New book: Money Matters!

Reyna Duong: Eat Up, Speak Out, Embrace Your Fear

Reyna Duong is a beloved chef and outspoken advocate for all. Her restaurant in Texas is full of delicious food and communal joy as she shares her Vietnamese-American culture and celebrates humanity.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Gina Gotsill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Emi Ray. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

The year was 2016 and Reye Duong was stepping onto a large dirt lot in Dallas, Texas.

This was the same lot she drove by all the time, wondering what it could one day become. It had a small building attached to it.

That’s where the kitchen would go, right? Reye wondered to herself.

As she stepped carefully through the dirt and gravel, Reye could picture it all in her mind’s eye — the twinkling lights and brightly-colored murals, the lively music and happy diners chatting. She could smell the gỏi cuốn and nước mắm, the ginger and garlic practically melting on her tongue. And she could hear her brother Sang, greeting people and laughing.

“What do you think?” the landlord asked her.

Yes, it would take everything Reye had to turn this dirt lot into the restaurant of her dreams. She’d be giving up her savings, her stability, her newfound calm.

But she had to give it a try.

“Where do I sign?” she said.

I’m Emi Ray. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Reyna “Reye” Duong, celebrated chef and advocate for all. 

Reye! Còn vô bếp giúp má di!

That was Reye’s mom calling her inside to wash her hands and chop vegetables… AGAIN. Seven-year-old Reye took in a deep breath — she loved the smell of her mom’s homemade savory fish cakes sizzling in the pan. But she was much more excited about digging in the dirt, climbing trees and running around the yard. Ever since her family immigrated from Việt Nam to Long Beach, California, Reye only wanted to romp and explore outside. And she had a dear baby brother to be her playmate!

His name was Sang, and he was the twelfth in the Duong family. Reye adored Sang, even though she heard her parents arguing about him a lot. Sang had been born with Down syndrome, which meant that he processed words and emotions very differently than their other children, and he needed a lot of help with daily activities. Because of this, someone would have to care for Sang for the rest of his life. 

Growing up in a big family was noisy and fun. Reye spoke VIetnamese with her parents and siblings and her father’s number one rule was to always help the helpless. He never took a car trip without pulling over to the side of the road to offer a hand to someone in need. At home, Reye’s dad built a sunroom in the backyard so they could all eat together. 

Reye did love cooking with her mom, even if it meant coming inside and washing her hands. Together, they made huge platters of chả cá (fish cakes), cà ri gà (chicken curry), sliced papaya, roasted peanuts, cilantro leaves, and bean sprouts. Every meal was made from scratch; every bite a reminder of their connection to each other and their heritage. Reye adored her mom and loved to make her laugh.  

At the same time, being in such a big family was challenging for Reye. With so many siblings, she had to speak up if she was ever going to be heard. And while her dad was very kind to her, Reye saw him get angry and even abusive with her mom and Sang. 

One day, Reye heard her mom crying. Reye’s dad had lost a lot of money while gambling, and her mom was distraught. Reye wished there was some way she could take care of her family and create a safe space from her dad. But her mom refused to leave his side. 

Instead, she wiped her tears and started preparing dinner. Cooking was her way of continuing on, of nourishing and supporting her family.

When Reye was 22, she left home so she could figure out who she was on her own. Her sister Ann bought her a ticket to visit her in Dallas, Texas – a city known for being BIG and bold.

Reye loved wandering through this city, gazing at the wide open skies and smiling at new  faces. But she still felt restless. She had a job that she didn’t like, so she quit. Only that made everything worse. Now what was she going to do? She sat around feeling lost for months, telling herself she’d failed. And then… she heard a voice. It was her own voice! She was talking to herself!

“Get it together, Reye.”

She’d grown up in a family of 12 kids and had to fight to have her voice heard. She could hear it now, but what did it want?

Reye thought about what gave her joy. She loved fashion — running her hands through racks of stylish clothes; picking out different textures and patterns to put together. So, Reye got a job at Nordstrom, a well-respected department store. She started out as an assistant in the buying office, and soon, she was doing the buying. This was a big responsibility and with every new project, Reye’s confidence grew. She knew that when she drew on her passion and determination, she could accomplish whatever she set out to do. She wound up staying in this powerful position at Nordstrom for ten years.

