Growing up in an Asian household, many of us are familiar with, and can bond over, one common kitchen appliance: the rice cooker.
As a Chinese Canadian, not only did my family’s rice cooker make the perfect three cups of steamed white rice every time without fail, it had become a regular social practice in our everyday life.
Cold Tea Collective sat down with Trae Nguyen, founder of The Hustler’s Cookbook (HCB), to chat about the platform she created to empower the everyday hustler, while promoting the possibilities of feeding yourself right with just using a rice cooker.
“With a satirical approach to the 50’s housewife and Asian identity, The Hustler’s Cookbook is a place of empowerment.”Trae Nguyen, The Hustler’s Cookbook
Nguyen is a Vietnamese Canadian born and raised in Vancouver, now residing in Toronto. She is a freelancer in the world of media production, working on projects like The Kickback, a youth mentorship organization, and NBA player Serge Ibaka’s cooking show How Hungry Are You? She is also currently a member of Tier Zero, a production agency based in Toronto.
The values and traditions of her Vietnamese culture, along with her love for sports and interest in media, have all shaped her into the creative entrepreneur she is today.
The proud daughter of a Vietnamese refugee
As the proud daughter of a Vietnamese refugee, Nguyen grew up with the mentality of appreciating what she is given. She watched her father work endlessly to provide for their family. This mindset speaks volumes in the development of Nguyen’s strong work ethic, and has become a big part of her identity.
“When I was a kid, my dad really enabled my siblings and I to play sports [and] always bought us sneakers,” she said, admitting this is where her love for sneakers originates from.
Her father also gifted her a vintage 1998 Vancouver Grizzlies NBA Basketball Barbie doll. This was his way of showing her at a young age that there is room for women in sports, a field normally dominated by men.
However, what she didn’t see was the emotional trauma her father was carrying silently as an immigrant and a refugee. Eventually, he left her family when she was young, and returned to Vietnam.
Pursuing a career in sport media
In 2015, Nguyen moved to Toronto to study Sport Media at Ryerson University. Reflecting on her own experiences, what inspired her the most to enrol in the program was the way sports played a role in children’s development and in society.
“That program was predominantly boys and third- and fourth-generation Canadians,” Nguyen said. As one of the few POC students in the program, she oftentimes found herself feeling undervalued because of the way her peers responded to her ideas.
After visiting her father in Vietnam in 2019, Nguyen found some clarity in what she wanted to do for work. She was able to sit down with him and ask all the questions that had accumulated over the past 12 years of her life.
“If I’m working in media and digital spaces, it would be a waste if I didn’t use this opportunity to share the stories of first-generation Canadian children, our parents, and what they went through to come to Canada,” she said, inspired by her father’s story.
The humble beginnings of The Hustler’s Cookbook
During Nguyen’s first year of university, she found herself getting home at 2 a.m. most nights due to work, often missing dinnertime at her residence cafeteria. Eventually, her mother suggested buying a rice cooker so she could make food for herself in her dorm room.
Before she knew it, she was making congee every night at 2 a.m. She soon realized she could add anything to the dish, such as chicken and eggs.
“What else can I make in this rice cooker? If you think about it, it’s just a body of heat,” Nguyen said, enthusiastically.
She started experimenting with different foods – from soup, to chili, to pasta, and even cakes – in this single kitchen appliance. She even began hosting rice cooker parties in her dorm room, making everyone food at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. during exam season.
“Hey, this is my way of taking care of myself,” she thought one night, after making herself a meal in her rice cooker at 4 a.m. That thought made her happy.
“Food is a form of confidence – making yourself food, feeding yourself well,” she said.
In 2016, one of her class assignments was to create an online brand for herself. This inspired her to start making rice cooker videos.
Empowering the everyday hustler
In 2017, one of her videos from the assignment surpassed 100K views and people began to request for more rice cooker recipes. What started off as a simple school assignment inspired her to turn it into a passion project.
“I could really make this into something,” she thought, after sifting through the positive and negative comments of the video.
She spent four months brainstorming the meaning behind HCB, its execution, and the visual identity. She settled for a vintage aesthetic, calling back to a time when women were seen as house ornaments in the 1950s, while addressing North America’s long history of racial injustice towards immigrants and BIPOC. Nguyen’s goal for HCB is to reclaim the culture and traditions stripped away by oppressors through food, and embrace it.
She also started working on paid collaborations with brands such as Foot Locker, Footaction, and CBC. For brands that primarily revolved around pop culture, it gave her the opportunity to speak about her culture and identity through food. And working with CBC – a broadcasting platform that is white-dominated – has helped promote Asian representation and diversity overall on their platform.
Her current and future projects
Food provides such an inviting and intimate setting, and Nguyen wants to promote and celebrate the different cultures by creating a platform for people to share. She emphasizes the importance of embracing everyone’s culture and focusing on what’s already good.
Additionally, Nguyen wants to help spark kids’ interests in production and the arts, a field seldom in the spotlight in schools. As a member of The Kickback, she is passionate about working with youth in the space of creativity, sneakers, and character building.
Her goal is to combine her involvement with The Kickback and HCB to create food and cooking programming for youth, encouraging them to share their cultural identity and traditions through food.
She is reminded that everything she does stems from 1) being the child of a refugee, and 2) being a woman working in a field that’s dominated by men.
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Nguyen has been spending much of her time working on HCB. Her favourite dish to make in the rice cooker is pho, the hearty Vietnamese noodle soup.
She is currently working on a fun business venture selling sushi bake – a deconstructed version of sushi – in the Toronto area. As she continues to explore entrepreneurship opportunities through her rice cooker, she is also building her blog The Fridge to share stories about food and its relationship to personal identity, culture, and memory.
“As long as we try every day, seek what we love, and follow through with our ideas, that’s what’s going to bring us one step closer to clarity,” she said.
Making Asian American media
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