Secrets of the House of An

By Samantha B. Bonar '90

Catherine An '02 never set out to join her parents and sisters as a restaurateur, but the chance to create her own niche proved as irresistible as Mama's garlic noodles

Some days Catherine An '02 craves her mother's Vietnamese food. Other days she wants a burger, or a healthy organic salad. So when she created the menu for Tiato—a popular Santa Monica lunch and special event spot with a neighborhood clientele that includes employees of Lionsgate and Yahoo! —she included a range of Vietnamese-American dishes that bear the classic flavor profiles of her mother Helene An's cooking. The chicken slider, she notes, is seasoned with lemongrass, pickled vegetables, and chile aioli. "Even if it's a burger, it might be seasoned with Asian herbs."

Cathy also wanted Tiato—named for her mother's favorite Vietnamese herb, a member of the mint family that is similar to the Japanese shiso—to be a "comforting" space where people could get a break from work. She designed the outdoor area as an herb garden and brought in her "family feng shui guy." 

"So much of my own heart and soul went into this space," she says of the restaurant, which will celebrate its three-year anniversary in August.

Tiato doesn't do dinner, but the restaurant, which has a full liquor license, will stay open to serve drinks and small plates on request from local businesses, and Cathy is considering adding a happy hour a few days a week. It launched Sunday brunch—including Mama's famous garlic noodles—on Father's Day.

"Cathy loved people even when she was a little girl," Helene An says of her youngest daughter. "When she was around 4 years old a friend of my father-in-law's asked what she would do if someone wanted to come over for a meal. She said, 'If we have two bowls of rice, I can have one and you can have one.' I never forgot that."

Tiato is the newest addition to the House of An—a multimillion-dollar food and hospitality conglomerate helmed by executive chef Helene An that includes five upscale eateries and a thriving catering business—but it's "my baby," says Cathy, who majored in psychology at Oxy. "My mom is really supportive of me, and she still comes during the day to make sure everything's done right. But I work very closely with my chef because I know exactly what I want."

"I tell her that she cares too much, that you can't please everybody," Helene adds. "But Cathy says, 'I just try my best.' She cannot say no—whatever anyone asks of her, she tries to do it."

The tale of the House of An encompasses two countries, five sisters, and one "secret kitchen." It is a story of three generations of strong-willed Vietnamese women who rose from the devastating loss of home and country to start anew in America, in the historically difficult restaurant business with no previous experience.

In Vietnam the Ans were part of the elite, with family members in high positions in government and society, and plenty of disposable income. On a trip to San Francisco in 1971, Cathy's paternal grandmother, Diana, impulsively bought a 20-seat Italian deli—so she would have an excuse to visit the city again, Cathy says.

During the 1975 fall of Saigon, Cathy's mother, Helene, received a knock on the door of her mansion and was told she had one hour to flee the oncoming Communist army. She gathered daughters Hannah, Elizabeth, and Monique and her mother-in-law, Diana, and fled the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, joining her Air Force colonel husband, Danny, in the Philippines. With little more than the clothes on their backs, they made their way to San Francisco, where their one asset remained—the Italian sandwich shop.

Raised in privilege with the title of "princess" in what was then called Indochina, all Helene knew of cooking was what she had gleaned from watching her family's three chefs (one Chinese, one French, and one Vietnamese) as they prepared lavish meals for visiting dignitaries. Translating that knowledge into Mom-and-Pop Italian dishes proved a challenge.

However, Helene had been paying attention, and she had a natural knack for cooking. She slowly began incorporating Vietnamese elements and dishes into the restaurant, which were a hit with customers. Ultimately, the menus created by her three childhood chefs became the inspiration for the fusion cuisine that Helene introduced to San Francisco.

Her attempt at making spaghetti—noodles with garlic and other spices—became her most popular dish. Eventually Helene made the whole menu Vietnamese-style and changed the restaurant's name to Thanh Long. Her gamble on her native cuisine worked, and Thanh Long was expanded several times, growing to 200 seats to meet the demand.

Helene's garlic noodles are still her bestseller at the Crustacean restaurants in San Francisco (which opened in 1991) and Beverly Hills, which Esquire named one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country after it opened in 1997. "Just bring on the ginger lobster with thin noodles in ginger-basil sauce and the Indochinese ravioli with prawns, caramelized shallots, and fennel," the magazine wrote. "And beware—the whole roasted Dungeness crab and garlic noodles could make you cry."

Since then, Crustacean and the Ans have been featured everywhere from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to Bon Appetit and "Oprah." Crustacean Beverly Hills, a celebrity hot spot, catered Harvey Weinstein's 2013 Golden Globes party and hosted Jeff Goldblum's 2013 New Year's Eve gala. Dishes such as black tea-crusted tamarind baby lamb chops, roasted whole crab, Dover sole in a ginger miso sauce, and tuna sashimi on crispy rice cakes are big hits with the posh and the hoi polloi alike.

Their success marks an astonishing reversal of fortune for the An family, whose culinary empire also includes AnQi Gourmet Bistro & Noodle Bar, which opened in Costa Mesa in 2009, and Tiato. To protect her most popular recipes—which she considers her legacy to her five daughters—Helene established a "secret kitchen" within the kitchen of each restaurant that is only accessible to family members.

