The front row at the Bayview School of Cooking has filled up quickly on a recent Monday night – long before Xinh Dwelley stepped up to the burners.
Dwelley grabs a bowl of mussels and quickly removes them from their shells. “No muss, no fuss,” she says with a broad smile to the 20 students gathered for the one-night class.
The chef is a regular at the Olympia cooking school. She will teach a class again there on Monday. Her recipes and techniques are easy to follow and are based on the food she’s made for the past 16 years at her Shelton restaurant, Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House (Xinh is pronounced Zin).
Dwelley’s seafood dishes, inflected with a fusion of Asian flavors, have garnered attention from hungry South Sounders to culinary glitterati. She’s talked shop with Julia Child, cooked for Anthony Bourdain and opened oysters with Mike Rowe. She’s a five-time West Coast Oyster Shucking Champion.
The success that Dwelley has belies her humble beginnings in war-torn Vietnam and her early years in the United States when she opened oysters for a living instead of medals.
LIFE IN VIETNAM
Though she was surrounded by rice on her father’s farm in South Vietnam Dwelley didn’t learn to cook at her mother’s side. At 16 she lied about her age to get a job at an American military base near her home in Bien Hoa, near Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City.)
The war with the north was raging at the time and it tore her city apart. Half of her male classmates went to fight with the United States and the other half with the Viet Cong, she says. The war took a heavy toll on all of them. She remembers attending seven funerals during one particularly tragic week.
At the base Dwelley started as a dish washer but quickly worked her way up to prep cook. It was there she learned how to cook – making hamburgers, fried chicken and spaghetti.
“I made pancakes before I learned to make Vietnamese food,” Dwelley says. She was fascinated by American food. Tomato sauce and potatoes were exotic to her.
The American soldiers were Dwelley’s first exposure to English, but not necessarily in a good way. She recalls one soldier who would yell at her every day in the chow line because he didn’t like the cuts of meat she served him. One day, a sergeant overheard the tongue lashing and told her what to tell the G.I. the next time he lambasted her.
Dwelley didn’t know what the words meant but dutifully wrote them down. The next day when the soldier gave his daily rant she repeated what the sergeant had taught her.
“Same to you. Same to your mother.”
The G.I. became so infuriated he jumped over the counter, grabbed a knife and chased Dwelley around the kitchen before he was finally subdued by other soldiers.
“I didn’t even know what I said,” Dwelley recalls with a chuckle.
She married a U.S. serviceman from Olympia and soon resettled there in 1970 with her husband and 4-month-old son, Bill.
Her English wasn’t very good, she says, and it made her shy.
“When I get here I’m afraid to even say ‘hi’ to people,” she says. When people came to visit her and her family, “I went to my room and hid until everyone left.”
When she finally did try out her English, the horrified reactions she got puzzled her until she learned that she had picked up an extensive vocabulary of cuss words from American GIs.
Later, Dwelley and her husband had a daughter, Carrie, now 36. She and her husband divorced after 11 years of marriage. Her second husband, Stephen Dwelley, died last September.
EGGROLLS AND OYSTERS
At the cooking school Dwelley sets out the ingredients for eggrolls. She puts grated jicama, raw pork and vermicelli bean thread noodles into a bowl and plunges in her fingers. “You have to mix with your hands,” she tells the class. She pauses at looks at the ingredients, “Everything I do here is optional.” Her make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude is part of her cooking style.
Dwelley wets the top of a wrapper and plops down a handful of filling. With practiced moves she folds the eggroll into an envelope and then rolls it up tight. After frying the roll is served with a simple dip made from Thai sweet chili and soy sauces. The room goes quiet as students devour the firm and hot torpedoes that burst with juices and flavors.
Dwelley next makes oyster stew. Don’t boil it, she cautions. The stew, accented with basil and bacon added at the last moment, is served with a slice of garlic bread floating on top.
“That’s what oyster stew should be,” she tells the students. No one disagrees as they spoon up the savory soup.
Dwelley believes her talent for cooking is a gift from God. “That’s the only thing that saved me in this country,” she says and then adds with a smile, “Besides shucking oysters.”
When she met Julia Child 17 years ago in Seattle, Dwelley demonstrated her oyster shucking skills to the famous chef. Child watched her and then said, “Honey, you do it all backwards.” Later, Child admitted to Dwelley she used a can opener to pry apart oysters.
Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House is owned by seafood grower Taylor Shellfish Farms. The Taylors offered Dwelley the opportunity to open the restaurant after she became their defacto company chef, says Bill Taylor, co-owner and vice-president. Before that she had shucked oysters, worked in quality control and ran their retail outlet.
