From costume designing to quarantine cooking, Vietnam-born Bruce Bui is feeling the fantasy
We didn’t want June to end without showing some pride in Bruce Bui—costume designer, performer, and foodie!
We chatted with Bruce about how he’s been staying safe (and busy!) through the pandemic, his favorite restaurants, and cooking at home—including his role in a new quarantine cooking show. Then we went shopping with him at Viet Hoa, the popular Asian market on Cleveland.
Bruce was born in Vietnam. After a short stint in a refugee camp in the Philippines, he and his parents arrived in the United States in 1985, when he was eight years old. They settled in Southern California, in the San Fernando Valley, and that’s where he grew up. “I’m basically a valley girl,” he says.
Now he lives near Overton Square with his husband and is the head of the costume department at Ballet Memphis. You can also find Bruce volunteering his talents for various organizations in town. Bruce has been involved in Choices’ Condomonium fashion show, where all of the fashions are made of condoms, and the Memphis City Beautiful Trashion Show, where the fashions are made of recycled items.
Bruce is also a closeted actor. Through his alter ego, Bianca, he does shows with Friends of George’s, a troupe of drag queens and gender-nonbinary performers. One hundred percent of proceeds from each show are donated to a different nonprofit. Last year, they raised over $30,000. “I love those gals and love the work we do. I’ve also been a board member for several years,” he says. He’s also a cast member of the hilariously fun Break-Up Show.
Edible Memphis: How did you land in Memphis?
Bruce Bui: I went to California Lutheran University and majored in theater and communications, with an emphasis in costume design, much to the confusion of my parents. They would have preferred a doctor or businessman, because they didn’t know what costume designers do. That, and the whole gay thing. That really confused them.
I worked a lot of professional shows to put myself through school, and freelanced once I graduated. I was never interested in doing TV or movies. I wanted to stay in theater, which was really difficult in Southern California. In the summer of 2001, I was looking for a home company to work full-time, and, when Ballet Memphis had a position open, they flew me out to interview, and I thought it was a great fit. I loaded everything I owned, which wasn’t much, in a U-Haul and drove to Memphis two weeks after that. I will never forget my work anniversary, because it’s September 11, 2001. Ask me about that day sometime.
Whoa… What’s a typical day like for a costume designer?
In ordinary times, I would be rushing to get to the ballet in the morning, even though I only live two blocks away. An average day at the ballet mostly consists of managing costume construction. There are three costume technicians in the shop, and it’s a coordinated effort to construct all of the different designs, for multiple pieces or multiple shows; some can be opening in a few weeks, some opening six months later. There’s a lot of collaboration in designs, and it takes a lot of meetings, and different people signing off on ideas. I joke that the busier the show is, the less actual sewing I do, and the more paperwork I have to get through.
But, with the COVID pandemic, I’ve been religious about staying in and keeping my distance. In the beginning, I made a lot of face masks to donate to different organizations that needed them, and friends. Then I started to make masks for a friend with a store on Broad, who was having a hard time keeping up with her orders. Lately, since I have plenty of time on my hands, I’ve been digging through my stash of drag fabric, and making face masks with a little something extra, and selling them on Etsy—a little side business since I don’t know when theaters are coming back to any recognizable state.
What’s the most exciting thing you are working on right now?
Friends of George‘s is working on a series of at-home quarantine cooking shows with queens.
Each queen is doing a segment of instructional video, making a drink or a dish in their home kitchen.
[Bianca makes egg rolls.] It’s more entertainment than instruction, but it’s been so fun working as a team again, via Zoom, to come up with the ideas. We are shooting it ourselves since we’re all staying at home. I’m not a big technology person, so there was a real learning curve.
We all believe that it’s a privilege to be able to create something that will be enjoyed by our audience, even though most of us have been affected by the pandemic, both economically and emotionally—and also as a diverse theater company, listening and responding to the Black Lives Matter movement.
I think it’s invigorating to ask what theater can do in times of crisis.
Can we hear more about your alter ego, Bianca?
I love Bianca. She is the outgoing gal who easily maneuvers crowds and uses her superpowers for good. She loves to be on stage and share in the crowd’s energy, and isn’t as shy as Bruce.
I found that, when I used to audition for plays, I would have a hard time being cast because of my ethnicity.
But I also realized that I had a knack for comedy, especially when playing drag roles. I played a few female roles in university. When I moved to Memphis, I worked with Emerald Theatre Company and played lots of drag rolls there. In the Break-Up Show, Bruce only appeared in the first year out of six years of shows. Bianca replaced Bruce. And, currently, with Friends of George’s, we all have our drag personas, and it’s really fun to get to share the joy and raise a bit of money while doing it. It’s given me a chance to meet more people and be a part of events I never thought were possible. Also, Bianca has an opportunity to make outfits that Bruce could never wear in real life.
