Talking to Khanh Hoang is like talking to someone who you realize is going to change the world in a very real way. I wish I could post the actual audio recording of our phone call so you can here the passion and compassion she has in her voice (but alas, the quality is not good enough). So meanwhile, there's this transcription of our chat while she was on break from the hospital:
Khanh Hoang: Sorry for keeping you waiting. As soon as I said I was going to step outside for a bit, everyone needed something. Quality control needed to be done, someone needed to be fed…
CoateRak: No that’s totally fine. I understand. What hospital do you work at?
KH: I work at the Veteran’s Hospital in West LA.
CR: How long have you been working there for?
KH: Let’s see...going on three years now. But I did two years on contract at the VA in Long Beach, so I’ve been with the Veteran’s Association for a total of 5 years.
CR: Oh cool.
KH: Yeah, I love it here. I’m surrounded by a diverse group of nurses from everywhere here. We have nurses from Africa, nurses from the Philippines, nurses from Korea...the West LA location is the biggest in the nation so we actually pull from all over and everyone wants to work in California, you know, so we benefit from that.
CR: That’s awesome. Have you grown up in California your whole life?
KH: Well, yeah, I did basically. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, then my mom and dad migrated here but we started out in New Orleans, Louisiana. And then we went to San Francisco then migrated down here to Los Angeles and I was raised here. So I guess yes, I grew up in California my whole life.
CR: What was the very first meal you ever cooked in your life?
KH: Well, the very first thing I learned how to do in the kitchen was pick herbs. As a kid my mom would assign me tasks in the kitchen because Vietnamese women want to raise their kids in a certain way and in the Vietnamese culture you would teach your girls how to prepare food. So one of the first things you do to initiate them into the kitchen is to pick herbs. So you have a bundle of herbs and she would show me you pick the top and then take off the big leaves and how you arrange it on a plate. Every Vietnamese meal is served with a plate of herbs and greens. So that was probably the first thing I learned how to do. And the next thing was how to fry an egg.
KH: After that it was how to peel shrimp. You know, all these little things. So my mom taught me a lot of that as a kid. She had two girls and I took really well to being in the kitchen but my sister didn’t. My sister was smart about it. My mom gave us the task of rolling eggrolls once and she rolled a hideous one and my mom said, ok, never again. And I rolled all these perfectly stackable eggrolls. So she was like, ok, yeah, you’re gonna be my helper in the kitchen. She would farm me off to her friends to help in the kitchen for parties. At eight years old I would be in the kitchen with these older women, and always being told - peel the carrots, do this, wash all these vegetables. So I always was around a bunch of women in the kitchen and I would listen to their stories and I would do what they would tell me to because my mom farmed me off. So that’s how I learned. Then I moved away to college, had my first apartment at 19. I started to explore cooking and I always loved hosting, so I would always have friends over and we’d do dinner and it’d be simple. When I was young it’d be, you know, “pasta night”. Oh, let’s have pasta. So it just grew from there. I served and bartended for years and it wasn’t until after I became a nurse that I really threw myself into learning different cultural things. I spent a number of years serving at different places, but it wasn’t until I worked night shifts at the hospital where I would be awake in the middle of the night when the world was quiet. I had nothing to do and I couldn’t go back to sleep so I’d just start chopping vegetables. Next thing I knew I had made papas rellenas. At 7’oclock in the morning. And now I have all these papas rellenas and I’m tired and I need to go to bed.
So it just developed quietly in the middle of the night, working night shifts. And then I realized, I am in love with cultural foods - not “fancy” foods. Foods from the home and the heart. I don’t claim to be the “best” cook at making Brazilian feijoada or anything. I just want to provide something that is wholesome and reminds people of home. What I’ve been able to do this past year when I came back from Europe and Turkey, I was like, ‘Oh my god. Everyone’s got to taste Turkish food’. That was when I had my first Pop-Up. And the “culture-to-table” theme kind of just stuck. And then we had a second Pop-Up, and for winter we had a “Winter Stew Social” with different stews from around the world.
