Sandy Ho is a chef, food stylist, and the founder of Sanditas– a backyard dinner series turned nostalgic food brand. Over pork kimchi dumplings, mushroom larb and sliced blood oranges, we talked via Zoom about Sandy’s decision to pursue food out of art school, adapting during the pandemic, and her famous rainbow dumplings.
I was born in Australia to parents who fled the Vietnam war. Growing up, food was always at the core of our family. We really only had each other. It was every family dinner, every family lunch, every time family friends would come over. It’s very much the love language I grew up with.
If we were sick, mum would make us soup. Food was medicine. And for mum, seasonality was a huge part of curing what was going on. It definitely translated into the way I see food and the way I've eaten my entire life. We were never allowed to leave the table with anything left on the plate. My dad was always conscious of food waste and my mom was so creative she would pull together meals from scraps. I don’t think she’d ever cook the same meal twice apart from Vietnamese staples.
“I wanted to be an artist. I never saw cooking and being a chef as a career trajectory for me."
Alongside that, I grew up very creative. I was always painting and drawing. I was always creating my own imaginary worlds with my brothers, and for a long time, I thought I wanted to be an artist. I never saw cooking and being a chef as something that could be a career trajectory. So I went to art school. I think I knew that food was still a part of what I wanted to do but didn’t know how to get there.
Art materials were very expensive and that led me to kitchen work. Cooking had a natural pull. I was so attracted to this very familiar, nostalgic, family kitchen environment. In contrast, sitting in galleries all day and waiting for people to comment on your work was just gut wrenching. It wasn’t the experience that I had glamorized in my own mind. In the end, I made the major pivot and decided I’m just going to do food.
"One day I threw all of it up in the air and booked myself a sailing trip in Italy. "
I was the head chef at Shebeen for a couple years before I decided ‘okay, this is looking great and everything’s perfect, but something needs to change.’ One day I threw all of it up in the air and booked myself a sailing trip in Italy. I fell in love with that way of living and learning about food in the world. I wanted to learn about food the way that I knew about food, which is from my parents. I missed that tactility, and I rediscovered it again when I was out on the water. I ended up sailing all over the world. I did that for two and a half years. And then four years ago I landed in LA and I just dove into private work.
I was cooking a lot of keto and gluten-free diets, or whatever my clients wanted me to cook. But I missed my style of food – family style food that's unctuous, bright, spicy, and unapologetic. So I started Sanditas. It was a backyard dinner series. I started making rainbow dumplings out of purple cabbage, beet, carrot and spinach juice. It was all about what things I enjoyed doing that I could bring to these dinners. We got more and more traction on our rainbow dumplings and the cakes that I'd been making.
"Covid allowed me to dream bigger than I thought I could."
A few months after that, the pandemic hit, and I pivoted to an online menu I posted weekly. I had all this time to sit with the food that I’d been craving and thought, ‘I’ll make food for people in an unknown time.’ This, for me, was comfort food – rice, curry, pho... dumplings!
Covid allowed me to dream bigger than I thought I could. Through the eyes of Sanditas, it’s really allowed me to explore what it's like to communicate through food online with my community. I was able to bridge that gap and feed people outside of my private work and in turn, own being multi-hyphenated and housing all my interests under one roof.
"The ability to sit at the same table and eat the same food no matter where we’re from. That is home for me."
Nostalgic cooking for me is everything; from the style of cooking or the way that you remember to apply something. It could be wanting fish sauce to evoke a feeling of comfort and love and being taken care of - and it all comes from the nostalgia of being with my mum in the kitchen. Nostalgic cooking brings people home. It creates a connectedness, it allows all of us to step outside ourselves and our own cultures, upbringings and ways of eating to connect purely in what the food is, as it is. And I guess in turn that’s what brings us all home - the ability to sit at the same table and eat the same food no matter where we’re from. That is home for me.
Lunch is my biggest meal of the day. It's usually rice with some kind of curry, a beautiful piece of meat or some sautéed mushrooms. Oh, and lots of lime and lemon and fresh herbs! Every time I get to plating, I’m always like more, more, more! Get the herbs on there! Sometimes I like to roast a chicken and the bones will become broth or soup and I’ll have the chicken with potatoes, or rice, or noodles. You have to be the best restaurant you’ve ever been to, because if you’re not, you’re never going to want to eat your food again! I love cooking for myself, that’s really where nostalgia comes in.
"There have been moments where someone has seen me and assumed that I'm not the chef, that it’s someone else who is male and white."
Being Asian, Vietnamese and a female in the food industry is part of my story and always will be. But it’s also important for me to recognize my privilege. What I want to highlight is what I have, what I’m working toward, what I’ve built, and how I can give back. Now is such a powerful time. There’s so much conversation and support which can only help everyone build confidence in their own language around racism and really truly being who they are.
There have been many moments where I have been undermined or someone has seen me and assumed that I'm not the chef, that it’s someone else who is male and white. But for the most part, I have been incredibly lucky to be around and collaborate with people who really see my food and what I do. There's a level of respect that comes from that, which I think is rare. I haven't been more proud to be a Vietnamese, female chef.
“I’m not your typical chef - but what’s typical now, you know?”
I’m not your typical chef - but what is typical now, you know? From the way I dress, to the way that I treat my staff, to the way that we work together - the construct of Sanditas is anything but traditional. It’s my way of changing the game and changing what the food industry can look like. And that’s something I take very seriously and am very proud of how far I've come personally and how I can hopefully be an example for others.
I don't know how long the rainbow dumplings are going to be in the spotlight for. What I do know is that Sanditas as a concept is going to last as long as I'm cooking and hopefully beyond that. My hope is having all the different facets of my work and my life under one roof. I’d love to be able to have a food styling studio, a Sanditas factory and a long table down the middle where I can host parties, have pop-ups and collaborations - a space where other multi-hyphenated people/chefs/ creatives can come and feel into that and see that it’s possible. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. I’m more inspired than I ever have been, so all I can hope for is to continue feeling this way and whatever it eventually turns into, and I hope that the story continues.
Words by Emilie Swan, photography by Elena Mudd