LA Restaurant Bé Ù Prioritizes Fair Wages and Affordable Meals

With its shiny blue facade and playful mural that includes a child teetering on a pink plastic stool, Bé Ù matches proper in with the burgeoning new companies on the sting of Silver Lake and East Hollywood. The restaurant, which opened in February within the former Gail’s Rolls N’ Grill house, is the most recent to arrange store in an space that has undergone super change within the final decade and is the continuing topic of dialogue about gentrification in Los Angeles. However look beneath its cheerful floor to search out one thing extraordinary on Hoover Avenue.
“I’m making an attempt to deal with the forces of gentrification,” says Uyên Lê, the restaurant’s proprietor and govt chef. “Or at the very least take heed to it. It’s this concept of getting actual meals at reasonably priced costs the place the individuals which might be working really feel secure and are wholesome.” With a decade-long profession spanning neighborhood constructing, city planning, and employees rights earlier than stepping foot into knowledgeable kitchen, Lê is uniquely geared up to run a restaurant that serves not solely its prospects nicely, however its employees and neighborhood too.
Because the hospitality business returns to a brand new form of regular following a yr of pandemic pivots, Bé Ù serves as a mannequin for the way eating places can function extra equitably. “I’ve all the time been enthusiastic about social justice, financial justice, and environmental sustainability,” says Lê, who constructed coalitions round inexperienced initiatives like photo voltaic vitality for an electricians union simply earlier than embarking on her culinary profession. “It’s a triple backside line which you could’t actually do one with out one other.”
Lê immigrated from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1991 when she was 7 years outdated. She spent her childhood in West Covina surrounded by meals and the colourful neighborhood that it introduced collectively. “We had actually large household events the place I might assist prep, like, 200 quail eggs, make the pickles, decide all of the herbs,” she says. “It’d be, like, three or 4 tables simply stuffed with meals, children working round, after which the boys sitting there ingesting their Hennessey and sodas. And it jogged my memory of Vietnam.”

Portrait of Uyên Lê, chef and owner of Be U in Los Angeles.

Uyên Lê is the proprietor and govt chef of Bé Ù.

However adapting to life in America had its challenges, together with a language barrier and an excessive amount of stress to assimilate. Lê additionally discovered it robust at occasions to stability her identities and beliefs together with her household’s values and expectations. “The politics of the Vietnamese, America, and mine weren’t essentially aligned on the time,” says Lê. “It was form of an odd expertise being a queer child.” Meals, although, all the time served as a bridge and a balm throughout these rougher moments.
“I used to be simply uninterested in additionally seeing how restaurant employees, particularly cooks and dishwashers, aren’t getting correct pay, they’re being abused, they aren’t getting correct break day in the event that they get sick.”
Lê started working in social and financial justice throughout her ultimate semester at UC Berkeley, when she traveled to the Gulf Coast to assist Vietnamese communities rebuild within the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She assisted with direct reduction efforts, like handing out provides and eradicating mould from houses, and lent a hand with long-term neighborhood planning by establishing organizations like Asian People for Change and Coastal Girls for Change. Lê’s work within the Gulf Coast led to a masters diploma after which a profession with the UCLA Labor Middle, the place she labored with undocumented employees and undocumented college students on employees’ rights, honest wages, and respectful remedy within the office. Her ultimate submit earlier than transitioning into the hospitality business was with an electricians union, the place she targeted on gaining help round inexperienced jobs.
Placing in 60-hour work weeks for greater than a decade took its toll and inevitably led Lê to burn out, although she by no means misplaced her ardour for justice points. “Although I care about this work, I’m simply not feeling like I’m the individual to do that,” she says. “I used to be simply uninterested in additionally seeing how restaurant employees, particularly cooks and dishwashers, aren’t getting correct pay, they’re being abused, they aren’t getting correct break day in the event that they get sick.” So she stop her job with the electricians union in 2016 and carved out a brand new profession that not solely centered her values, but in addition encompassed her lifelong love of Vietnamese meals. “As an alternative of telling different individuals what they need to be doing with their companies, I wished to check out a few of these beliefs I had,” says Lê. “I didn’t need to simply do it on a coverage stage. I wished to do it on a very sensible, hands-on stage.”
Earlier than leaping into opening a restaurant, Lê enrolled in formal culinary and pastry packages and discovered the ropes at Button Mash after which Cassia. “I used to be intentional about who I labored for and why,” she says. Lê was drawn to Button Mash in Echo Park for its high-volume clientele and enjoyable, accessible, and shareable meals. She additionally admired proprietor Jordan Weiss and culinary duo Nguyen and Thi Tran’s delightfully totally different method to meals and eating on the arcade-slash-restaurant. She gravitated to Cassia in Santa Monica as a result of it was higher-end and operated in a unique location. Plus, she’d heard that chef Bryant Ng and his enterprise companion and spouse, Kim Luu-Ng, prioritized sustainability for employees and she or he wished to expertise it in motion. In each eating places Lê labored behind the home to get an actual sense of kitchen tradition and rhythms.

