Some of us want to perform on stage, while others would rather coordinate the performance. Mimi Dabbagh has excelled at August Moon by selflessly setting the table with the timeless cuisine of business partner Peng Looi. Now, digging a little deeper, we see she has a powerful legacy all her own.
To dine out in Louisville is to sample a beautiful mosaic of food, sourced from a bountifully diverse planet, to be shaped and purposed by the skill of human minds and hands. It is important to know the names of the people who feed and serve us, and deservedly so – names like Peng Looi. Looi’s dishes were featured on the very first Food & Dining magazine cover in 2003. He is recognized in America and abroad both as a chef and as a tireless advocate of culinary education and charitable causes.
During three decades at August Moon Chinese Bistro, and later Asiatique Restaurant, Looi has helped pioneer an edible genre, one enjoying such a wide degree of acceptance today that far-flung corporate restaurant chains are built entirely around it. Call it Chinese with Southeast Asian influences, or pan-Asian, or Asian fusion; according to Looi himself, skeptics originally called it “con-fusion.” Just know that the planet has embraced Looi’s vision, and his kitchen creations have long since ceased being derived from Asia alone. The cross-cultural value of deliciousness without borders is a concept Mimi Dabbagh still refers to as a “melting pot.”
“The way Chef Looi cooks shows the influence of Southeast Asia,” says Dabbagh. “It’s not only Chinese – it’s more like Asian, then a Thai background, and then a Malaysian background, a Vietnamese background – then Indian. There are a lot of Indians in Malaysia, too.”
At this point, you may be asking, “But who is Mimi Dabbagh?”
She’s someone you should know, too. Since 1987, Dabbagh has been Looi’s co-owner and business partner at August Moon, and yet 30 years after the eatery’s inception, she’s almost unGoogleable, having consistently avoided the limelight in favor of tending to the less glamorous aspects of restaurant ownership. “Chef Looi is like the front man; I’m behind the scenes,” says Dabbagh. “It’s all right, because most people aren’t so interested in the owner. They’re interested in the chef and the food.”
Maybe so, but behind every great restaurant there are numerous stories worthy of telling, and Mimi Dabbagh’s is a tale untold far too long. It’s about melting pots and managing behind the scenes; remembrance and independence; mentoring and family. It’s about maintaining one’s good humor and grace amid the challenges, consolidating and transcending, and preserving tradition by expanding it. As always, the logical place to start is the beginning.
The way from Tan Son Nhut to Beargrass Creek
I’d like readers to establish a mood.
Let your minds wander back in time to simpler and less complicated days of youth – middle school, perhaps. If you’re like me, you remember almost nothing about middle school. You slept through class, maybe played sports, and rode to the mall with your parents, because you were too young for a driver’s license. As adolescents, our brains are still developing. The early teen years can be an emotional and paradoxical roller coaster, but we usually move past it soon enough, leaving a handful of sepia-tinged recollections, trip-wire love songs and little else.
Next, imagine that as your 7th grade year is approaching, you suddenly are compelled to depart your country of birth, where the chaos of a geopolitical endgame threatens your settled existence. You’ll be leaving behind family, friends and everything familiar from childhood for a journey into the unknown, with no guarantee of returning home or seeing your loved ones again.
This was Dabbagh’s experience in Vietnam, her place of birth. It was 1975, and more than three decades of war were drawing to an inexorable close.
A succession of destructive conflicts, first with Japan, then France and finally America, had divided the Vietnamese people. Unfortunately for Dabbagh’s family (she was Mimi Ha then), they were situated in South Vietnam, which was shortly to become the losing side.
Along with an older sister, this sister’s husband and their two-year-old child, Dabbagh was airlifted from Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – along with thousands of others in similarly dire straits, just hours before the city surrendered to the North. Sadly, her parents and seven other siblings stayed behind in a newly unified Vietnam, albeit under the banner of communism. No one knew what might happen next.
These four Vietnamese refugees first went to the Philippines for processing, then to a holding camp in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In due time, they arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where Dabbagh went to live with an older Presbyterian couple who’d volunteered through their church to house immigrants in need.
Happily, they proved to be ideal, nurturing foster parents, and in Dayton, Dabbagh finally was able to resume her interrupted studies, though with only a scant grasp of the English language and as the only Asian face in her class. She was all of 13 years old, and she didn’t stop to reflect. Rather, she got on with her life.
A scant 12 years later, Dabbagh and Looi opened August Moon Chinese Bistro on Lexington Road in a small, nondescript building with only 15 tables, located adjacent to the restaurant’s large, modernistic, high-ceilinged current home, which dates to 2002. The pair’s founding mission at August Moon was Asian-style culinary multi-culturalism, or Dabbagh’s melting pot metaphor, which was an idea that flowed naturally from their own kaleidoscopic backgrounds of synthesizing personal experiences and transcending borders.
Looi hails from Malaysia, where food is a mélange drawn from the country’s ethnic composition of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous peoples. The French cultural presence from colonial times remained prevalent in South Vietnam when Dabbagh was a child, and her paternal grandfather was from India.
Dabbagh and Looi absorbed these and other inspirations, taking differing paths to America, then coinciding as students in Louisville during the early 1980s. She was in pursuit of a marketing degree at Sullivan College, and he was studying engineering at the University of Louisville’s Speed School. Presciently, they met on the job.
“We both were in college when we worked at Oriental House,” Mimi explains. “Just servers, trying to make ends meet – very tough; you never see a rich student! We worked all the time.”
While the budding Malaysian engineer was learning how to cook professionally and beginning to feel the pull of an entirely different career in the kitchen, the young lady from Biên Hòa pursued her complementary ambition. Dabbagh wanted to own, operate and manage a restaurant, and toward this focused end, her apprenticeship was served in a half-dozen Asian restaurants around town: Oriental House, Emperor of China, House of Dragon, Golden Dragon and House of Hunan.