Daughters Hannah, Monique, Jacqueline, and Elizabeth helped run the restaurants from the beginning, but Cathy's interests lay in psychology, and she envisioned a career in advertising. "I've always been interested in human development in general. Understanding more about the people around me, myself—it just was the topic I found most interesting," Cathy explains over lunch at Tiato on a warm day in May.

During her junior year at Oxy, Cathy studied abroad in Botswana, where she had an internship at international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. She enjoyed the experience so much, she applied for a research grant and headed to China after graduation, working for an ad agency there and studying traditional Chinese music.

But the An matriarchy beckoned. "During that time my family was opening up a new restaurant, so they told me, 'Oh we miss you, come back and help us for a few months and then you can go back to China,'" she recalls. "I think I kind of got suckered back in, and I just never went back."

Her work for the family business didn't have to do with the food side, however. "It started off with me handling these music programs called Crustacean Live, where we had these amazing up-and-coming talents sing." At one of those concerts, Cathy met couture clothing designer Richard Tyler, who wound up hiring her as a publicist. Cathy worked for him for two years, until the pull of her family again became too strong to resist.

"At that time we were getting so many requests from people to have my mother cater for them, from Star Jones' wedding to different charity events, and nobody was handling it," she says. "So I decided I'd take on that department and try to see if we could make it into a profitable business. Then it just took off."

Cathy's efforts generated a lot of off-site catering jobs for the family business, prompting her to start looking for a venue with its own kitchen where events could be both hosted and catered. She fell in love with a space in the Santa Monica business district that had originally been a "really gnarly" cafeteria frequented by local workers for lunch.

"This place has such a beautiful, large outdoor space, which I thought was terrific," she says. "I wanted to come up with a fun concept so that people could come here five times a week and still feel like there was something good to eat."

And so Tiato Market Garden Cafe was born. "When I first opened I wanted to make sure the people in the building were happy, so I concentrated on lunch and breakfast and put my catering on hold," says Cathy, who found her psychology degree a natural fit with her work as a restaurateur. "So much of what I do is managing people, whether it's staff or dealing with clients, so it helps me there."

Adding that she has a psychologist's interest in helping people, Cathy says, "I get to help people by helping them eat in a healthy way." But if patrons are in the mood for comfort food, Tiato offers that, too. "Our two popular dishes are Mama's pho and the Vietnamese baguette," she says. "But I also love the pan-seared salmon. Our Reuben's great. The eggplant tofu with a black bean sauce is also very popular. Our turkey taco salad is also one of my favorite salads. We make a great salt-and-pepper calamari."

At night the space hosts events, from weddings to bar mitzvahs to charity fund­raisers—as many as 15 a month. "I love the day business because I see a lot of the same familiar faces. It's almost like my second home, and my regulars always have updates to tell me," Cathy says. "It feels like it's a little family I've created. But then there's also the event side, which is ­different every single time."

"Her really strong point is people," Hannah An says of little sister Cathy, who is 15 years her junior. "She has great people skills. Everyone who meets Cathy loves Cathy. There are a lot of people who are good at PR, but they're not genuine. Of all of my sisters, Cathy is the most sensitive and caring. She makes sure she doesn't hurt anybody's feelings, and tries to include everybody and to be respectful."

In awarding them the Sustainability Quality Award grand prize this year, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and its contest partners lauded Tiato and An Catering for hiring locally, procuring sustainable goods, and promoting employee wellness and professional development by providing tuition assistance, wellness discounts, team building, and internal training opportunities. In addition, Tiato hosts biodynamic and organically grown wine tasting, recycles used kitchen oil into hand soap, and partners with ­ by connecting tree planting with restaurant promotions.

Such local recognition is appreciated after all of Cathy's hard labor. She worked seven days a week for the first two years to get the restaurant off the ground—sometimes as late as midnight or 1 a.m. "I had absolutely no life of my own," she recalls.

"It is a tough business because there are so many components to it: the food, the service, the aesthetics, the marketing, the social media. Once I finished designing the restaurant and creating the menu, the last two years has been spent managing my staff." (Hannah helps with the operational side "because there's just so much involved," Cathy adds.) "It can get pretty exhausting because I'm more of a creative person. But when you own your business, you have to step into that role. I'm lucky to have a good staff and they're happy here, and it makes me happy to see that."

"She has a big heart and she really cares about her employees," says classmate Manaja Wyatt '02, who still sees Cathy a couple of times a month. Cathy is the type of friend, Wyatt says, who will notice you admiring a necklace in a shop and surprise you with it for your birthday several months later. In similar fashion, "I think her employees want to stick around because they understand that she values them."

Now that Tiato is turning a profit, Cathy is making a conscious effort to bring more balance in her life. "I have really learned to trust other people, not micromanage, work with my upper management team, and delegate more. I can relax a little bit," which includes hiking and going to the beach with her dog, Drummer.

"I don't know if I ever thought that I would be a restaurant owner or a caterer," Cathy says. "I don't think I ever made a conscious choice to sit down and plan it out and think about what would happen, how my life would change. One day I just said, 'Yeah, I'll do this. Oh yeah, I'll do this, too. And this, too.'"

As the An family learned almost 40 years ago and Cathy has discovered for herself, new beginnings can have happy endings.

Photos by Kevin Burke.

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