angeles, 310-278-2345