CR: Oh, lovely.
KH: Yeah. We did “Spring Brunch Awakening” where people brought different “brunch” items from around the world. I didn’t really have anything in mind. The longer I’m doing these Pop-Ups, the more I’m fine-tuning my mission. Now a year into it, I know that it’s not just about feeding people. It’s about bringing people together and maybe I’ll meet the right person I need to help change how people eat in the hospital system. And that’s my ultimate goal to work towards some sort of program to include how people eat. Whether it’s in the hospital or schools. Because those are two places where the food is just terrible.
KH: The school system for kids, and the sick people at the hospital. You know, I’m so tired of giving people all these pills. Pills for Vitamin D, pills for Vitamin C. All these things you can get from your diet. I take care of old people. I used to think when I was in school when I graduated I would be a nurse that takes care of kids. But I realized I can’t stand other people’s kids.
KH: But I found this peace of taking care of older people. The stories they would tell, the wisdom they would impart. I look at my mom now as an adult, not as a kid anymore, and I realize she’s going to get really old one day. She’s gonna go into this system that is cracking. She’s not going to be able to get rice and other things like that to eat. Because there’s no diversity in the food that they serve in hospitals. I have a Hispanic patient who wants to eat rice and beans and he can’t have that because he has to have this hamburger for dinner. It was awful to me. In Southern California especially. We have such diversity here. Why isn’t it reflected in schools and hospitals? You know. So right now I’m just building the the experience and have some fun with the Pop-Ups, but ultimately - and I’ve been telling people this since earlier this year when it dawned on me - I am going to build an empire.
CR: You are!
KH: I don’t know how I’m gonna do it yet. In the next couple of months, I’ve actually connected with really awesome women and we’re going to be doing a series of Women’s Empowerment dinners. They’re all going to be centered on women and how we can empower each other. A lot of these women I’ve encountered are successful and they’re in the same place that I am. Wanting to make an impact but being stuck at this daytime job and not being able to do it because we’re tied down. That’s pretty much where I’m at right now with the Company of Khanh. We’ve only been around for a year, but I’ve had so many people come into my life this past year that have imparted their skills and their wisdom with me. It’s made my Company better, it’s made me a better person. I don’t want to just have an organization that just wants to make a profit, although that’s nice. There has to be a purpose to all this. I can’t give up nursing unless it’s replaced by something with it that’s going to help people just as much as nursing does for me. Does that kind of answer the question?
CR: Oh my god. Khanh. I’m sitting here tearing up because….it’s so beautiful. All the questions I came prepared with as to how you see your nursing life and culinary life intersecting, I wasn’t even sure if you focused on an intersection, and you just explained that so beautifully. It was what I had suspected, and what I had hoped you would answer with. Above and beyond.
KH: Ah. I’m so glad. You know it’s one of those things. I’ve been having these conversations a lot because I want to put it out in the world and I want it to come back. But you can’t do it if you don’t do it with your whole heart. So I’ve been explaining it to everyone that would listen. I recently came across this woman and she was so powerful in how she was able to see my vision and reflect on it and describe it back to me. She was saying there’s a lot of chefs out there that do really great work, most of them are men, the ones that are involved in fine dining, really good cooking where it almost looks like a fairytale on the plate, you know? That’s great and all, but it also puts you in this box. Because you’re trained a certain way and you’re not able to break out of that training. These men, they go on these fancy TV shows, they solve problems and fix this and that, yet there hasn’t been many women yet in the limelight with all this food. Probably because, even with the food system in hospitals and schools, it’s always for-profit.
I was talking to this woman, who’s kind of a mentor, she’s says - it will take women to kind of move in and get a different perspective and change that, because we’re a little more nourishing and caring, it might take a woman to make these changes in the hospitals. Because with men, they’re often too concerned with profit and power, being on TV or whatever. It baffled me when she mentioned that and I was like, yeah, you’re right. I wish there was a way to make a documentary, because I am a nurse I have a nursing background. To just kind of point all these things out. So then people can see. I mean, we’re all gonna get old one day. Do we really want this for ourselves? I don’t.