“When she came to work for us she cooked a couple times. Then she started cooking lunch every now and then. Then it was every day. We were all thrilled. Someone in the office finally said, ‘Xinh’s got to quit cooking. I’ve gained 25 pounds this year.’ ”
Taylor and others heap praise on Dwelley. “Besides being a great person and cook, Xinh’s a comedian. She’s a great ambassador for shellfish and our company.”
Taylor said Dwelley and her restaurant have a loyal following from locals, foodies and a regular political contingent from Olympia. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks is among the crowd of fans.
It’s been a good relationship with the Taylors, Dwelley says. “They left me alone to do whatever I wanted to do.” But the move from in-house cook to full-time restaurant chef was scary, she says. “I knew how to cook but not run a restaurant.”
She quickly picked up the business acumen and soon people began the trek to the logging town to sample her skills.
But no matter how many compliments Dwelley gets, it’s the rare bad one she worries about. She never reads online reviews – she can’t stand seeing negative comments about her food.
The affection that the local community has for Dwelley is obvious. Before the restaurant opened on a recent afternoon, an interview with a reporter was regularly interrupted by well-wishers and friends dropping by to say hello, leave thank you notes for charity work or present her with a bottle of her not-so-secret vice: dessert wine.
Dwelley spends six days of her week with the business. She frequently donates her cooking skills to local charities like the Boys and Girls Club and Sound Learning (a literacy program). A recent 10-person dinner sold for $5,000 at a charity auction, Dwelley says.
Dwelley would like to retire in a few years. She wants to write a cookbook. She has two grandchildren. Her 90-year-old mother and her siblings still live in Vietnam. She visits them once a year and owns a home on her parents’ rice farm.
When Dwelley is ready to leave the restaurant business she would like to hand over the reins to her heir apparent at the Clam and Oyster House, sous-chef Tony Olivas.
“I’ve trained him from day one,” Dwelley says. Day one started for Olivas when he first went to work for Dwelley at age 17. He’s now 29 and has three children.
After the restaurant closes in the evening, Olivas and Dwelley will cook up a meal for the staff – whatever strikes their imaginations. Sometimes that means an Asian dish and on other nights it might be Mexican. Dwelley’s passed her creative techniques on to Olivas, he says.
“She’s taught me not to be afraid to experiment with flavors and spices,” Olivas says.
For now Dwelley is happy with the path her life is on. “I feel very blessed. Everybody likes my food and I get to cook. It makes me happy.”
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Port and Vegetable Egg Rolls
Yield: about 25 (depending on size).
1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
2 pounds lean ground pork
1 1/2 cups jicama, shredded
1/2 cups carrots, grated
1/2 package clear noodles
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sigar (optional)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages Chinese egg roll wrappers
1 quart canola or vegetable oil
Mix bean sprouts, pork, jicama, carrots, clear noodles, onion, soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, salt and eggs together well.
Wrap in Chinese egg roll wrappers and fry in 350-degree oil until golden brown.
Drain egg rolls on paper towels
Xinh’s Oyster Stew
Yield: 4-6 servings
2 pints shucked oysters
1/2 cup butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1 can evaporated milk
4 cups milk
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
5 fresh (or 1/2 teaspoon dried) basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup bacon bits (optional)
Parsley, chopped, for garnish
Green onions, chopped, for garnish
Blanch oysters for 2-3 minutes.
Drain and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Melt butter in a pot and brown garlic.
Add onion and saute’ until done.
Add oysters, milk, salt, pepper, basil and bacon bits (if desired).
Stir until warm (do not boil).
Garnish with chopped parsley and green onions.
Xinh’s Mediterranean Mussels in Curry Sauce
Yield: 4-6 servings
5 pounds mussels
3 cups water
1 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
3/4 cup onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon grass, chopped and whirled in food processor
1 cup (8 ounces) coconut milk
1 tablespoon curry powder
Black pepper and salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon sugar or honey
1/2 cup ground dry roasted and unsalted peanuts of 2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste
Cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon green onion, chopped
Steam mussels in water until opened, drain and remove meat from shells. Set meats aside.
In oil, sauté garlic, add onion and saute’ until clear.
Add coconut milk and the rest of the ingredients, mixing well in the order given, adding mussel meats last.
Bring back to a boil to warm up mussels.
Add green onion and cilantro just before serving for a final garnish.
Serve hot over steamed jasmine rice or noodles.