“There’s a lot of Chinese restaurant history in Louisville. I worked at them and managed them, and I learned how to do everything, because I wanted to be my own boss. I was very young, but they were willing to teach me.”
In due time, August Moon became Dabbagh’s and Looi’s first restaurant venture, and the sum of what they had learned. Like so many other start-ups, it was launched with grit, sweat equity and too little capital. “We started from scratch,” she remembers. “It’s hard when you first open. You’re scrambling.”
At August Moon’s inception, one of Dabbagh’s restaurateur mentors recommended the services of a New York-based Chinese chef who could come stay a while and get her restaurant off the ground. The deal was arranged, and all she knew was to pick him up at Standiford Field, leaving one small detail to be resolved.
“I said to Looi, we don’t know what he looks like,” she laughs. “Do we just look for an Asian man? Looi thought about it and said yes, we’ll take a sign saying, ‘Chef from New York’ and ask any Asian man we see. The first Asian man we saw looked very lost, and that was him.”
Obviously, August Moon struck a vital chord in Louisville and has been here ever since, though it’s probably true that 30 years in the restaurant business is 130 in “normal” human years. Consequently, a vital facet of August Moon’s longevity has been a pragmatic, consistent, no-nonsense division of labor.
Peng Looi describes it as symbiotic: “We’ve been partners from day one. She has her strengths and weaknesses, and I have my strengths and weaknesses. We just play off each other. She takes care of the front, and I take care of the back.” “The person behind the scenes is sometimes like a producer,” adds Dabbagh, “and you’re never going to be on TV, but you make it work. It’s the backbone of the business behind the scenes.”
At this juncture, it should be stated that making a restaurant work “behind the scenes” isn’t a red carpet job. It’s about payroll, clogged toilets, accounts receivable, broken light fixtures, insurance policies, employee satisfaction, product shortages, social media fixations, and answering the phone at 3:00 a.m. – always 3:00 a.m. – when the alarm goes off because a ceiling fan or passing truck somehow tripped the mechanism. Small business owners grow into it, and they get used to it. At times, they remember how pleasant it was to have no responsibilities.
“I knew how to manage other people’s restaurants, but when it comes to yours, it’s different,” Dabbagh observes. “It’s always so different when you work for someone. You think it’s so easy, but when you are your own boss, that’s when the headaches come.”
Overlapping cultures and complementary curries
The day I met Dabbagh to chat at August Moon was a typically scorching and humid Ohio Valley afternoon. Relief gratefully arrived in the caramel-colored form of a creamy-sweet iced Vietnamese coffee, an obvious legacy of the French colonial presence in Vietnam, along with baguettes, beignets, palmiers and a form of chili sauce strikingly like that served in France’s North African colonies.
It’s also another clue that Dabbagh’s melting pot began right at home. “My grandfather was Indian by birth. He enlisted in the French military and became a French national. When he came to Vietnam (after World War I), he met my grandmother, and she had my dad. So, my dad was a French citizen. Then, my grandfather went back to India when my father was two years old, and my grandmother raised my father alone in Vietnam.”
Dabbagh’s grandmother carried on, marrying two other times, though Vietnam’s incessant strife claimed both husbands. “Visiting my grandmother, I’d see photos of all these men on the wall and ask, who are these men? ‘They’re your grandfathers,’ she would say.”
As a woman, mother and restaurant owner, Dabbagh’s life can be surveyed in terms of recurring motifs, like the melting pot, the producer’s chair and an independence of spirit harnessed to a goal of teamwork. However, ultimately it’s about family.
Maybe this is because Dabbagh left Vietnam so young and didn’t see her family for so long, a situation that finally was resolved in 1990 when she and her sister joined to sponsor their elderly parents and all seven of their siblings to reunite in the United States, fully 15 years after the airlift.
Married in 1947, Dabbagh’s parents had been together 70 years when her father died in April 2017 at the age of 95. She refers to him as her rock, as well as being a rich source of information about Vietnamese history. Once in Louisville, her father reconnected with his own melting pot.
“My dad was infatuated with curry spices because of his father’s background,” she says. “When he came to live with me, I took him to Shalimar – it was like it brought back his childhood. He was so happy just to eat the Indian food.”
Curry almost functions as the Zen running through this narrative. When Dabbagh’s husband Reza, an immigrant from Iran, retired from his job as project engineer for the city of Louisville, the Dabbaghs promptly purchased Saffron’s Persian Restaurant in downtown Louisville, where he inaugurated a second career as a restaurant owner/manager. “When I go over to his place (Saffron’s), it’s the Middle Eastern spices, and over here it’s the Asian spices, but what we have in common is the curry.” Fusion, again.
A restaurant at 30 and beyond
So, 11,000 days later, how’s business at August Moon?
“It’s the same business, more or less,” says Peng Looi. “We go through the same issues, and it’s getting more and more challenging with more competition for customers’ dollars, and the labor pool … ”
I posed the same question to Dabbagh.
“After 30 years, I guess we’re doing okay. Looi and I are opposites, and I guess they say opposites attract – he’s very different from me, but he’s very good at what he does, and I’m very good at what I do. It’s a long road to get here; as you know, the restaurant business isn’t as rosy as everyone says. It’s very tough. If people don’t see behind the scenes, they can’t know what it’s like to own a restaurant.”
It’s been an eventful road for Mimi Dabbagh, from youthful displacement to professional achievement. She has traveled this often challenging path with determination and resilience, never lacking an upbeat sense of optimism.
The melting pot as art of the possible? It makes perfect sense to me, and it should to you as well. After all, Mimi Dabbagh has lived it.F&D