Be U in Silver Lake/East Hollywood painted blue with a mural featuring a chubby baby and red plastic stools.

Bé Ù, which implies “chubby child” in Vietnamese, contains a mural by Madlosangeles with a larger-than-life child.

Whereas Lê didn’t plan on putting out on her personal so quickly, the pandemic sped up her timeline in unpredictable methods. Positioned on obligatory depart twice from Cassia because of the breakneck insurance policies regulating restaurant operations, Lê relied on the occasional catering gig and her private financial savings to get by. When a promising house opened on Hoover Avenue, Lê was able to pounce utilizing earnings from a previous actual property funding. “The neighborhood is superb [with] lots of people strolling; [it’s] tremendous dense. It was a type of issues the place it simply known as to me.”
“It is a rent-controlled neighborhood and there are people who lived right here for many years who aren’t in a position to pay $12 or $13 a sandwich.”
In naming the restaurant Bé Ù, which implies “chubby child” in Vietnamese, Lê is reclaiming a distressing childhood nickname. “I had lots of nervousness about meals being known as chubby on a regular basis,” she says. “I used to be a normal-size American child however a chubby Vietnamese [kid], and my household would inform me I used to be chubby each day considering it will by some means assist make me skinny. Nevertheless it simply made me hate myself and have a tousled relationship with meals.” Through the years, Lê gained a clearer understanding of her household’s intentions that helped to ease her battle with meals. “I noticed as I’ve gotten older [that] displaying concern is like principally saying, ‘I really like you,’” she says.
Bé Ù’s embrace of Vietnamese diacritical marks is wholly intentional and serves as one other nod to Lê’s immigrant upbringing. “Rising up, my title was utterly butchered, nonetheless is on a regular basis, and I need people to wrestle with one thing totally different than to only really feel comfy, fairly truthfully,” Lê says.
Inside this unsuspecting incubator for progressive beliefs, Bé Ù serves Vietnamese consolation and avenue meals at reasonably priced costs. “It is a rent-controlled neighborhood and there are people who lived right here for many years who aren’t in a position to pay $12 or $13 a sandwich,” says Lê. “It’s essential to me that I preserve gadgets reasonably priced to everybody right here.”
The priciest dish on the menu — the caramelized pork and eggs with pickled mustard greens served over steamed white rice — clocks in at $10.50. Lê considers this dish, which she discovered from her mom, the guts of the restaurant. Hours of sluggish and low braising makes for tender pork morsels whereas the egg retains its bounce. Lê says that her mom can be particularly happy that the pale yellow yolks lack the grayish ring of overcooked eggs. Although this dish is a staple on each Vietnamese dinner desk, it’s hardly ever discovered on restaurant menus as a result of it may be time consuming and costly to organize. “It’s a dish I’m very protecting of, and it’s not a dish that’s simple to make in massive portions and to maintain it at that high quality,” Lê says. Additionally from her mom’s kitchen are the pork riblets — delicately battered and fried bone-in nuggets served over rice.

Lê is especially happy with the banh mi made on crisp-golden baguettes sourced from Pacific French Bakery. Whereas the sandwiches, filled with lemongrass-scented rooster, pork, and beef, have been in style from the bounce, the vegan one crammed with tofu and vegan pate is Lê’s favourite. Drawing inspiration from Vietnam’s wealthy custom of Buddhist delicacies, Lê aimed to assemble a meatless banh mi that didn’t compromise on taste. The pate took months to develop: Its ultimate system contains mushrooms, garlic, tomato paste, sunflower seeds, and cashews. Rounding out the menu are shareable dishes, together with bo la lot (grilled beef-stuffed wild betel leaves), popcorn rooster with a garlicky aioli, summer time rolls, and a mango and mint slaw. To drink is pressed pennywort juice, glowing limeade, and iced espresso sweetened with condensed milk.
Along with serving meals priced for neighborhood locals who want entry to reasonably priced meals, Lê is dedicated to creating change inside a traditionally exploitative business by paying employees nicely, prioritizing their well being and security, and fostering a respectful and equitable tradition. She’s additionally making room for employees’ skilled development by studying about every worker’s objectives and seeing how she might help them to attain it.
“Her complete life has been making an attempt to convey justice the place there isn’t any. Her complete factor is to talk for the individuals who don’t have a voice, and it resounds at Bé Ù,” says Adrian Samayoa, the restaurant’s kitchen supervisor, who labored intently with Lê whereas each had been employed at Cassia.
After incomes a prepare dinner’s paycheck for practically two years, Lê is aware of firsthand how troublesome it may be to make ends meet, so she is offering the next than market price wage for Bé Ù’s half-dozen staff. “I used to be working near 40 hours per week, and for 2 weeks [of work], after taxes and every thing I’d get like 900 bucks, and that was difficult for me,” says Lê. “If I had any person else to help, or a child, that’s simply utterly not a dwelling wage.”

