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

When he and his wife first moved into the Bountiful 45th Ward in the Bountiful Utah East Stake, where he currently serves as the ward employment specialist, Fitzgerald said, most of the leadership callings were filled. He felt "so safe, it's not even funny" as he sat listening to the bishop announcing callings, because he'd never received his Eagle Award or even been in Scouting.

"The chance of me getting into the Young Men was slim to none," he said.

Two weeks later, Fitzgerald said with a laugh, he was registering with the Boy Scouts of America for part of his new calling as the ward's Young Men president. At the time, he was concerned that his unfamiliarity with the program would make it difficult to be an example and an effective leader. That worry disappeared, he said, when his bishop pointed out that his life had, in a way, perfectly prepared him.

Fitzgerald reflected on his upbringing in Vietnam and knew that his bishop was right. "The first 13 years of my life, we camped every day. We got to get our water, take a bath in the river, catch everything we eat, pick our own wild gardens … That's one of the things I didn't get about the church — what's with the camping thing? Because the first 13 years (of my life), every day was camping."

In 2000, the youths in Fitzgerald's stake were going to Wyoming for a pioneer trek. More than 250 people needed to be fed for three days, and the man in charge of food called Fitzgerald for help. Fitzgerald looked at the budget and planned a menu.

Under his care, the young "pioneers" ate marinated, slow-cooked ham; gourmet burgers that were the same type he'd served at a three-star restaurant; and French baguette sandwiches wrapped in foil for when they all crossed the Sweetwater River.

"Needless to say, it was a very successful trip," Fitzgerald said happily. "And what they told me was, 'Brother Fitzgerald, you should open a restaurant and we will all come to it!'"

It wasn't the first time Fitzgerald had entertained the idea of his own restaurant.

"From the time I met him, he has always liked to cook," Susan said. "It comes very naturally to him. He always talked about wanting to open a restaurant. We talked about it, and he looked for different jobs. … (Then) I said, 'You know what, if you really want to do this restaurant, do it now before you get too old,' and so he did, and here we are."

Fitzgerald opened Thyme & Seasons Market Place in Bountiful on Aug. 27, 2008. The building was originally a Circle K in 1976 and most recently a Blockbuster video rental store, until Fitzgerald began remodeling it in 2007.

"I have a lot of skill," Fitzgerald said. "I built all the furniture in the restaurant, painted the building, did the drywall, the welding and a lot of construction."

Yet he didn't brag about any of it; he simply stated that he has learned to do so many different types of work so that he would never be limited by what he can and can't do.

For the restaurant's name, Fitzgerald wanted something unique, clever and representative of what he was doing there. Thyme is an ingredient, and the menu changes with the seasons as different fresh ingredients become available. The name is also a nod, Fitzgerald added, to the early LDS church newspaper "Times and Seasons."

In his restaurant, Fitzgerald gets to put his years of culinary experience and travel into practice. His menu is influenced by cooking styles such as French, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and American. Much of his cooking involves a spice rub that captures the flavor of the American Southwest and was 25 years in development.

To him, cooking is not a job; it's a pleasure and a love.

Fitzgerald teaches cooking classes, and he estimated that between the Relief Society, Mutual and singles ward activities, he has more than 500 students each year.

For two years, Fitzgerald has volunteered for the Davis School District's STEPS program through Vista School. He teaches 19- to 24-year-old students with mental disabilities two days a week for about three hours at a time.

"Not one person I've ever met is perfect, and these kids are just as important as any other people and they should have the same opportunity as everybody else," Fitzgerald said.

Outside of the restaurant, Fitzgerald enjoys fishing, hunting, crabbing, photography and spending time with his family.

He says his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, can cook everything he can cook. His 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, is a straight-A student and his 3-year-old son, Liam, is "an exact clone" of himself, "precocious in every way."

One thing that makes Fitzgerald happy more than anything else, he said, is service. He's helped people in his ward and community with their roofs, sprinklers, and homes and whatever else needs doing. He is happy to be able to apply what he's learned and capable of to help others.

"When you come into the world in Asia, you have absolutely nothing. If you're born as a rice farmer, guess what? You're a rice farmer. Period. End of story. My (step)father told me a long time ago I could be whatever I wanted to be."

Fitzgerald was born a rice farmer, but all that he's accomplished has proved his stepfather's words to be true.

But he doesn't credit himself for it. "I have always been, my whole life, guided and protected. That's why I do what I do. Because I've been so blessed by Heavenly Father. …

"And so the church gives me roots, it gives me foundations, it gives me principle."

Email: mormontimes@desnews.com

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