Family Dinner with LANG: Uyen Le of Bé Ù

Family Dinner with LANG: Uyen Le of Bé Ù

By Zarah Cheng

There is a special place in our hearts for comfort food. They remind us of home, of loved ones, of friends, of special moments in our memories. Yes, comfort food is delicious by definition, but the yearning and affection that it almost always seems to evoke is undoubtedly the most compelling reason for us to pine for our comfort food cravings. 

For Uyen Le, the Founder & Chef/Owner of Bé Ù, this sentiment is a driving force for the beloved LA-based food spot. Bé Ù is a Vietnamese street food and comfort food restaurant nestled in the heart of Silver Lake. For Uyen, food is the glue that holds everything together. 

Born in Vietnam and having immigrated to the US at a young age as a queer refugee, Uyen spent  many years trying to assimilate into her new home. Growing up during a time when activism came at both substantial social and physical risk, Uyen’s journey is a brave one in which she refused to be shaken from her conviction and emerged on the other side with a better understanding of both herself and her culture and identity. 

Although it took many years, Le was able to finally feel comfortable in her own skin. Bé Ù is an amalgamation of years of self-discovery and learning. She is fully aware of the weight that cooking carries – being able to create nourishment that people choose to put into their bodies. For Uyen, she hopes that people find joy in her food and that she can feed their bodies, minds and spirits with the same comfort and joy that she experiences through preparing it. Read on to discover how Bé Ù came to be, what Uyen’s journey as a queer Asian American entrepreneur has been like, and how she has successfully integrated social justice and sustainability into her kitchen.



LANG: Can you tell us a bit more about your background and how Bé Ù came to be?

Uyen Le: I am the Founder & Chef/Owner/Operator of Bé Ù, a Vietnamese street food and comfort food restaurant in Los Angeles, CA.  While my path to restaurant ownership was not a straight one, every job and volunteer opportunity has been focused on creating sustainable economic opportunities in communities that are often under-served and under-resourced. 

I previously worked in high volume Asian food kitchens, namely Cassia (Santa Monica, CA) and Button Mash (Los Angeles, CA) before opening Bé Ù in February 2021. I also have experience as a private chef, private caterer, and event caterer over the last eight years. I am a graduate of The New School of Cooking Culinary School, and The New School of Cooking Baking and Pastry School. Prior to pursuing my culinary career, I graduated from UC Berkeley (Undergraduate) and the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (Graduate) and worked for over a decade in community development, worker rights and advancement, economic development, and environmental sustainability.



L: What is Bé Ù’s overall vision and philosophy?

UL: Bé Ù makes fresh and flavorful Vietnamese street food and comfort food from scratch, provides our employees with livable wages and professional development opportunities, and maintains affordable food options in our rent-controlled neighborhood.

L: Having moved to the US at a young age from Vietnam where you were born, how has that experience informed you as a chef and the food that you cook?

UL: Many of my earliest memories are food memories from Viet Nam, whether it be sitting around a table with my family, or eating on stools in crowded alleys and wet markets. The other prominent food memories are those at family parties in America where each family brought their own specialty dishes and everyone was always talking about food, whether we were eating it or not. All Vietnamese people seem to have strong food opinions and are not shy to share them, myself included! Many of the dishes at my restaurant are in some ways inspired by these memories or are attempts to chase the memories of the smells and textures and flavors from these moments.




L: How do you express yourself through your food? What do you hope people experience through your food?

UL: I am pretty much a huge nerd and have always been. Eternally curious and questioning. I like to visualize the chemical, physical, and biological processes involved in the preparation and cooking of each ingredient. I like to see it happening in my head before anything touches a knife or a pan. I also bake and cook so there’s an organized, measured and patient side to my cooking AND ALSO an improvisational controlled chaos side that I see as the yin and yang. 

My creative approach to food is as a conversation between myself, the ingredients, the cooking utensils, the cooking environment, and the guests I intend to feed. I like to use all my senses. Smell and sound are such critical aspects of cooking, just as much or more as the senses of sight, touch, and taste. I also like to say that Bé Ù’s food is “Born in VN. Braised in LA.” Los Angeles and the SoCal region – which I have adopted as my home away from Viet Nam – has always been such an inspiring, churning, dense, and thriving food region. It never ceases to amaze me how many more layers of amazing foodways and cultures I find when I peel one layer back. It truly inspires me everyday to create and contribute to this deep and rich local culture. 

