Washington Heavies Satisfy Their Hunger (Except for Power) at the Cafe of Vietnam Emigree Germaine
02/05/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
When Germaine Loc Swanson first arrived in Washington, D.C. from Vietnam eight years ago, she expected a certain amount of culture shock. What she didn't expect was that the capital of such an affluent nation would put up with such modest gastronomic attainments. Or, as she bluntly expresses it: "There was no good food here." She enlisted promptly in the cause of uplifting Washington cuisine, at first giving lessons and finally founding a new restaurant bearing her name. From its opening last September, Germaine's has been a triumph. Local critics were awed except for one complaint about the "atrocious" coffee. A claque of media notables, including John Chancellor, Gene Shalit, Victor Lasky, Ron Nessen and Sally Quinn, have given it word-of-mouth encouragements. The Walter Mondales have dropped by for dinner (preceded by the Secret Service), as have the Gerald Fords on a recent return to town.
One local columnist has proclaimed Germaine's "our very own Elaine's," referring to the Manhattan literary hangout. But New York-style snobbery is alien to Germaine's. There are no "in" tables in its two rooms (total capacity: 124) nor any "Siberia" to which nonentities are sent to munch in exile. "I act as though I am receiving people in my own home," explains the owner.
Prices compare with those in Washington's better Continental restaurants (dinner for two including wine: $35), and the fare can be said to be Asian ecumenical, blending the best of Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia, not to mention colonial French. "I don't precook or use a microwave to reheat," Germaine says. "I use only natural foods, no coloring or MSG, and I personally check and send back any ingredients that aren't first rate. I'd rather say we are out of something than use old foods."
Germaine, 42, the daughter of a once-prosperous Hanoi restaurateur, grew up coddled by maids and cooks. But after her family fled the Communists she served nearly 10 years as a South Vietnamese paratroop nurse before becoming a reporter for Reuters, NBC News and TIME. She met and married LIFE'S Dick Swanson (now a PEOPLE contributing photographer) in Saigon in 1969. With her son from a previous marriage, Philip, 17, the Swan-sons moved to Washington, where a second son, Justin, now 6, was born. In 1975 the relatives in America increased by a dozen when Swanson mounted a heroic one-man rescue mission to save them just before the fall of Saigon.
The family forms the nucleus of the restaurant staff, filled out with 16 other Vietnamese refugees. Germaine's mother, Tuyet Ngo, is in charge of spring rolls and shrimp cakes. Brother Albert keeps the books, assisted by brother Bernard who moonlights at a bank. Even son Justin likes to don toque and apron to peel carrots. Germaine is the weekend chef and does the dessert du jour. Her husband, a cook while in the Air Force, sometimes serves as greeter and sommelier.
For Germaine, her cafe is the culmination of eight years of catering and apprenticing part-time in other restaurants to analyze the difficult, failure-prone business. "The main thing is pleasing people," she's found, and that means 18-hour workdays. Her motto applies to staff as well as customers, and Germaine is not above whipping up a big plate of lasagna for kitchen consumption. Why pasta? "Because I know the people who work here get tired of always eating Oriental food."