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It All Started With 100 Boxes of Cookies

Food is anything but apolitical.

Vivi Nguyen, baker, chef, and owner of Radical Joy Bakery brings in all of her experiences and identities into her work and uses her platform and voice as a way to speak up against the violence committed against communities of color. Setting up shop in a cottage bakery for her baked good and a local bar for her Vietnamese brunch series, she greets a loyal base of customers eagerly awaiting her cà phê sữa đá carrot cake and bánh khọt. There is always a line of mask-clad individuals waiting their turn at these delectable creations patiently waiting and hoping their desired items do not sell out. Rebellious by nature, Vivi infuses her heritage and culture into her food to defy expected western conventions and norms.

I chat with Vivi for about an hour, even though we were only supposed to chat for 30 minutes, and had the incredibly difficult job of editing this conversation. If you’re interested in the full-length interview, you can listen to that here. In that interview, which is not covered here, you’ll hear about Vivi’s creative process, her advice for people hoping to start their own small business, a vegan cheesecake miracle, and so much more.

Photo via Vivi Nguyen.

What’s the inspiration behind your Radical Joy Bakery and how do you carry this inspiration throughout your work?

A lot of my inspiration actually comes from Black feminism and Black critical theory written by Black women, and specifically, the term Radical Joy was introduced to me through Adrienne Maree Brown who wrote the book called Pleasure Activism. But there are also other people like Audre Lorde and other critical theorists that I’ve learned about the term or the concept of what does it mean to be to invest, enjoy radically, or what does it mean to seek pleasure in a world that basically wants us to do things like work, be productive, follow the rules. It’s just a world that doesn’t really, necessarily encourage our joy.

I actually started the bakery because I was in just really dire straits in terms of my health, both mentally and physically. Sometimes I feel like I don’t really separate those things because I was in a long series of pretty abusive and exploitative work environments. And I just realized after a few years of doing that, that I could just not ever go back. I had already moved to New Orleans because I knew that it didn’t make sense for me to live a life where I was devoting all of my hours and energy to work and then just feeling incredibly unhappy, incredibly unseen, incredibly unrecognized in my workplaces. I actually started baking when I was 15 as a way to kind of cope with mental health issues and as a way to manifest something. I felt like I just needed to put something out into the world that was created by me that could be positive. So I really reflected back on 15-year-old Vivi and how I found that happiness, and I decided to start the bakery.

I’ve always loved working with my hands. I’m realizing more and more as I’ve gotten older that I’m a creative person, which wasn’t always something that I knew about myself. And I literally just started making cookies and basically saying, “Hey, I’m just making these cookies because I don’t want to live in a world that’s shitty anymore.” I just want to do something that makes me happy. And I hope that people would recognize that and understand that.

So I started making cookies and I offered shipping to people. Before I knew it, I had like 100 packages of cookies to ship all around the United States. And so that’s how Radical Joy Bakery really started. It started with, I guess, if we’re going to make it linear– I was really unhappy at my jobs. And then I left those jobs, and I wanted to do something that really did make me happy. And then a bunch of my friends supported me. And that’s what it is today.

You recently relocated from Oakland to New Orleans — what were some considerations that you took before moving there?

I visited New Orleans on a whim for my birthday. I don’t know when, maybe 2016 or 2017, and I wanted to visit New Orleans because I just knew that it was this place that was really different from the rest of the United States. And I’ll admit that I have a lot to learn, but there’s Creole culture here. There’s Cajun culture here. Jazz originated from here. The most originally American food in the world comes from New Orleans, and I was just always super fascinated by that. I also love things like the corny things that, of course, tourists like that I was attracted to, was like, “Oh, voodoo and tarot card readings and cemeteries and live music and all of that.” So I visited for my birthday a few years back, and I don’t know why, but I was just enamored specifically by the people that live here. They were very open to talking about their stories and their families and telling me where their favorite place to get this or that is. And I mean, I know a part of it is probably that they were entertaining me as a tourist. But another part of it was I could just sit on the street and talk to a stranger for half an hour. And that was not something that I ever really experienced when we were living in California. So, yeah, I just really felt like it was home and it felt like home. And now I’m realizing that there are a lot of commonalities between Oakland And New Orleans, which is very interesting.

