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How I Made It: Elizabeth An

Elizabeth An, left, with her mother, Helena An, at Crustacean in Beverly Hills, part of a small empire of upscale restaurants the family owns.
(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

The gig: As a child in Vietnam, Elizabeth An had her own personal servant. Despite those aristocratic roots, the princess of Asian fusion knows the value of hard work. The restaurateur juggles 16-hour days at her family’s Euro Asian eateries: Crustacean Beverly Hills, Crustacean San Francisco, Thanh Long in San Francisco, the recently debuted Costa Mesa venture AnQi and a yet-to-launch garden cafe in Santa Monica. Since the An family introduced their fusion recipes in the 1970s (before fusion was hot), the dishes -- particularly their signature garlic noodles -- have been a favorite among upscale foodies.

Riches to rags: After the fall of Saigon in 1975, An’s family fled Vietnam, leaving behind the riches An’s father had amassed as a major industrialist there. The family was forced to spend several weeks in a refugee camp in the Philippines, a stark departure from An’s cushy upbringing.

She remembers being jostled aside in food lines, coming back to her family’s tent empty-handed. All she had had to do for food in her home country was ring a tiny bell to beckon a servant.

“If you want to eat, go out there and get it,” she recalls her mother saying. “Figure out how to get it or you’ll stay hungry.”

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An refused to return without food again, devising a strategy with her sisters to dupe camp officials to double the family’s rations. That lesson in resourcefulness, An says, has carried over into her business ventures.

“Part of my character now was built in that refugee camp,” she said.

Creating buzz: Despite earlier success in her Bay Area restaurant ventures, An, now 42, was a virtual unknown in the late 1990s when she opened Crustacean in Beverly Hills. She believed in her food, but the chairs stayed empty, prompting her to confront a stark reality: In Los Angeles, you’ve got to know people.

Without high-profile investors to help with promotion, An had to go it alone. Her solution was to cultivate relationships with the city’s tastemakers, including showbiz types and business moguls. She joined their charities, comped their meals and offered them special attention at the restaurant.

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“It takes a lot more than good food to make it happen with the big boys,” she said.

The strategy worked. Crustacean has been a society hot spot for years, a distinction An said she must constantly work at preserving. The restaurant owner still keeps careful tabs on her clientele, identifying high-profile diners as soon as they make a reservation, then pampering them from the minute they walk in the door.

Lemons to lemonade: When An opened the first Crustacean, in San Francisco, the initial public response was tepid. She began hearing groans from family that the expansion -- her brainchild -- was a dud.

To make matters worse, a critic from the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a scathing review. Sensing that An got a raw deal, a regular customer sent a letter to another regional critic, hoping to get An a second look. The result was a stellar review.

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Looking to capitalize on the turn of events, An took out a full-page ad in the Chronicle displaying the two opposing reviews.

“Judge for yourself,” it read, a challenge that An said prompted customers to start filing in.

Standing out: Each of An’s restaurants is home to what the family calls their “secret kitchen,” a private space within the main kitchen where their signature garlic noodles are made.

No one’s allowed inside, other than An’s relatives and chefs employed by the family for a decade or more. Even Oprah Winfrey was denied access during a visit to the Beverly Hills location a few years ago.

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Beyond protecting signature recipes, the secret kitchen makes the restaurant stand out in a crowded field. Finding one or two attributes that a restaurant “can own,” An said, is integral to success.

Going native: “You can’t just stay in your restaurant and wait for people to come. It doesn’t work that way,” An said.

“If you want to be in the restaurant business, you’ve got to really understand your community. I spend six months before opening getting to know the community, the environment, the demographic. Sincerely go out there and be a part of the community, get involved with different charities, even get a place to live in the neighborhood. If you want success for yourself, you have to give back.”

robert.faturechi @latimes.com


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