Texas-born Patrick Leija makes his living teaching corporate English, and admits he is quite comfortable as he laps up the good life with his Vietnamese wife and four-year-old son.
However, his family heritage is causing him sleepless nights as he debates whether to make the biggest gamble of his life.
Patrick has Mexican-American-Cherokee Indian roots, but it is the chilli plants that proudly sit on his balcony in Tan Binh that are giving him food for thought.
“Salsa has been in my family for over 120 years and is the bedrock of so many of my cherished childhood memories,” he says. “I remember as a kid smelling salsa from the kitchen and you had to hold your nose when walking through or you were in big trouble. Let’s just say that it was a strong smell.”
Salsa is a love, a passion and a hobby in which Patrick and his wife bond as a team. Together they make the delicious sauce Dos Chiles which is the envy of many of their friends, who always ask ‘where do you buy this stuff?’ It is that delicious.
“I tell them I don’t buy it — I make it,” explains Patrick. “You can be guaranteed that the next thing they say is — ‘go into business and make this your living‘. I know what they are saying and maybe it is the life that has been mapped out for me. I suppose it is a matter of timing.”
Patrick’s secret recipe is sacred but he confesses he has tweaked it a little over the years. He feels a little guilty about this, as the salsa ingredients have been protected and cherished for so long, though he is sure his ancestors will understand.
After some family research Patrick pinpointed the first family salsa recipe to the end of the 1890s. His grandfather was Spanish, his grandmother Cherokee Indian/Mexican, the elders of a salsa lineage that came to the Rio Grande Valley four generations ago.
His grandmother learned the recipe from her mother and taught his mother. At six years old he started eating spicy food and learned how to make the special sauce when he was just 16. No-one in his family has ever made a living out of the recipe, but Patrick is resigned to making that a reality.
“Before my son was born I went back to the States and it was the last time I saw my grandmother alive,” he recalls. “She got me thinking about family and I started making the sauce again after a few years out. I also had the idea of teaching my son how to make it. At around the same time a lot of my friends [in Vietnam] said ‘why don’t you sell it?’ I said ‘well it’s a family thing you know’. I got talked into making more of it, and word got around and then I started to think, wait a minute here. It has picked up and over the last year I have made around 350 litres. All the sales have been through word of mouth — it’s not something I’ve looked at as a business, but it is looking that way.”
He adds: “I do it for fun. It’s a passion for me and if the business happens it happens. Teaching English is my bread and butter in Vietnam. I was a kitchen manager in the States at a seafood restaurant and my background is in the hospitality and restaurant business.”
Patrick loves all things Vietnamese, but he admits his neck tightens and his anxieties mount at the mere mention of the word MSG — a favourite with southern cooking. His sauce has no preservatives, no artificial colourings, no artificial flavourings and is 100 percent natural.
Though he will take his secret recipe to the grave, he warns any newcomers in the salsa game “there is more to making salsa than tomato sauce, cilantro, onions and chilli pepper”. He buys his non-homegrown ingredients from Maximart and of course cultivates his own chillis, but not on his roof where other vegetables grow.
“There is something wonderful about being around plants and especially on the roof with the view,” he says. “Plants don’t ask anything from you, just be nice to them and take care of them and you will be rewarded. I grow vegetables on my roof, but it’s too hot to grow chillis there, I grow them on the balcony. The leaves can’t handle the heat. If I can put a cover on the roof, then maybe I can expand my operation.”
The charismatic Texan proudly shows off his professionally designed logo and business card, and admits the more he thinks about this, the more he wants to share his family’s heritage with Vietnam. Maybe he’ll even make a buck or two as well.
But it is no easy feat in his game. It takes eight hours to cook the sauce and he currently makes 20 litres at a time, and that’s not including preparation of vegetables and fruit.
He grows four different chillis and the salsa comes in three different levels of spiciness: non-spicy, medium and special. His salsa skills made his university years a breeze with his popularity secured as word spread of the Mexican salsa master. Now it’s time to win some new friends.