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About Utah: Thyme & Seasons Chef Hai brought the Mekong Delta to Bountiful

BOUNTIFUL — His restaurant is in what used to be a Blockbuster video store at the far end of a supermarket parking lot.

Store hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner. There is no printed menu, or listed prices for that matter. The day’s entrée choices are written on the kitchen wall. Accompaniments are at the chef’s discretion.

And if that sounds unconventional, you ought to meet the owner.

Hai (pronounced “Hi”) Fitzgerald — “Chef Hai” for short — was born on the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, was adopted by the U.S. soldier who married his mom, was spirited out of his homeland just before the Communists won the war, grew up on the East Coast, became a computer whiz before computer whizzes were cool, came to Utah to do contract work for the IRS in Ogden, joined the LDS Church, married a Mormon girl from Pocatello, traveled thither and yon as an IT specialist to support his growing family — until nine years ago, when he pumped the brakes on his traveling and consumption of the Western diet, and, longing to return to the natural, fresh, healthy food of his childhood, opened his Thyme & Seasons restaurant at the far end of the Winegar’s grocery store parking lot on Orchard Drive.

That’s the long-story-short version.

The rest 55-year-old Chef Hai can, and probably will, tell you over dinner.

• • •

Where he was born they had two seasons: rain and shine, six months of each. Everything they ate they grew, raised, trapped or caught. They were both poor and rich: two sets of clothes, two straw hats and no shoes; but surrounded by abundant herbs, spices, vegetables, fruits and more fresh fish and game than you could possibly count. Preservatives? You preserved food by eating it.

“We couldn’t wait to eat Coca-Cola and processed foods,” remembers Hai, who got his chance when Peter Fitzgerald, the G.I. who adopted him and his two brothers, first moved the family to an Army base closer to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and then, the end of the Vietnam War looking imminent and not at all favorable in the south, out of the country altogether in 1975.

Hai was 13 when he arrived in America, a veritable sponge of curiosity. In those pre-internet days he got hold of a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas and read them from A to Z. He wanted to learn everything.

He graduated high school in Pennsylvania and then immersed himself in computer science classes at Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems. This was 1981, two years before IBM would introduce the personal computer. How do you spell perfect timing in code?

His adopted father had told him, “You no longer have to be a rice farmer; you can be anything you want to be.”

Hai took him at his word. For two decades, he hustled his trade, seeking and finding success American style. He lived well, in hotels more than actual homes — until he met Susan Goodliffe, who at the time was serving a Vietnamese-speaking LDS mission in Washington, D.C. They spoke the same languages. They married and settled in Utah, close to Susan’s family in Idaho, and Hai went to work helping upgrade the IT systems for first Wells Fargo Bank and then Primary Children’s Hospital.

Until one day, knowing his passion for the food he’d grown up with, Susan asked: “Why don’t you get that restaurant thing out of your system?”

The restaurant he created reflects his roots — both of them; a blend of Third World southeast Asia and First World America. Everything is fresh, like on the Mekong Delta, but there’s also an 1,800 degree grill in the kitchen, like at Ruth’s Chris.

The one thing you won’t see at Thyme & Seasons are delivery trucks. Hai personally goes to the producers every day, handpicking his ingredients. The only item that gets delivered is the soft drink syrup — “worst thing here,” proclaims Hai (but he’s sipping a Diet Pepsi as he says it).

He brings in food only in its season, all kinds of vegetables and fruits alongside steaks, chicken and the freshest seafood he can find in Utah (“look at the gills and the eyeballs,” he says of the secret to selecting the freshest fish). To all of the above he adds “the best of Asian spices” and “the best of French sauces.”

“This is the stuff that makes people live longer,” he says, and healthier, too. Eat his soup, he claims, and get rid of your cold within 48 hours.

“How am I like a doctor?” Chef Hai asks. “The doctor gives you a pill and says swallow it; I give you food and say swallow it.”

Because he never knows exactly what food he’s going to wind up with on any given day, he doesn’t have a set menu, or set prices either (dinner runs between $17 to $22 on weekdays; slightly higher on weekends). The way Hai’s restaurant works is the customer shows up and Hai asks, “What kind of protein would you like?” and takes it from there.

There’s not much in the way of ambience. He doesn’t advertise. He’s stayed open for a solid nine years and counting purely by word of mouth; that, and on the strength of Hai’s companionable personality. If a customer wants to know the origins of the fish he’s eating, or wants to talk about, say, the best way to rewire an attic, or maybe discuss the stock market, Hai will glady pull up a chair.

In addition to that, he sells his spices and his custom cookbook in the restaurant (also available on Amazon), plus he holds regular cooking classes on grilling, baking, stir-frying, pastry making and sauce making.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more unique eatery anywhere in Utah, if not the world: The MeKong Delta smack in the middle of Bountiful, at the end of a parking lot.