A Taste of Immigration One Chef’s Journey
of Fulfilling the American Dream.
By: Jacqueline Bostic McElroy
Photography by Julie Soefer
Many believe the American Dream isn’t just for Americans. They feel it also can be achieved by hard-working immigrants who bring culture, taste, nuance, and skill to all areas of the United States. Houston being no exception. Each part of the city has benefitted from the contributions of immigrants.
The River Oaks District is one of Houston’s favorite destinations for fashionistas and foodies. The upscale marketplace vaunts chic garments from some of the top clothing designers in the world as well as exquisite cuisine from many of its top chefs.
In amongst all the beautiful boutiques, sits Le Colonial Houston, a fine-dining Vietnamese restaurant that celebrates the spirit and flavors of 1920s French Colonial Southeast Asia. Its elegant décor, complete with large leafy tropical plants, period photography, overhead fans, and leather banquettes, captures a bygone era of sophistication and wealth.
Chef Nicole Routhier and Chef Dan Nguyen make up the Executive Chef Team. Together, they put their own spin on Southeast Asian culinary traditions creating dishes that superbly combine classic Vietnamese comfort foods with subtle hints of French-Asian cuisine.
Chef Routhier, who is also Le Colonial’s culinary director, has lived a life that epitomizes the American Dream. Born to a Vietnamese mother and a French father, Routhier grew up in Laos. When she was a child, her passion for cooking was cultivated in her mother’s restaurant. After Routhier’s mother remarried, the family moved to France. As her step-father was a Colonel in the United States Army, Routhier traveled often with her family. Although America was never a family destination, Routhier believes she was led to this country by fate.
Her first trip occurred when she accompanied her mother to the United States for cancer treatment. Routhier felt at home here. Because her stepfather was an American citizen, she was entitled to immigration benefits. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Routhier remained in New York and sought a career in the travel industry. After her mother passed away, she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a chef and quit her job to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York City.
Because she didn’t have the requisite cooking experience, however, Routhier was not admitted to the institution. Determined to one day be accepted by the CIA, Routhier sought out a chef’s position at any restaurant that would have her. After receiving several rejections, the strength and resilience she had inherited from her mother triumphed, and she was hired by a restaurateur in desperate need of a chef. A year later, her dream of being accepted to the CIA came true.
While attending school, Routhier read about New York Times food editor, Craig Claiborne’s concern regarding the lack of authentic Vietnamese food in New York. In response to the article, Routhier wrote to Claiborne asking if she could make him an authentic Vietnamese meal. He accepted and requested she prepare him a banquet-style meal.
Prior to Routhier’s graduation from the CIA, Claiborne shared this delightful experience in the New York Times. As a result, Routhier became an overnight sensation and received several offers to write cookbooks.
As it had before, fate once again directed Routhier’s path, and she assisted in the opening of a new restaurant. Her knowledge of running a kitchen and her ability to hold a successful opening, led Le Colonial founder, Rick Wahlstedt, and his partner, Joe King, to seek her assistance in opening Le Colonial New York. Once both restaurants were on their way, Routhier took time out to write several cookbooks.
When she and her husband moved to Houston she began teaching cooking lessons. Fate intervened once again when Wahlstedt and King called upon her to help them open Le Colonial Houston. This time she was welcomed to the team as a partner and culinary director.
Le Colonial is as diverse as Houston. A minimum of 10 different languages is spoken among its staff. This confluence of different cultures represents Houston’s acceptance of people from all nations as well as much of its growth. The unique cultural dynamics brought by immigrants from countries such as Mexico, Vietnam, India, Honduras, Philippines, China, Guatemala, Pakistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Canada, Korea, and many others has made Houston the most diverse city in the nation, according to A Profile of Immigration in Houston, the Nation’s Most Diverse Metropolitan Area, by Capps. Houston’s diverse population is symbolic of the wonderful opportunities and experiences the city offers. Immigrant contributions are a driving force in Texas’ economy. In 2011, according to Immigrants Drive the Texas Economy, by Beeson, Helmcamp, and Carna, $65 billion of the state’s economy was attributed to business earnings, salaries, and wages earned by immigrants.
Like Chef Routhier, many immigrants who have contributed to Houston’s economy possess a resilience and determination that allows them to succeed. Their pursuit of the American Dream is symbolic of the courage and strength of our forefathers. Foreign nationals may have a piece of the American Dream through non-immigrant visas or immigrant petitions. Regardless of the immigration status they choose, their choice to fulfill their dreams in Houston has made our city a cut above the rest. Houston is fortunate to have people like them, as well as those as talented and creative as Chef Routhier, bringing their formidable skills to the city and contributing to its own amazing journey.