I visited again a few years later. I felt the same way. I had tried to move to New Orleans once in the last few years after quitting my first real job after college. It didn’t work out. I didn’t get the job that I applied for. And then the pandemic happened. So, I was like, “Okay, I cannot afford to pay $2,600 for this one-bedroom apartment in Oakland anymore.” Even though I grew up in California, it really doesn’t feel like home. I don’t feel like I have a place here anymore. I no longer felt safe or like I could just be myself. And so, I took a chance. I’m like, “It’s the pandemic. I’ve been unhappy here for a few years now. I know that this is a place that I’ve wanted to live.” And so, before I actually left, I knew two people. I met two people that live in New Orleans. And they’re both women of color. One’s a black woman, and one’s a Vietnamese woman. And I called both of them to ask them about things like just honest concerns that I had. I’m like, “Would I be a gentrifier if I lived in this neighborhood? What can I do to not be that way? What are the community’s concerns about what’s happening in New Orleans right now?”

And I was really nervous about moving because I had seen gentrification happen in our neighborhoods back home. I really didn’t want to contribute to that. But I talked to both of my friends. And one of them is actually a native. And the other one had moved here about 10 years ago from New York. And they assured me that it’s not that New Orleanians don’t want people from other places to come here. They just don’t want them to come here and not respect the culture and the people. So that was my main consideration before leaving. And of course, there’s my partner who just kind of puts up with me. I literally was like, “I’m moving to New Orleans. You can come, or you can’t. But I’m leaving. That’s just what my heart tells me to do.” And so we took the chance. And last July, we got here in the middle of summer, in the middle of hurricane season, which was very interesting. But yeah, I feel like it’s my home now. I love it, even though I’m sure it’s a diluted version of what it’s supposed to be because of COVID.

Photo via Vivi Nguyen.

You’ve been there less than a year. But it seems like you’ve been building a lot of partnerships with other local businesses. Can you tell us how you formed these partnerships? And what sort of impact have these relationships had on your relationship with New Orleans?

As you know, Katrina hit New Orleans and we’re still seeing the effects today, even though a lot of it has been rebuilt. But because of that, a lot of corporations and bigger brands don’t want to come here and they don’t want to build. And there are parts of New Orleans which are essentially food deserts or food swamps. But because of that also, there are a lot of small businesses that are really old or that are really respected and appreciated by the community that have been allowed to persist, which is not what we saw in Oakland, right? Every day, I saw a mom-and-pop shutting down and then some Starbucks or something opening in its place. And as a newcomer, I think that that’s incredibly special. I mean, I know it creates something– it does create a difficult economic situation for the city as a whole. But I think that it creates something very special with the city where you have to care about what you put out. You have to care about how you treat people. You have to care about so many things.

The way that I’ve started basically partnering with people is that I would go to a business or I learn something about a business and I’m just curious. And I would go and I would be , “Okay, what is this about?” I would just message them and be like, “Hey, it’s the pandemic. I just moved here. I really love what you’re doing. Hopefully, one day we can meet up for a distanced coffee or a distanced walk.” And that’s kind of how some of those things have happened. I never really intended in the beginning to partner with people as business partners. I really just wanted to learn about what people were doing and I really wanted to learn about the city. And I don’t know. It’s just naturally happened. People are open because in this weird period of this COVID pandemic, there is so much innovation and ingenuity happening and people are willing to take chances to try something new because, as you know, small businesses have been wiped out because of the pandemic and people are trying to stay afloat.

You have used your business and platform to talk about social justice issues. Why was this important to you and how does it continue to inform your work?

I am somebody who can, on a daily basis, be pretty frustrated and angry about the world. I’m very open about who I am. So I grew up very poor, which I didn’t really understand until I was older. I was estranged from my family. I’ve sold drugs. I’ve done sex work. I’ve had to go through all of these things. And because of that, I don’t really see it as I have an obligation to be vocal about those things. I think it’s just that I personally understand what it’s like to be in situations where it really sucks. It feels like I’m oppressed. There’s nothing I can do. I’m trying my hardest. But it seems like it’s a hole that I can’t dig myself out of. And in those moments, I wish that somebody spoke up for me. I wish that things could have been different.

I’m incredibly lucky to not be in that situation anymore. I’m sheltered now, but I often feel like there’s a very fine line between where I am now and where I was back then, and I just don’t want anybody to feel that way. I don’t try to be social-justice-focused. I’m not trying to go out there and dig up stuff to talk about. I’m a person. And even though my bakery is, I guess to some people, a brand because it’s on Instagram, it’s me writing everything. It’s me experiencing everything. And there’s something that is really hard for me to disentangle between those two things.

