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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

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.

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."