Duyen Ha

On building communities through food and drinks

Mismatched dishes adorn the table, each one tightly snuggled against the next. Heaps of steaming food with various colors and textures are piled upon them. Throughout the night, chopsticks weave in and out as clinks of glasses can be heard and the familiar Vietnamese words of "một, hai, ba, dzô!" “One, two, three, cheers!”  

These are the vivid memories of family gatherings that I recall after my conversation with Duyen Ha, Founder and CEO of BONDLE Wines. Throughout our discussion, we share a connection through our Vietnamese heritage where we trade stories of unspoken love through food and community. These stories of community build upon Ha's Vietnamese culture and embody her growing endeavors such as BONDLE and Duyen's Friends. BONDLE's curated French wine collection aims to bring people together and extend the celebration while Duyen's Friends, an intimate dining series, creates memories around food and drinks. Although the two are different in execution, they complement each other in the art of storytelling, gatherings, and new beginnings.

For Ha, her story has multiple beginnings where she reinvented herself several times. "My two biggest shifts are when I became a chef and then when I became a wine entrepreneur." She realized that working for the Obama campaign and Google didn't fulfill her as she had hoped. Something was still missing. Ha explains, "A lot of my identity revolves around the Vietnamese community and food. When I was younger, I thought that gatherings were something you do for fun, but you couldn't make a career out of it."

However, as her mindset shifted, Ha pushed herself to see how far she could go in a culinary career. "I started from the bottom with shucking oysters at a restaurant in Williamsburg. At the time, I was 25 and realized that if I wanted to make this a career, I needed to find a way to propel myself into it." Ha continues, "The start of my new beginning was attending Ferrandi, one of the top culinary schools in France. This allowed me to finally live life the way I envisioned."

The second beginning in Ha's story happened shortly after the pandemic had started and France underwent two massive COVID lockdowns. During this time, Ha decided to pursue what she always wanted to do—become a wine entrepreneur. I ask Ha about her thoughts during this pivot. She looks slightly to the side and replies, "Whenever I feel slightly uncomfortable, I feel like I'm doing something right. Whenever I feel too comfortable, I feel like I should do something more."

Change is often scary. It can come with uncertainty and unfamiliarity, but it's necessary for growth in different aspects of our lives. As Ha alludes to, uncomfortableness can mean that we're growing, we're evolving. We're not being complacent, which can often be the scarier place.

For children of immigrants, change can be coupled with a tension between the older generation's survival mentality and the younger generation's journey to find happiness and purpose. When we talk about growing up in a Vietnamese household, Ha shares stories from her childhood and how her upbringing influenced who she is today, especially regarding her work ethic. "Seeing how hard my parents had worked, it's difficult not to compare myself to them. They had sacrificed a lot. So if I'm not doing as much, I feel guilty." Ha continues, "While you're trying to figure out what you want to do, it's hard at the same time to not seek the approval of your parents. I must remember that I don't need to work as hard as them because they sacrificed so much for me not to work as hard. I'm definitely still trying to figure that out."

Navigating the societal, cultural, as well as self-imposed expectations can be a complex and often contradictory journey. However, at the root of this journey are the ever-evolving identities and communities we build to support us along the way.

When I ask Ha how her Vietnamese identity has influenced her culinary career, she tells me a story about when her family was in a refugee camp. "There were these photos of us where there's no table—just one sheet on the ground, food on top of it, and about thirty people sitting around on the floor. For me, this represents the Vietnamese community. Even when we don't have a lot, we end up having so much by being together. There's this closeness surrounding food. Sharing what we do and eat has become a huge foundation for me as a chef."

Ha recounts her parents' gatherings as an instrumental part of her journey. "For gatherings, my parents plan for the whole week. Then my mom would cook for two to three days, and it'd just be her in the kitchen until four in the morning. I always thought this was so much work! But my mom loved doing that. So there's this feeling of self-sacrifice.”

Ha momentarily pauses before continuing, "That's like being a chef. You're sacrificing so much and working insane hours, but then, one minute, a customer approaches you and says, ‘The food was delicious. Thank you!’ That moment makes it worth it. There's an altruistic feeling when you're cooking for people, and I developed that at a very young age from watching my parents."

There's an unspoken love born from, cultivated, and shared through food, from giving the best cuts of meat to providing plates of cut fruits to loved ones. It's building closeness through the seen and unseen parts of communities and gatherings. This growing notion of "building" empowers Ha to give back and tell her stories on her own terms through food and drinks.

Duyen's Friends allows her to build in-person communities in the United States and abroad. "I've done this series all over the world, from Hawaii to Paris to New York. No matter where I was, it was the same thing. People want connections. People want to meet new people. People want a community. Duyen’s Friends allowed me to foster these communities and bring people together."

Building upon her stories rooted in her Vietnamese heritage, current beginnings, and new ones, Ha looks towards the future, where she envisions creating more inclusive communities and gatherings. "I love connecting people, but sometimes there's a lot of red tape and barriers. If I had access to this, it's because many people had given me access, and I want to pay that forward.”