Vietnamese in the US prepare free meals to keep pandemic spirits lit

By Anh Ngoc   July 4, 2020 | 09:00 pm PT
Viet and his teammates feel like they are on the Titanic hitting an iceberg, but instead of playing music to calm everyone down, they cook.

Every Friday at noon, at The Recess Room in Fountain Valley City, Orange County, California, lines of customers queue for free food. The restaurant, famous for tapas and cocktails, now serves Vietnamese dishes such as rice with grilled pork, chicken, stir-fried noodles, broken rice, etc.

Among to the crowd, on Brookhurst Street, a board was set up calling on locals to support the restaurant.

"Free Food Friday" was the idea of Viet Pham, founder and co-owner of the restaurant, which saw its revenue drop to less than 10 percent and had 90 percent of its staff laid off.

"We decided to give away food to the elderly, students, the homeless, and the disabled since they are facing many hardships," Viet, 38, told VnExpress.

Viet in his kitchen. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.

Viet sorts ingredients in his kitchen. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.

"1/8 families in the U.S. are in trouble due to the shortage of food during this period. Uniting and helping others is very important," he maintained, adding his aim is to use the power of cuisine to spread positivity.

Viet was born in Los Angeles and grew up with a love of cooking, his mother having formerly operated a vegetarian restaurant in Westminster during the 1990s after leaving Vietnam for the U.S.

Customers queue for free food outside The Recess Room.

In 2016, he opened The Recess Room with some of his childhood friends: Pham and Victor Nguyen, Yahya Alwakza and Steven Duong. They all hail from Huntington Beach.

Joining in many community activities before, Viet and his friends did not hesitate to invite struggling members of the community to their restaurant to partake of free food as the novel coronavirus cripples the city.

Medics, emergency caregivers and those working in the F&B industry can all enjoy a 50 percent discount on food with proper identification.

The "Free Food Friday" menu is changed weekly, with most dishes Vietnamese.

"The community has given us positive feedback - we wish we had started this earlier. All we hope is to overcome this upheaval, and be stronger together," Viet said.

Viet (R) and his friends join a community activity to support medics and people in front of his restaurant. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.

Viet (R) and his friends pose in front of their community serving food joint. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.

Since the free food program started in March, when local authorities required non-essential businesses to close to contain the spreading novel coronavirus, The Recess Room has handed out more than 10,000 meals. But Viet and his teammates do not want to stop. They are now using funding from family members and friends from several Vietnamese organizations to keep the fire in their kitchen lit.

"We see the demand, and we are here to help," he claimed, hoping locals would treat each other nicely, "especially in this time of ordeal."

In an interview with a local newspaper in March, Viet admitted he and his friends are "a little crazy" doing this.

"We literally feel like we are in the scene in 'Titanic', but we are the ones playing music while the ship is sinking just to calm everybody down," he said.

"If we are gonna go down, we are gonna go down in style!"

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