Hoi Nguyen, the 27-year-old owner of Roll Play, a food stand that offers “gourmet spring rolls” at the Queens Night Market, draws inspiration from his parents. After leaving Vietnam, they arrived in the United States with their 10 children in 1990, and ran a catering business out of their Boston home for 15 years.
“What was most memorable was the fun and joy that the experience of sharing a meal created for our customers, friends, and community,” says Nguyen.
Now, eight years after his father’s death, Nguyen is reviving the family’s culinary craft at the Queens International Night Market. He marks his food stand with the word “artisanal,” but acknowledges that’s less important than his cultural roots.
“I generally think restaurateurs use ‘local’ ‘artisanal’…simply because of the upward trending of these words, which benefits them by drawing in more customers,” says Nguyen.
At first glance, the Saturday night scene at the nondescript Queens parking lot where Nguyen sets up his stand seems like the scrappy offspring of a county fair. However, a closer look reveals the Queens Night Market’s unique advantage: hand-crafted, small-batch cooking that channels the personal history of immigrants.
In sharp contrast to other artisanal food markets and food festivals that have become a regular occurrence in New York City, the Queens Night Market sets a $5 price limit on every dish served.
“It was partly personal, partly business model in terms of getting people out, and also staying true to the mission of making it a community event,” says John Wang, the market’s founder.
The mission has struck a chord with the cooks who power the Night Market. More than half of the food vendors at this weekly event are first-time entrepreneurs, and almost all of them use food as means of expressing their journeys to New York.
Myo Thway, who runs the Vendy-nominated stand Burmese Bites, has 20 of years of experience cooking for community food events and the occasional street fair. He works as a designer by day, but spends nearly two days each week shopping for ingredients and preparing his small menu of curries, noodles, and flatbreads.
The Queens Night Market’s $5 price limit for all dishes makes it tougher for Thway, Nguyen, and the other vendors to turn a profit, but low vendor fees help them defray their costs and embrace the market’s mission of inclusion.
“When I [was] doing the street fair I [had] an empty stomach. I was just working all day,” Thway says. “At the Night Market, everybody knows everybody else, so I eat their food and they eat my food. I like them, and also I like their food.”
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