CR: You know what I think is amazing is that often times it’s rare for someone to have a skillset that is able to make a difference and make a change and to also be able to eloquently advocate for that. I’m just so amazed because you have such a great vision and you are able to articulate it in such a tangible way, which is huge for communicating the change you want to make. I’m just feeling so hopeful. It’s great.
KH: Well, I feel like it’s very personal, too. Having been around all this the past 8 years and experiencing it for myself. And I think it’s because I work for the VA hospital. I’ve encountered a lot of things I don’t know if I would have encountered in the private sector. Because in the private sector food is going to be thought of differently. Whereas in the VA hospital it’s just crap. I don’t know why it’s like that. Is it because they’re not able to afford it? Is it because there aren’t people who are skilled enough to know? What is it? I don’t know? And until I dive into that, I’m not able to make a change yet. And it’s gonna take years, maybe decades, to build this empire I joke about. But really I know that this journey is going to happen to me overnight. I don’t want it to happen overnight. I know I’m going to get there someday, I just don’t know how. In the meantime I really want to become a better person and a better leader. I won’t know until I experience things a little more and challenge myself a little more. Right now I’m in school because I know that at the end of the day I won’t be taken seriously in this world until I have at least a Master’s degree. People won’t listen to changes if I don’t at least have some sort of degree to back it up. And it won’t matter what my experience is, it won’t matter what I say. This is just the real world and I want to be very practical with it. If I really want this to happen I have to take measures and better myself for this to happen. I can’t expect it to grow from nothing. For myself in the past year I’ve taken business classes and anything I can take towards higher education. Because I really want to make this happen. I just got the ball rolling and it’s really exciting to see where it will go.
It will happen. It’s just kind of hard juggling all three - work and school and this business venture right now. Eventually I want to give up on one so I can just focus on business and whatnot. I’m just not courageous enough to take that step yet. Other people who are successful tell me: you have to let it go, you have to let it go. I just want to be stable and I want to hang onto my job. I’m just not ready to take that leap yet.
CR: It can be really hard to know what to leave alone, what to stay in and invest in, what to keep, what to shed off.
KH: Yeah, well I’m really excited about this Women’s Empowerment dinner series I’m going to be getting into, too, because in this past year, some of the best experiences I’ve had have been working with women. I’ve gotten screwed over a couple of times by the men that I’ve worked with. And I feel like when I’ve worked with other women, because we’ve had to work a little harder to be where we want to be, we over-deliver sometimes, too. I hired this videographer and he basically just took the money and left. He never gave me any footage, never returned my phonecalls, emails, nothing. With women, we’ve always communicated well, had our expectations right, and it’s just different. I know it sounds crazy, but I just feel like we support each other more. We understand the struggle.
CR: I was just in the south, in North Carolina, visiting my best friend and we went to go see this short civil rights documentary and the main event was this panel discussion on structural racism and patriarchy and specifically on how that affects women, especially women of color and minorities. Most of the panel were these amazing black women with such incredible depth and insight and something that really stuck to me was when one of the women, Naomi, said that we need to stop approaching these systems the same way that they’ve been perpetuated - which is by men and men in power, usually white men. We can’t change something by the same means that have aided oppression, we need new voice and perspective who can improvise and figure out new ways to approach these enormous structures. It’s time for minority and women’s voices to be heard because for years, centuries, they have been doing life differently than the powerful majority. They have been forced to improvise and be more creative with how they live their lives. It has to be completely different. And I feel like that is your approach - thinking differently about how to feed our elderly population in a way that is most dignifying to them.
KH: Yeah, you do. One of the things I’ve learned in the last couple of years, especially as I’ve been able to travel to Europe to visit my grandma and my family in Germany. My mom’s side of the family, they all live in Hamburg, Germany. Germany economy and American economy are two completely different systems. The difference that I really love - and people hate this word, socialism - but in Germany I don’t see how it’s so bad. They follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Are you familiar with that?