OK, we have to talk about food! What restaurants have you missed most during COVID?
Since Greg and I have been pretty strict about keeping ourselves at home, I do miss the restaurants we often frequent. I miss walking over to Side Street and grabbing a quick dinner. I miss walking over to Zebra Lounge. I miss going to Molly’s La Casita. Places where we’re familiar with the owner and staff. I miss feeling connected to the neighborhood.
I miss running to Pho Binh for the lunch buffet, which I think is one of the best experiences in Vietnamese food. I tell everyone that it feels just like going to a family meal at my mother’s. The food is fantastic, it’s not fussy, and you just help yourself. I miss Phuong Long and their “train pho,” which is the everything bowl. Best pho broth in the city. Oh—and their crispy egg pancakes.
I think what I miss most is the human experience of meeting a good friend somewhere, enjoying a meal or a cocktail, and connecting with that energy that you just can’t achieve over a Zoom call.
But the pandemic has also provided an opportunity to revisit some of my favorite Vietnamese recipes at home, which we have been, just to satisfy the craving.
Tell us what you’ve been cooking at home.
Bánh bèo is a childhood favorite.
My husband loves it. I don’t make it often because it’s so time-consuming. It’s a small disc of steamed rice and tapioca flour mixture, with a shrimp paste sauce on top, sprinkled with fried onions and fish sauce.
I make caramelized spare pork ribs often with whole boiled eggs, served over rice, and simmered to tender perfection.
Wontons. Whenever I make them, I just make a ton and freeze them. So handy when you need them—throw them in ramen, fry them, etc.
I have a big binder of recipes printed/cut/found, and I make notes on them to match my taste.
Do you have any tips for shopping at Viet Hoa?
I have a silly thing that always works for me:
Go for the labels that have threes.
I buy the three-crab fish sauce and the three-lady rice paper.
If you are missing your favorite dim sum items, try looking in the frozen aisle. Most dim sum staples are there and need just a few minutes of steaming to be hot and ready.
Explore the fresh fruit section. Try something different like a dragon fruit or a rambutan fruit, or staples like mangos and avocados. I swear the fruits there are just fresher and sweeter.
Take a quick minute to peruse through the packaged meat section. Aside from having all of the traditional cuts, they also have pre-seasoned cuts for a quick dinner, and some nontraditional cuts such as tripe and feet.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try balut eggs—fertilized duck eggs that are boiled or steamed to semi-firm. Try eating them with a teaspoon or egg spoon with lots of salt and pepper and lots of herbs like mint and Thai basil. In Vietnam, they are street food, usually eaten after a night of drinking. I have early memories of my father having friends over for a night of talking and drinking; there are dishes served for these occasions, and balut was one of them. I enjoyed eating them when I lived in Southern California.
Bruce’s Favorite Wonton Recipe:
These tasty little morsels can be fried, steamed, or boiled and are so much fun to make. They’re great to have on hand for throwing in soups, or boiling with broth and noodles.
- 1/2 pound ground pork (any minced protein or a combination of proteins—shrimp sausage, chorizo, etc.—would work)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced(To customize your wonton, add other ingredients, such as finely cubed carrots or bamboo shoots.)
1 package wonton wrappers (I have purchased many different brands and shapes, and I think they all are pretty much alike. Wonton wrappers are different from egg roll wrappers, which are different from rice paper wrappers. Wonton wrappers are found in the refrigerator section of the Asian grocery. They are egg based, and usually palm size. They freeze really well, so I always have some on hand when I want to wrap anything into bite-size treats.)
Mix all filling ingredients together until they form a paste. Place 1 to 2 teaspoons of paste in the middle of each wrapper. Fold wrapper in half and press wrapper edges together. Seal edges with water or beaten egg. Lay wontons, with space between them, on a tray. Place the tray in the freezer until wontons are frozen through. Then place wontons in a ziplock bag and store in the freezer for later use.
When you’re ready to eat the wontons, remove as many as you want from the ziplock bag and pan fry, deep fry, steam, or boil.
Stacey Greenberg is the editor in chief of Edible Memphis. You can follow her at @nancy_jew.
Breezy Lucia is a Memphis transplant from Kansas City, Missouri. She’s a queer photographer and filmmaker living in Midtown. When she’s not using a camera, she’s baking bread or making fermented beverages. @breezylucia