This Chef Is Empowering LA’s Elderly Asian Community In The Most Delicious Way
Linda Sivrican is the owner of Sesame, a thoughtfully curated Los Angeles neighborhood superette (or small supermarket) in the heart of Chinatown that sells Asian specialty products from various Asian-owned brands. She’ll soon be opening an eatery in nearby Long Beach called Sesame Dinette that serves Vietnamese and Pan-Asian dishes that are mostly vegan and vegetarian, made in-house daily by Asian elders, including Sivrican’s own mother. A proud Vietnamese American, Sivrican is also a professional perfumer and the founder of Capsule Parfumerie. In this edition of Voices in Food, Sivrican explains the inspiration behind working with Asian elders and how it unites a community that’s been experiencing an uptick in hate crimes.
On how her mom serves as inspiration
We opened my mom’s restaurant ― which she decided to open at the tender age of 72 ― a month before the pandemic hit, and so she was only able to open a few weeks and then had to close. I wanted to see if I could help her cook again.
Sesame came about because I was looking for a launchpad for collaborations. I was going to do one with chef Mei Lin of Daybird, and a friend of mine told me about a temporary pop-up space available in Chinatown that was only supposed to be a short-term thing for three weeks. I thought it would be perfect for my perfumery launch. That three weeks turned into a three-month opportunity. I said, “Why don’t I do something that the Asian community would embrace?” They didn’t have a market at the time in Chinatown. And they still don’t ― one of the old markets moved out a year beforehand. I decided I’d do a cute little superette for a few months, and that way I could also help my mom. I thought it would be a fun project for the neighborhood, for me, to help my mom, and celebrate the Asian American community by offering a retail space for other Asian-owned brands.
“It’s an opportunity to unify through food, which brings people together. We’ve all come together as one Asian community and I’m proud to celebrate that.”
My mom has been a veteran chef for many years and was also a recipe writer. Twenty years ago, she worked at Brodard restaurant in Orange County, where she was a manager, helped create the menu and then worked in the kitchen. For the last five years, she was a chef at The District in West Hollywood, which is owned by Hannah An of the Crustacean restaurant family. When they closed down during the pandemic, she decided not to retire and to open up her own restaurant in Long Beach. Now through the success of Sesame superette, I’m taking over that restaurant and turning it into Sesame Dinette.
On how the kitchen brings together Asian elders
All the women in our kitchen are in their 50s through 70s and go to the same Buddhist Temple. They’re all my mom’s friends, and they come in and cook together at their own pace in this very serene atmosphere, which is very uncommon for a professional restaurant kitchen. These women are cooking authentic Vietnamese food, but I’m also introducing new ingredients for them to cook with. It’s fun for them because they’re discovering new flavors and nicer-quality ingredients, and it’s also heartwarming for me to see what they can make with all these new, direct-from-the-farm ingredients.
We have female monks contributing to some of the vegan dishes that we offer, and those proceeds go back to the temples. Most of our menu is vegetarian or vegan, which serves to cultivate compassion.
On helping to unite the community
I’m proud of what we’re able to offer the Asian community and neighborhood in Chinatown, although we also have customers from other neighboring communities coming through to our space. For me it goes beyond just Chinatown ― it celebrates the Asian American experience through food as a whole. Although my family is Vietnamese, at Sesame we also offer Korean condiments, pantry items from Japan and products from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. My goal is to be able to represent all 48 Asian countries plus the three provinces, but right now we probably have a handful of these countries represented. As I start sourcing more brands, that’s something I really want to strive toward.
“The older customers come in and say, ‘I haven’t seen this in a long time.’ It often feels really nostalgic for a lot of the Vietnamese customers that come through.”
We have 50-50 Asian and non-Asian customers coming through the store, but the non-Asians love Asian food, so what we offer is for our own community, but also for anyone who loves Asian food. The response has been so positive and encouraging for me to want to continue. I went ahead and signed a longer lease to make this a permanent situation because I’m loving what we’re doing. It feels really positive and I feel like I can contribute to the community. By “community,” I mean the Asian community in general, and for women entrepreneurs, Asian-owned businesses, and women of color. I like to champion entrepreneurs and support other women, too.
At Sesame, we have family pictures on the wall of me and my family in Vietnam. People get really teary-eyed being in the space and looking at the pictures. It makes things personal and makes customers feel really connected to that part of us.
At the store, I noticed some of the younger millennials recognize products but they’re not that familiar with them. They say, “I think I remember seeing my grandma eat these,” making it feel like we’re introducing a younger generation to their culture. The older customers come in and say, “I haven’t seen this in a long time.” It often feels really nostalgic for a lot of the Vietnamese customers that come through.
On the rise in hate crimes against Asians
I feel sad when I see [hate crimes against Asians], but I’m not shocked because I’ve encountered racism and prejudice since I was little ― it’s not new. It’s horrific to actually see people going out in the streets and hurting Asians just because, especially elders. It’s daunting to see.
It also gives me a sense of duty to celebrate our culture and say, “I’m proud of this.” With Sesame, I wanted to add to the conversation in a positive and joyful way with our food. It’s an opportunity to unify through food, which brings people together. We’ve all come together as one Asian community and I’m proud to celebrate that.