CR: Somewhat. But you should explain a bit.
KH: It’s the triangle. So all the basic needs are provided for, so that the next level above that can be taken care of. So people in Germany - let’s compare me to my cousin. We’re both the same age, he’s a corporate lawyer and he pays $650 for his two bedroom, two bathroom condo. When he was in school he paid $200 a semester to take care of the fees. So he has no school debt. He makes the same amount of money that my friend David makes, who makes a lot more money than I do, he’s an accounting and finance manager. So they both make a decent amount of money, but the difference is that my cousin doesn’t have school debt and he only has $650 rent. You can’t get an apartment for that in Long Beach. On top of that he gets 5 weeks of vacation every year because the top part of that triangle, the self-actualization, you can’t self actualize if you’re so busy working working working to pay the bills. You can’t go traveling and see the world and get different perspectives and develop yourself if your head is just in the hole. So I completely agree with the panel you got to experience in North Carolina.
One of the things I find the root of racism is the fact that we have this large gap with the people that have and have not. We have this wealth that’s centered on so few people, and then you have the rest who are struggling to survive. Whereas in Germany, most people are middle class. There’s a limit to how powerful you can be. There’s no limit to that in the United States. So of course, as long as these white men are going to be powerful, then there’s always going to be this racism. Until we change the structure of our country, which is a capitalist society that’s all about profit, we’re not going to be able to change how we look at an individual person who needs help, we’re gonna look at them as a number, as potential profit, not as a human being who needs holistic care. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not going to change unless it all comes crashing down and we have to build it back up again. I know it sounds really extreme, but after going to Germany and seeing my family there several times now, I just think it’s different. The difference is that people are well there. We’re not well-off here. So as long as we’re going to be for-profit, we’re not going to be helping people get healthy. In Germany a prime example is when women get pregnant, they’re allowed to have one year off. Not three months. One year. Because they consider the bonding between that mother and child to be vital. And that child is going to grow up to be a part of society one day. So why wouldn’t you want to provide that. If you wanted to take another year off - you could! You could take two years off if you wanted. Wouldn’t that kind of security give you a peace of mind, as a woman? It would give me peace of mind. I can’t imagine having a child right now. I have so many things to do and bills to pay and I don’t have any security like that. If I were given that security that I could have one or two years off, it’d make me feel a lot better about that.
I don’t know why I started ranting about that. But they’re all kind of tied in with change.
CR: It does. It all ties in.
KH: Yeah. I also wanted to mention, too, about Company of Khanh that it’s called Company of Khanh, not because of me, but because of the company I keep. I can’t do these Pop-Ups by myself, I get credit for making the menu and the food, but I have friends who volunteer their time and energy. That’s why it’s called Company of Khanh. The people I’ve worked with rotate and change, but it’s not about me. It’s the people that I’m surrounded by. I actually keep great company. I’m so blessed. I wouldn’t be able to do half of the things I have done if it wasn’t for them. So I just wanted to clarify.
CR: Thank you. That’s awesome. I love that. Khanh, it is so good to hear you speak so passionately about what you believe in and what you are advocating for. It gives me hope that there are people as compassionate and talented and driven as you are. And you know, different people I’ve been featuring and highlighting, I just realize that there are people who are trying to make the world a better place and are making sacrifices to do that. I think we can hopefully keep passing that on. So I just commend you and I am really honored you put aside some time to record some of your yummy food lingo. Half of the things you were mentioning I was like - I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds like I want to eat it.
KH: Thank you also for pushing that and studying that with your pages and this project. It’s such a great idea. And I know you have a lot of great ideas and I hope that we can continue to work together and collaborate in some capacity in the future. And try to make this world a better place and contribute what we can.
CR: For sure. Well, I am glad to have you in my company. Ah, that is so lovely to say.
KH: Thank you. Well, I have to get back to nursing so if there’s anything else, give me a call.
To read through Khanh's pages again, visit here.