#LuckyriceHouston: Uchi's Anthony Pham on Hurricane Harvey
How was your restaurant affected by Hurricane Harvey? How were you personally affected by Hurricane Harvey?
Uchi was affected by Hurricane Harvey because the hurricane caused us to close from Saturday until the following Thursday. As I recall, Harvey brought in a quarter inch of floodwater in some parts of the restaurants leaving us feeling blessed because it could have been so much worse.
Personally speaking, and trying to leave out political opinions aside, Harvey left my immediate family in a state of unrest. I was thankfully able to spend more time with my family, but the imminent dangers Harvey left in his wake left us with times of uncertainty. We had to spend a lot of time spent getting ready for possible power outages and making sure we had at least a month’s supply of essentials to survive. I live with my brother, his wife and their (at the time) 3 year old; all the while, San (my sister-in-law) was 8 and a half months pregnant. Two minutes south of us, the neighborhood was declared to be in a mandatory evacuation zone, five minutes north of us, was also declared a mandatory evacuation zone. The neighborhood in front of ours was under water. We were left wondering what we were going to do if we were forced to leave. How were we supposed to leave while San was eight and a half months pregnant and go to a place that was a temporary shelter with limited supplies, all the while knowing we had everything we needed back at home? We made up our minds, we decided to stay and made sure we had enough gasoline to power the generator long enough to survive. Luckily, for us the decision was never made to have to leave or stay.
I recall the decision that I wanted to make as far as when we re-opened. I briefly spoke to Farzan, and remembered thinking about what the restaurant was going to look like while Houston was in the middle of rebuilding. I remembered thinking that I’m sure many staff members wanted and or needed to work to make rent, bills, etc. My worst fear was that we were going to overstaff to give everyone the opportunity to work. I made the decision to release all my shifts for those who need to make any extra money. It was the absolute least I could do for the team. I spent the next few days with friends that needed to be evacuated because their homes were underwater.
In light of the disaster, what conclusions and realizations have you been able to draw from the experience that have yielded to the appreciation of the people of Houston and your community? How has the community of restauranteurs in Houston come together?
The times after Harvey, I was able to see the good in our community. We, the staff of Uchi Houston, are a small sample of what Houston is and we have a reputation to uphold. I embrace that we are open and frank. We don’t hold back opinions, and our candor makes us strong because words are misunderstood and can be minced when we’re trying to say one thing, and it sounds like something else. We’re not around the bush; we say what needs to be said, and worry about how it came out later. I am most proud of how much we take care of our own. Not just as a staff at Uchi Houston, but as a community. Looting happened, but not to the scale of other cities when the opportunities for personal gain allowed it. Houstonians took that time to find ways to help their neighbors. I saw a post of a line wrapping around a building, and the caption read, “This is Houston, this line is not for food, water or assistance. This line is for volunteers to help those in need.” Seeing that post, made me stick out my chest a little higher, proud to be called a Houstonian. I recall the days after the storm. Whether it was from my managers or other team members, my phone was drained from answering all the texts asking if I was ok. I remember a day when I was stuck in the house for so many consecutive days, I became stir crazy. Shea texted me and asked if I was ok. I told her I was going on a beer run, and to survey the neighboring areas. She demanded I check in when I was safely home. That is the definition of caring, and one example of how much, as a community and as a group of coworkers, how much we care about each other. I could not be more proud to call myself a member of such a wonderful city, and a part of a great company that genuinely cares about each other. I’ve been away for eight to nine year, but so happy to call Houston home again.
It always seems to take things like natural disasters or deaths to make people value community, etc. What do you want the rest of the country to know about your experience or for us to realize?
I feel that we accomplish the most through the small things. The correlation is dinner service. We don’t make grand gestures as servers or service assistants. We impact someone’s evening through a group effort, a group effort of small displays of simply caring. The same can be said as a community. We are but one individual. We can only do so much, but get a group of us together that cares? That’s when we can make the greatest impact on our community, and each other. What I want the country to know, what I want the country to hear me say? Nothing that needs to be articulated. I want the country to see, see what it is like when a community sticks together, loves each other, does things that doesn’t benefit the individual, but rather the group. As far as the company, what do I want the company to realize? Again, nothing, nothing Uchi Houston as not exemplified throughout the last five years. We are strong, strong minded, and most of all, we look out for our own.
Why is Uchi such a special place to work?
What I appreciate the most is that Uchi (Houston at least) has put together a group that consists of people from completely different backgrounds, not only cultural backgrounds, but backgrounds as far as service industry experience. I’m not even sure if this was talked about, as far as the blueprint of growth, but the best part of it all? The best part of gathering a group from different backgrounds was the brilliant idea of not forcing them to conform to “Uchi’s way.” There really isn’t “Uchi’s way,” there never has been, “this is what you must do.” The best example of this is Leo. His favorite response is, “well it depends.” It allows two sides to state their position, then, and only then is a decision made as to which path or decision is made. I’ve worked with people with more experience than myself, and people with less, but all of them has offered some input. Even if the masses debate whether it is “correct,” the beauty is that it creates a dialogue, and through dialogue, creativity and ideas have the opportunity to present themselves and grow. Even during my training myself, or when I train others, it is comforting to hear or say, “There isn’t a right answer to this, put the guest’s best interest in mind, and make a decision.” That particular quote came from my time training with Kenji. I’ve adopted the idea into my training of prospective servers, “If you put the guest’s experience best interest in mind, you’ll never be wrong.”
How do you folks explain the cultural connection between food and culture?
I feel the question answers itself. The cultural connection between food and culture is that food directly correlates into our culture. We all love to eat. Our passion is eating out, and submersing ourselves into the particular dish. Where did it come from? Where was the birthplace of this dish? Where did someone find inspiration to create this amazing presentation? Psychology teaches us that three senses affect our memory: smell, sound and taste. When we smell, hear or taste something, it brings us back to a particular time in our lives. That is what is so amazing when we go eat somewhere. I do want the take the opportunity while I have this platform to express that even though I think it is so amazing to take time out during preshift to ask if anyone has eaten somewhere they want to talk about? Usually that person goes on a tangent, and compares their experience to what we do at Uchi. I would like for anyone that is willing to listen that when one goes out with a predisposed opinion of how things are done, it is: number one, arrogant. Arrogant to think what they are doing is the right and only way, and number two, only prohibits them to fully experience the idea the chef and team is trying to put forth.