Thursday, April 17, 2014
By JOHN ROLFE Staff Writer
Q: So, Yan, what's your job title?
Yan Lam offers a popular luncheon buffet at the Oriental Table, 106 Exchange St. in Portland. “I don’t mind the hard work at all,” he said.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
WHAT: Owner/operator, Oriental Table
ADDRESS: 106 Exchange St., Portland
SHOPTALK ALLOWS people to describe in their own words the rewards and challenges of their jobs. In doing so, they reflect the energy, imagination and hard work that characterize the workplace in Maine. The questions for Shoptalk are compiled by Press Herald staff writers.
DO YOU know someone who would make an interesting candidate for Shoptalk? Send your suggestions to email@example.com.
A: Bus boy! Ha ha!
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: We opened Nov. 13, 1995.
Q: What did you do before that?
A: I worked for Hannaford in South Portland, a warehouse job, doing physical work. I worked there for 14 years. A lot of weight-lifting. Back then, I was young and strong. Now I'm an old guy with physical problems and can't do it any more.
Q: What's your background?
A: I'm from Vietnam. I was one of the boat people. I landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1977 and was there for two and a half years. In 1980, the U.S. accepted me, so I was sent to another camp, in the Philippines, to learn the language and some skills, so that when I came here I'd be ready to go to work. And then I came to the U.S. on July 10, 1980. I had a sponsor in New York, but plans changed, and they brought me to Portland, Maine, instead. I became an American citizen in 1985.
Q: Things worked out pretty well.
A: It was scary when I got here, though. I didn't know anybody here. It took six months to get a job. My first job was at a tire retread company, Yudy's in Biddeford. I stayed there for two years and for a while was working two jobs.
Q: When did you learn to cook?
A: Well actually, to be honest with you, when I opened this place.
Q: You must have learned fast.
A: You have to, you know? I learned a lot by making myself dinner after the place closed. It was a good way to learn how to make things better. And I'm still learning.
Q: But what about the first menu?
A: What I did is, take the common dishes in the beginning. Our first menu was very small. And then I would create new side dishes, keep adding to it. Back then, some business people at City Hall tried to help us, making a big thing, cutting a ribbon -- they were very nice. I feel bad that we didn't do it. But we didn't want to make things seem too big, and then not be able to handle it. It took time, you know, a year or so, for us to get better. The first couple of years I was working seven days a week nonstop. After three years I started taking Sundays off, and cut back.
Q: But you still work a lot of hours.
A: Twelve to 14. Money, you can never have enough, but family life -- ! Some of the cooks have kids, and I have kids and I wanted to go home and see them. When I opened the place my daughter was 6 months old. Now, she's 15 and a half and can help me here. She wants to be a doctor. My son is at UNE, studying pharmacy.
To run a restaurant, you have to commit to it, and that meant a lot of time when my kids were young. But they understand what it takes to make it work, don't give me a hard time, and I'm very proud of them. I am a lucky guy.
Q: What would be your dream job?
A: Mmmm. It's hard to say, in the U.S. (In Vietnam) my family has a large recycling company, selling metal. If I could do that work, I would love it.
Q: Have you thought about a second location?
A: I'd love to. It would be just like a trophy. A few years ago, I looked at a place in Yarmouth on Route 1. It was a perfect location, but it didn't work out with the owner, who didn't want a restaurant there. This is a good location, too. A good lunch crowd, and many people picking up dinner to take home. Nights when there are concerts at the Merrill or the civic center, it's more crowded. But I don't mind the hard work at all. People in China and Vietnam call the U.S. "the golden mountain." If you come here and you're willing to work, you can get whatever you want and have a wonderful life.
Q: And you found that to be true?
A: Yes. Here, you have all kinds of opportunity. When I started the restaurant I didn't have any money, and the banks would not give me a loan. I used a credit card and took care of the bill later. I had saved some money, but back then my family had just come over and I had bought a second house, in 1993; that's why I did not have a lot of cash available. It's funny, when I came to the U.S. and saw people using a credit card, I didn't understand. How come they didn't have to pay, just show a card? Someone explained it to me, and I said, "Wow, great, it's a very good system here!"
Q: Are you getting rich?
A: Not yet! But I have more than when I came here -- $5. I have everything I want, and live comfortably, and I am happy.