I hope people find comfort and joy when they eat my food. It is such an honor and responsibility to make something that someone else ingests and internalizes. I hope during times of celebration and times of sadness and despair, that my food can provide some sort of nourishment for the body, the mind, and also the spirit. But mostly, I just want them to enjoy the food so much that the conversation stops and next time they look down, the food is all gone!




L: Your dedication to social justice and sustainability has been integrated into Bé Ù. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve accomplished this? Why is this important to you?

UL: Small businesses can have large and significant impacts on local communities. I believe Bé Ù’s leadership in promoting livable wages and professional development opportunities has contributed to the increased wages and pooling of tips for back of house workers. By incorporating social justice goals and sustainability goals into our bottom line, everything we do as a business seeks to meet these multiple bottom lines, not just the economic one. 

We also regularly support community based organizations, student groups, environmental justice organizations, LGBTQIA+ organizations, and worker organizations through donations and events. Additionally, we take care of our local unhoused communities as best we can by providing free complete meals daily for all those who come to ask. We love our local community and we believe it is our responsibility and mission to support its resilience.




L: As a queer Asian American, what has your self-discovery journey been like in terms of culture and identity?

UL: Being a left handed queer refugee/immigrant who learned English as a Second Language meant that I always had a clear understanding that I was often perceived as “other” or as atypical or as not likely to be accommodated. I certainly spent a lot of time trying to assimilate in my K-12 years. I learned to code switch at an early age. A chameleon in different contexts because even when I was within, something would happen or someone would say something that would push me to the outside or to the fringes. This was during the 90’s, before YouTube and social media, so I would seek out small groups of confidants, online message boards, events through word of mouth, zines, short little scenes in objectively bad movies, to find connections. 

This was also a point during the conservatism and anti-communism in the Vietnamese American community, and I made it a point to share my identity as a progressive social activist within the community, even if it came with significant social and sometimes physical risk. Over time, queers became cool, nerds became cool, progressives became more vocal in the Vietnamese community, and left-handed people were considered “creative.” Lol so maybe I just lived long enough and loud enough to get here. There were so, so, so many mentors, friends, family, teachers, leaders that supported me along the way, that showed me the support I needed to be as close to 100% myself in different moments.




L: What would your advice be to young queer people, especially those from Asian upbringings, who might be struggling with self-acceptance or acceptance from their families?

UL: I hope they can find someone or a few people in their families who they can turn to for support or advice. This was my cousin and my siblings for me. My sister was there when I came out to my parents because I asked her to be, and while the coming out process was excruciating, it would have been so much harder without her presence and support. In addition to tracking down sympathetic family members, I also seeked out queer communities through the 90’s rave/electronic music dance scene where there was “peace, love, unity, and respect.” Also queer communities that focused on daytime activities and activism and not just the typical parties. 

By doing things with my community and hearing others share their advice and stories, I became more and more comfortable in my own skin. At the end of the day, I advise anyone to try to wake up everyday and try to love their own truth and not try to fit into a box that they can never fit in. At the end of the day, you are the one living in your own skin every moment, so be kind to yourself through the internal and external changes that are bound to happen. It’s an ever changing world out there, so keep trying to build connections and invest in the work and the relationships that bring you joy, even if the path is windy.




L: What makes someone LANG / beautiful? (Lang means beautiful in Cantonese)

UL: I think it’s much more important for someone to feel beautiful than to be told that they are beautiful. I think someone who seems comfortable in their own clothes, in their own skin, is very LANG/beautiful.  Functionality is also very beautiful to me. My approach to fashion is very related to my approach to food. Form should always follow function, but as my Executive Chef from Cassia always reminded us, “People take their first bite with their eyes.” So form/function are really two sides of the same coin and I think when those two sides elevate each other, the end result is stunning. 

Lastly, I find that diversity is beautiful, surprises are beautiful. For example, the beauty of someone that aesthetically shakes me out of my internal world to focus on the world around me, even if I would not make the same choices myself, is the most appreciated form of beauty.



Photography: Rodrigo Ramirez / @rigoshotme




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