Meanwhile, back home in California, Reye’s parents – and Sang – were getting older. Reye worried about what would happen to Sang when her parents could no longer care for him. So, she saved her money and planned to bring Sang to live with her. She wanted to become Sang’s legal guardian so she could give him a loving new home.

But Reye’s father didn’t like this idea at all. He was adamant that Sang stay where he was and that he knew what was best for his son — even though Sang said that he wanted to live with Reye!

The next few years of Reye’s life were very difficult. She went to court to argue for guardianship of Sang. It hurt so much to do this, but she knew it was what Sang and her mom wanted. And in May of 2015, the court agreed. Sang was free to come live with Reye and enjoy his adulthood with the sister who knew and loved him so well.

Tragically, just a few months later, Reye’s mom passed away. Reye and Sang were heartbroken. How could their mom — the one who’d held them all together with her quiet laughter and steadfast love really be gone?

Reye started daydreaming about different ways to honor her mom. She thought of all those treasured moments they shared in the kitchen together, and all that her mom had passed on to her through her appreciation of Vietnamese culture and food. 

What if she shared these delicious memories by opening a restaurant? But it wouldn’t be just about eating the yummy dishes she cooked growing up. It would be a full experience with Vietnamese-American recipes that Reye invented herself. It would be a place for people to gather and share stories and song. And Sang would be right by her side. 

One day, Reye walked into her boss’s office at her corporate job. Her heart was pounding… but she embraced the fear. She told her boss that she had to leave and begin the next chapter of her life. Then, she took everything she’d learned about running a business and started her plans for a pop-up restaurant called Sandwich Hag.

In April of 2016, on a bustling boulevard in Dallas, Texas, the scent of toasted baguettes loaded with herbs and tender meat floated through the air. Customers followed their noses to a small window where Reye and Sang took orders for Vietnamese-American bánh mì sandwiches. Then they quickly put together each dish from scratch and Sang made sure to tell the customers that his mom used to make that same dish.

Reye had decorated the adjoining patio with string lights, artwork, and brightly-colored tables and chairs so customers could sit and chat. Soon it was buzzing with laughter and sounds of approval from satisfied diners.

Sang’s welcoming smile and bubbly personality were a perfect fit for the restaurant business. And Reye wanted her restaurant to be as inclusive as possible. So, she hired many people from the disability community. She made sure there were lots of ways to communicate, like using a color chart to describe different menu items. And she let all her customers know her number one rule: 

Be nice, cool, kind. Or we’re not serving you!

As Sandwich Hag became the talk of the town, Reye’s fears about running a restaurant faded. Lines of customers wrapped around the block. Journalists from all over the country reached out to interview both Reye and Sang! People loved Sandwich Hag’s menu and they wanted to hear how Reye created this incredibly special place. 

Since then, Sandwich Hag has only gotten bigger and more delicious every year. Reye and Sang got a permanent home for their restaurant in 2017 and filled it with funky murals and music. They expanded their menu and their staff. Customers soon flocked in for the Vietnamese pork sausage, ginger tofu, salads and spring rolls; not to mention Sang’s energetic greetings.

And in 2023, Reye took another big step in starting a coffee business called chimlanh. chimlanh became Dallas’ first Vietnamese cà phê shop, serving traditional Vietnamese coffee and incredible pastries prepared by local artisans and chefs. chimlanh was another huge hit for Reye and a great gathering place for people of all different cultures. And Reye was soon nominated for one of the biggest chef awards in the nation!

And yet, what made her proudest of all was to see Sang smiling and laughing as he whipped together ingredients or asked customers how they were doing. This meant the world to her.

The young Reye who loved climbing trees and digging in the dirt never fathomed she would be running a world-famous restaurant known for delectable food and inclusivity. But life surprised Reye from the moment she was born, and she’s committed to living it fully and embracing her fears.

Even though she once complained about having to help in the kitchen instead of digging in the dirt, Reye is so grateful that her mom insisted. She knows that sharing a meal can be an act of love and a delicious way to connect with people. 

And just as important?

Speaking up for yourself and for what you believe in.

That is truly the Sandwich Hag way.