I tried my best at first to keep those things separate because I wanted the bakery to be this place that inspired people to feel joy and to be happy and to disconnect from things that made them feel alienated or marginalized. But increasingly, I felt that there’s a way to be critical of what’s happening and to still find moments of joy. With the recent rise in AAPI hate. I learned that a lot of what’s happening has been happening, but our elders don’t speak up or our community doesn’t speak up. And I’m not criticizing the fact that they don’t do that. I understand that they do that because wherever we came from, there’s a legacy of, if you speak up, something bad happens to you, right? And so we’ve carried that with us here. But if somebody like me, who has the privilege to take up space and to scream at the top of my lungs, “Hey, this is happening. Hey, this needs to change.” If I can do that and I’m not going to have as negative of repercussions when that happens, I have nothing to lose. So really, it’s important for me to do that because I know what it’s like to be in a shitty situation, and I just want to make sure that with the privilege that I have accumulated now, that I speak on issues that people who are in those situations might not be able to speak on.

The thing that I’m focusing on most right now, where I’m turning my anger into something productive, is kind of undoing AAPI erasure by creating places for us to take up space. So the reason why I’m doing this Vietnamese brunch, which you may have seen that’s coming up in March, is because I’ve noticed that people kind of think that Vietnamese people or AAPI people are not really part of New Orleans. The New Orleans Data Center published a chart showing the demographics of the city and it was broken down into Black, white, Hispanic. Asian and Pacific Islander people were not even on that chart, and that’s a policy research group that is supposed to inform decisions that the government makes. So if we don’t exist on that chart, where do we exist in their decisions? And this just so happened to be timed in the same week that there were people sharing the stories of our elders being harassed, attacked, and murdered over Instagram and Twitter because the media wouldn’t cover it. And so I feel like those two things compounded for me. And I’m like, “Okay, number one, I think the media doesn’t want to cover it, because they don’t really care to explain what’s happening to us.” For some reason, they don’t think it’s important. And number two, right here in my own city where the policy research center is supposed to be, they didn’t even choose to include us on that graph. And I’m like, “What can I do as a little tiny bakery, as one person, what can I do?” And I was like, “You know what? We’re going to do a Vietnamese brunch series and I’m going to invite my friends to come and cook, sell their art, or just to come and enjoy a brunch with our food and we can take up space so that people know that we’re here.”

Photo via Vivi Nguyen.

What has been your relationship to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans since you have arrived?

The amount of interaction I’ve had with the Vietnamese community here is people our age or in their 20’s and some women in their 40’s as well, basically, just individual Vietnamese women that I kind of want to just make friends with because I need a community. So what I’ve learned is that there’s a Vietnamese population here. And I know this is obvious because we learned it in the news but I think hearing it from the people that live here is really important. And the younger generation kind of once they get a degree they leave because the Vietnamese population here is shrinking.

So people would rather go to Houston, or they would rather go to California, or New York, or Atlanta, or wherever it is. The Vietnamese communities are really scattered. So there are three main places around me that Vietnamese people live: Metairie, which is a suburb next to New Orleans, New Orleans East, and there’s the West Bank. And actually none of those places are concentrated in New Orleans proper. I’m still learning a lot. But what I do know is that I don’t think people should underestimate the power of Vietnamese women here, specifically, because there’s a lot of very strong Vietnamese women here who have very progressive ideas who want to see their community succeed and thrive in a very certain way.

What are some ways you, yourself, experience radical joy?

I try to hide it but I’m very indulgent. The reason why I think I make food the way that I do is because I love food so much. So the ways that I incorporate joy and play into my life, especially when I’m so busy is to try to build it in moments throughout the day. So whether it’s chasing down a food pop-up that I’ve been gawking over for a couple of weeks and chasing that down and eating that thing that I’m imagining. I feel really happy in moments like that. Or even when the sun comes out and I go sit on my porch, which is another huge reason I moved to New Orleans, which I did not mention. I am very much about the porch life.

Photos via Vivi Nguyen.

Sitting on my porch and drinking wine or tea or whatever and sitting there with my dog and looking out onto the street. I think I’m just kind of an old soul. I really just like doing simple things like that. And taking baths, which is very corny, but I do think that there’s something very meditative about it and fun. I like throwing the bath bomb in there and watching the bubbles fizz up. It’s just something silly, and I feel like a kid again.

I also love gardening, which is just putting my hands back into the soil and watching things grow. There’s all of these ways that I get a lot of joy and meaning out of life. And those are the moments that I really appreciate being alive, and I’m really glad that you asked me that.

You can get your hands on some baked goods by visiting Radical Joy Bakery or following them on Instagram.

Vina Vo is a strategic consultant, writer, and K-12 education professional living in the Bay Area. During her free time, she loves hiking, exploring new bookstores, meditating, practicing yoga, and cooking tasty meals. Above all, Vina consistently envisions a world where people can create their way to freedom. She is the co-founder of the Novalia Collective.

This article by Vina Vo appeared in diaCRITICS and has been republished with permission as part of an on-going collaboration between Saigoneer and diaCRITICS.

[Top image via Radical Bakery]

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