Au Lac owner Mai Nguyen was doing well for herself by 2001. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor, she gave up meat in 1992 and took up meditation at the recommendation of her Southern California doctor. Missing the cuisine of her native Vietnam, she began reinventing the recipes her mother had taught her to exclude meat while retaining their cultural flavors. The tumor receded and eventually disappeared—a miraculous development she credits to her adoption of a vegetarian diet. She took her new dishes public in 1997 by opening the original Au Lac in Orange County with a friend. That was only after she received permission from her husband, a patriarchal anesthesiologist who balked at the idea of her working outside the home, but who couldn't deny the results of her regimen.
Her efforts garnered a writeup in the Los Angeles Times. This eventually brought her work to the attention of a man named Ito, who told her she could do better, and asked for a job.
Except he didn't exactly tell her this, as Ito doesn't speak. By passing notes in their shared second tongue of English, Ito informed Nguyen that he had taken a permanent vow of silence.
"He said he did this for two reasons: because 'speech is war' to him, and so he could be in tune with God twenty-four hours a day," said Nguyen on a recent afternoon at Au Lac's second location in downtown LA, which she opened this year with now Chef Ito. "He said, 'Your food is good, but it's not the best for your health.'" Ito was a devotee of the raw vegan food movement, and the Times article convinced him he had finally found someone he could work with.
Despite a lack of formal training, Ito wanted to bring raw cuisine to Au Lac, believing that a partnership with Nguyen was "God's will." Nguyen was skeptical, as she didn't have the funds to hire a new chef, let alone launch a major menu expansion that was then unfamiliar to even the most health-conscious of diners.
But she couldn't turn him away, touched by his principles and humility. (She admits she cried after first meeting him, affected by his silence.) So she began experimenting with raw and vegan menu items, initially only offering them on Saturday mornings, then expanding to vegan-only events that soon became overbooked with reservations.
To gain Nguyen's confidence, Ito went to school at the Living Light Culinary Institute for organic raw vegan cuisine in Northern California, developing menu items for Au Lac which he calls "fine humanese cuisine." Nguyen says that shocked her initially, before she realized that "Ito wants to spread the message that we are all one, as human beings, with no races between us, and that this kind of food is the food for all humanity."
Hundred of raw vegans flock to Au Lac from all over Southern California to taste Ito's eccentric raw vegan dishes, like his "au lac raw," a take on noodle soup. It is served lukewarm at about 118 degrees, the highest temperature that raw vegas believe living organisms can thrive in. He replaces traditional al dente rice noodles with thinly shaved, young coconut meat. Another popular dish is Ito's raw vegan "paella," made from sprouted wild rice, tender dulse seaweed, and avocado. His raw dessert offerings include spirulina donut holes filled with a warm palm sugar caramel, and a creamy, bready, tiramisu made with soaked nuts that impart the dish's traditionally rich flavors.
The first test for all cooks in Au Lac is they have to wash dishes. If they can't do this, they cannot advance to prep for chef.
After years of testing and refinement, Au Lac went entirely vegan and organic in 2007, with two separate kitchens for raw and cooked foods. At the time, Nguyen worried about the cost of new kitchens and all-organic produce. She was assuaged by Ito, who told her that "both of us believe in God—if we take care of the customers, God will take care of us. Think of the customers and the benefit will come after. And I agreed with this."
Despite Ito's mysterious background and lack of verbal articulation, he's proven himself as an innovative and effective chef. In sharp contrast to many ambitious chefs today, Ito doesn't act as an ambassador for Au Lac's restaurants, declining all opportunities for press interviews (including this one), preferring to let the food speak for itself. But he's not above any of the responsibilities of running a restaurant, and he expects the same of his staff.
"I love him so much and respect him a lot, because he is a very humble guy," says Nguyen. "So much that when we interview for new servers, he says that part of the package is that they have to clean the restroom. So when we ask this, if the server's shocked, he will write me a note: 'This person is not humble enough. I don't care how experienced they are, he cannot be here with me.' The first test for all cooks in Au Lac is they have to wash dishes. If they can't do this, they cannot advance to prep for chef. Ito says 'when I do this, they never raise up their ego.'"
Ito gives instructions via hand signals and modeling, as well as providing literal notes on dishes to his cooks. Nguyen says his lack of speech actually helps his relationships with staff. "Because of his silence and humility," she says, "he's sweeping the floor, cleaning the restroom, washing dishes; his staff thinks, Why not me? And he gains their respect. He never scolds them except when they don't show up on time or argue with each other. He says 'If you do my kitchen work, you must have love for people; if not, you cannot perform my food well.'"
'This country is the richest in the whole world, yet because of stress and the wrong diet, sooner or later everyone gets sick.'
The decision to expand was not born of a desire to make Au Lac even a regional brand, but simply to serve keen LA-based customers frequently dissuaded by traffic-snarled freeways from making the trip south to the OC's Fountain Valley, where the original Au Lac is located. Three years ago, Ito began surveying patrons online to determine where the second Au Lac should be located, and decided on downtown LA. It lacks the crunchy aesthetic that characterizes a lot of vegan restaurants, instead retaining the glass, steel, and dark wood décor of its predecessor and many other downtown bistros.
Nguyen and Ito also kept the clamshell-style bar and cocktail lounge of its previous occupant. Ito decided that the new location needed to cater to urban diners' want for alcoholic libations, despite none being served at the original spot. The lounge hosts music and dancers on Saturdays, and the well-known UnCabaret alternative comedy show on Sundays, as it did before Au Lac's tenancy. Clearly, despite Au Lac's focus, they want to accommodate patrons who might be expecting customary downtown features.
Nguyen and Ito are willing to play by some rules of modern dining as they actively work to redefine others—one being the association of fine dining with eating animals. "This country is the richest in the whole world, yet because of stress and the wrong diet, sooner or later everyone gets sick," says Nguyen. "I don't want to be too negative, but in this country, the pharmaceuticals are making so much money. I wish doctors would just say change your diet instead of throwing you the [cholesterol] medicine."
Regarding another location, Nguyen says, "If this place stands up well enough, then it's God's will. When people ask me where the next location is, I just say, 'Pray to God.'"