Team picture of Uyen Le with her staff in front of the chubby baby mural.

Lê together with her front- and back-of-house staffers.

Each employee begins at $18 per hour, and ideas are pooled and divided equally amongst front- and back-of-house at Bé Ù. “The Uyên ethos is {that a} good arduous day’s work ought to offer you sufficient cash to reside off of,” says Samayoa. “I’ve seen servers stroll away with loopy quantities on the finish of the night time and the cooks all drive away close to destitute after working eight, 9, 10 hours, simply making an attempt to scrape collectively working two cooking jobs, one within the morning, one at night time.”
“It’s good to work for somebody who’s been on the backside flooring and finished numerous positions and is aware of the life that all of us reside and the challenges that come out of cooking professionally and for a dwelling,” says Vincent Musci, one of many restaurant’s line cooks. “There was very satisfactory compensation. It feels good to be valued in that means.”
The well being and security of her employees is a precedence to Lê, which implies offering paid sick depart and sending injured employees residence. When Samayoa confirmed up for his shift limping resulting from recurring tendonitis in his heel and Achilles tendon, Lê insisted that he cease working and search medical consideration. “It’s occurred to me on the road earlier than, I’m simply limping round and everybody’s like, ‘Yep, he’s doing the work. Cool.’ And when Uyên seen it, she was so instantly involved,” says Samayoa. “The real concern for my well-being on her half was touching and transferring. It is a totally different restaurant.”
“Relating to kitchen tradition, you’ll hear everybody say it one million occasions and one million occasions extra, ‘In case your kitchen tradition isn’t proper, nothing can be,’” says Caroline Ramirez, one other one of many restaurant’s line cooks. To that finish, Lê can also be rethinking the need of kitchen hierarchies rooted within the French brigade system. “A really top-down, military-style system is how kitchens are organized historically, and there’s one thing to having a sequence of command with the intention to get issues out, however alternatively, that system may be abused,” says Lê. Each employee at Bé Ù has an equal voice and is inspired to make use of it. “I’ve labored at some actually superior locations with nice cooks and superb management, however none of them have actually taken enter from the workers as a lot as Uyên has,” says Samayoa. “She’s the proprietor, she’s the chef, she’s exec — the primary and the final phrase — however she by no means flexes that. It’s simply understood.”

Chef Uyen Le working on the line at her restaurant Be U in Los Angeles.

“A variety of the occasions whenever you’re working in these kitchens that don’t have a fantastic crew or a help system, you can not ask for assist, like your ship is sinking and there’s nothing you are able to do about it,” says Ramirez. “However not over right here. The second you want one thing, like, increase, it’s there, everyone seems to be simply joyful to do it … that’s so arduous to search out, and it feels so good.”
With a month of working beneath its belt, issues aren’t excellent at Bé Ù, however they’re trying promising. “We’re nonetheless undoubtedly working within the pink, nevertheless it’s been very well obtained,” says Lê. “I’m hoping to only do quantity and to have the workers be extra productive and environment friendly with the intention to get into the black with one of these mannequin. I count on us to be within the black on a day by day operations foundation by Could.” Lê initiatives that the restaurant’s startup prices, together with tools, design, and renovations, can be recouped after the primary two years of enterprise. Nonetheless, the pandemic’s lingering uncertainties will seemingly impression her assumptions.
“It’s not like I wished to return in and disrupt every thing. I simply wished to create one thing right here and attempt to make it occur,” says Lê. “If it could [be sustainable], then to share it extra broadly — to incorporate it within the dialog about fairness, entry, profession ladders, and justice.”

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