Cookbook author turns adversity into tasty career
By Lou Fancher
Author and food blogger My Nguyen's list of recommended kitchen activities is missing the technique she uses most often: "pluck."
The 35-year-old Brentwood resident has overcome life's lumps with tenacity, and recently released her first cookbook, "My Healthy Dish" (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99). Born in 1980 in Vietnam, living for one year with her family in a refugee camp in the Philippines before arriving in the United States and locating in Los Angeles, Nguyen's family was extremely poor but never lacking in love. Her parents spoke little English and worked in the textile industry. Her mother eventually became a licensed manicurist and opened her own shop.
Nguyen as a young adult overcame poverty, driving herself despite loathing homework to earn a college degree, establish a career and with her husband, Harlen Morales, purchase their first home. But through it all, stress and fad diets accumulated, lurking like grim shadows in her daily life.
And then the hurdles returned.
She and her husband lost their jobs and shortly thereafter, their home. Living with her parents, the young couple discovered Nguyen was pregnant with twins -- Shayna and Kiera, their daughters, now age 7. Through those difficult years Nguyen directed her dissatisfaction into denial: fad diets, selling the girls' baby clothes in a garage sale to earn money instead of getting a job, buying an iPhone and downloading Instagram.
The last move, as fate would have it, was serendipity in a cellphone.
"Being Asian, it's intrinsic in my DNA to take pictures of everything," she writes in the introduction to her cookbook, a collection of more than 85 family recipes.
Using $1,500 she borrowed from her mother, Nguyen has built those early images of meals she prepared intoMyHealthyDish.com.
The online site she began in 2012 with 500 viewers bounced to 30,000 in its first three months and now boasts over 1 million followers.
The site offers straightforward nutritional advice -- eat foods that someone living 100 years ago would recognize, is just one example -- that appeals to consumers caught in today's dogmatic foodie culture.
"I feel that everything happens for a reason," Nguyen said. "If I didn't grow up poor, lose my job, lose my house, get pregnant with twins and more, I wouldn't know the value of cooking at home. Fate gives you opportunity to make a choice."
It also gives a person the chance to fail, something Nguyen says she did many times, even after her Instagram success turned her into an online celebrity. A healthy lifestyle challenge she sent out as "the next big thing" had not one person sign up.
An e-book she called "My Daily Diet" hardly sold.
"I learned that without its own website page, a description and proper marketing, only a handful bought it. We fixed it, but it was a hard lesson learned."
Her next idea was for a kids' cookbook she wanted to write in part because her eldest twin, Shayna, is a picky eater.
"I wanted to help parents because I was going through the same thing as any parent. It was ironic for a food blogger; the battle I had to get her to eat vegetables every day. The Butternut Mac and Cheese was developed for her. Foods that she loved, especially the Cauliflower Tater Tots -- that was the origin of the cookbook."
After meeting with publishers, Nguyen accepted that a kids' cookbook was too niche, but refused their efforts to have her instead write a diet book. She chose Skyhorse Publishing because it bought into her family cookbook idea and says she hasn't regretted the decision for a moment.
The book gives readers a breezy, conversation-style glimpse into her daily life and a short chapter on healthy foods before diving into recipes for breakfast, lunch, regular and slow cooker dinners, smoothies and desserts.
Tips and time-saving meal prep advice are streamlined, often emphasizing health or cost savings.
All but the photos of Nguyen with her family are taken by the author. "I bought an old Canon Mark II and taught myself how to use it," she said.
Writing, she adds, was arduous. "It sometimes took me an hour to write a paragraph. I'd much rather be in the kitchen."
But the pleasure of getting out her messages outweighs the humdrum of authoring a cookbook.
That includes articles about genetically modified foods making people afraid of fruits and vegetables; obesity being the problem to tackle first before GMOs; unhealthy diets; how having pizza now and then won't kill you; families who don't cook anymore and rely too often on packaged food, and more.Nguyen no longer watches food shows like Rachel Ray's "30 Minutes," an early inspiration. She's too busy with recipes "always flying in my head," a business to run, two hungry girls, a million followers clamoring for her next photo and a husband who doesn't cook.
"We run My Healthy Dish together and that's working out, but he once made turkey burgers and didn't cook them enough and I got food poisoning. Fortunately, he's meticulous about cleaning up after meals, so there's balance."