Through cooking, Kim wants to do the same for family and customers alike: make them feel at home.
This is inarguably the heart of Bicycle Banh Mi, and you can taste it in everything. The signature flavor – described by Kim as a little bit sweet, not too salty, asking to be savored – is the product not of recipe hand-downs or culinary school, but of decades spent living and experimenting with food in Vietnam, across the U.S. and in California.
Growing up in the Vietnamese countryside, Kim ate primarily simple, green foods. For one, her mother’s cooking style resembled a Chinese approach of selecting ingredients based on their effect on the body. As she described, “Nutrition for yourself first, she didn't care about the taste.” More so, limited money meant that the majority of ingredients were picked exclusively from her aunt’s land nearby. It wasn’t until coming to the Bronx at 15 that she had the opportunity to cook with more diverse ingredients.
While living in New York and across the U.S., Kim accumulated a wealth of knowledge and advice on food from her friends, all of which she continues to adjust to her own style. She has two books of recipes, but clearly it’s more about what she does with recipes than how they read. It’s vital for her to cook ingredients individually – this is why the pork on the banh mi sandwich can be served with rice, why it’s served hot, and even why Kim is reluctant about training new people to do what she does. A culinary attention to detail is what contributes to the comforting element; it’s key for Bicycle Banh Mi.
“I listen to my friends and people when i go to a market, and say "how do you feel when you cook this one?” I have to throw a lot of ingredients when i listen to them, and try it, and it's not my dish,” she says. “In the end, i figure out my flavor and my dish.”
Pinpointing when Kim first fell in love with cooking proves somewhat difficult. While she remembers making a classic egg roll for her family in the Bronx decades ago – salt and pepper marinate, pork and vermicelli noodle inside, deep fried, loved by everyone – she recalls that she wasn’t able to fully dedicate a great amount of time to cooking at that point. Instead, this culinary opportunity revealed itself in New Jersey – after she started a family – and continued when she moved to the agriculturally and culturally bountiful California.
“I felt like I needed to make a different dish every day, or have a specialty,” she says on the move to California.
The type of food served at the window ultimately began with her daughters – Emily, Sarah, Jessie and Michelle. Wanting to feed them something that was healthfully and flavorfully sustainable on a daily basis, she fused her own love for flavor with her mother’s priority of health, all the while exploring new ingredients in California. “Now that I’m older, I feel like my mom is right," she recalls "You want health when you eat. You want to feel good.”
Raising her output to the level of small business has posed challenges, but the only difference now is that it’s available to a much larger audience. What makes the approach and the flavor so special – and the cooking process impassioned – has remained, unadulterated.
“When I cook the food, I'm thinking about my family eating. I’m not thinking about the customer. Customer and family are the same. My feeling when I cook, I put that into the food,” she says, yours truly. “When you eat, you feel like home.”