NY Feast: Bricolage's Executive Chef, Lien Lin, On Being Ethnically Chinese But Cooking Vietnamese Food For a Living
I didn’t even know what bricolage meant until I met Lien Lin, a lead female chef, mother of two, small business owner and member of the so called Asian Food Mafia collective. The word translates to mean, “a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things,” and at this Brooklyn-based brick and mortar, that’s exactly what Lien’s serving up.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and she peered out at me from behind the thick frames of her glasses. No frills, dressed mainly in black, Lien, pronounced Lin, swats away the mosquitoes that flit gingerly between my exposed ankles and her own. We’re sitting on the red couch on the back patio at Bricolage, the Vietnamese gastropub that she owns and runs with her husband, Ed. “He’s the love of my life, my best friend, my business partner and it’s great because we rely on and trust each other but the bad part is that we take work home with us all the time. Work, work, work, work, work,” Chef Lien said as I wondered if she was thinking: Rihanna.
Ethnically Chinese, Lien’s parents were born in Vietnam but fled to Hong Kong, where she would be born. One of seven children, she remembers nothing of her time spent in Asia as her family was granted refuge and passage to the United States (they were sponsored by Saint Joseph’s Church) while she was still an infant. Lien spent her weekends in the kitchen, often washing dishes at the restaurant her parent’s owned. “I always thought we were eating Chinese food but when I got older, I realized the food I was eating at home wasn’t 100% Chinese food, there was a lot of Vietnamese influence in there,” said Lien. She would go on to study at USC, during which time she told her parents that she wanted to go to culinary school. She mouths the words, “what the fuck” before recounting her parent’s actual reaction, “they were like, ‘oh no, why the fuck do you wanna cook?’ I wanted to feel closer to my culture, I didn’t want to lose it, I already lost the language. Being first generation is hard because we’re still assimilating to everything around us,” said Lien. Thoughts of the family dinner table flood her mind when she’s asked to reflect on her fondest childhood memories and food, was always at the center of their home. For Lien, it made sense to choose a career that would provide an undeniable and lasting connection to that source of happiness.
While Vietnamese food in America still wobbles on the pillars of banh mi and pho, Lien and Ed, alongside their friends in the Asian Food Mafia, a Brooklyn based collective of young, innovative Asian chefs, seek to “elevate” the perception of Asian food. By using refined ingredients, a bomb drink menu and excellent service, they hope to give Asian food more of a name, opening customer’s eyes to the difference in quality between their food and the token Chinese restaurant on the corner. You get what you pay for. Although these concepts might feel “Western”, Lien knows that longevity in the restaurant industry lies with tradition. “I consider this cuisine, "authentic". Authentic meaning what has been grown in the flavors, the herbs used, the techniques used, staying true to what we’re looking for in the dish. It’s not traditional in the sense where it’s made the same way my grandma made it, she didn’t have a food processor and I sure as heck use one,” she said before letting out a “ha!”
Quick to avoid the use of the word “fusion” to define Bricolage’s menu offerings, Lien knows that every dish is supposed to have a story but realizes that that story inevitably evolves. With every whisk of the pan or vegetable cut, Lien is creating her own story, continuing a narrative that is a as cultural as it is culinary. She often calls her mom when she forgets if the “big or little bowl” are used to measure out a specific ingredient and has “learned more about family” as she fantasizes about how her mom even got that recipe in the first place, tracing history all the way back to its earthy roots. “I’ve been talking to my grandma a lot more since I got into food. The reason I didn’t talk to my grandma that much is because the language wasn’t there, she doesn't speak English and my Chinese is terrible, but food brought us together and that’s exactly why I love it,” said Lien. With the dinner rush coming soon, the Lin’s aren’t only serving food for the people, but food for their own souls.
Catch the Lin's in action at our #LuckyriceNY Feast, get your tickets here