A man 'so blessed': Vietnamese chef finds the LDS Church, his foundation and a desire to help others

Vietnamese chef finds the LDS Church,his foundation and a desire to help others

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Hai Fitzgerald answers the phone at Thyme and Seasons Restaurant in Bountiful on Monday, April 9, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

BOUNTIFUL — Hai Fitzgerald places a steaming dish of pasta in sauce in front of a customer at Thyme & Seasons Market Place. He turns away to check on another dish as the man takes his first bite. As the diner tastes the food, he exclaims, "Holy cow!"

Fitzgerald whips back around. "No!" he says, with mock sternness. "That is holy chicken, not holy cow!"

When it comes time for dessert, the diner says he is full and can't eat another bite. Fitzgerald offers him a flourless Belgian chocolate cupcake, which he accepts and eats.

"Whenever people are full, they always somehow have room for dessert," Fitzgerald observes.

Anyone who eats at Thyme & Seasons Market Place in Bountiful will want to meet the chef, and not just because of the food. Like the many ingredients that go into fixing one of his culinary creations, Fitzgerald's life experiences have combined to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Fitzgerald was born into a family of rice farmers in 1962 and spent his childhood in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. He met his stepfather, from whom the name "Fitzgerald" comes, when he was 7 years old. When he was 13, Fitzgerald's family came to the United States to escape the war and have access to a better education. His family settled in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

He has work experience in many areas, from an amusement park in high school to part-time jobs in restaurants, to technology, computers and auditing.

It was while working for the Internal Revenue Service that Fitzgerald first came to Utah. He was assigned to a temporary project in Ogden that was supposed to last six to seven weeks. "It turned out to be 6½ years," he said.

Before coming to Utah, Fitzgerald researched the people and the area. From an encyclopedia, he learned that the Salt Lake Temple took 40 years to build.

"Architecturally, that's got to be the greatest thing in the state of Utah to go look at," he said. "So I did!" His visit to Temple Square also showed him a sight he hadn't expected.

As a small child in Vietnam, Fitzgerald attended a private Catholic school. The school had "a statue that we spent a lot of time with," he said. In the North Visitor Center on Temple Square, he re-encountered a replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen's "Christus."

Fitzgerald joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1991. The church, he said, restored the sense of community he'd felt as a child.

"In Vietnam, I grew up in a village of 300 people, (then) I lived in D.C. with millions. I come out here, and I see the community that we have … 350 people in a ward boundary, and everybody takes care of each other. I have traveled this country, and I've traveled the world, (but) for the first time I have found that I am home."

After joining the church, Fitzgerald went to Washington, D.C., where he looked for the right woman to marry.

"It was really hard for me to find a sister that I could relate to," Fitzgerald said. "I am very Americanized, but I'm still very Asian."

Within four or five months, Fitzgerald met his future wife, Susan, who was serving a Vietnamese-speaking LDS mission in D.C.

"That was the click," he said. "I needed to run into somebody who was able to see the potential worth of a soul and at the same time see the Asian side that Heavenly Father intended," he said.

Susan, however, was entirely focused on her mission at the time. "We probably had very different perspectives initially at meeting," she said. "When I went home, that's when he started calling me. I don't even know how he got my phone number, to be honest."

Fitzgerald and Susan were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 13, 1996.

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