Tu Le picks leaves of Thai basil and rubs them in his fingers. He can smell clove in the scent, and anise and cinnamon. The flavor brings back visceral memories, he says. He remembers his mother sending him into the garden to pick herbs. And he misses her.
Growing up in San Diego as a child, he would ride his bike on summer days and come home to her spring roles with spicy fish sauce, and this summer he is recalling her family recipes in monthly popup Vietnamese dinners at the Airport Rooms.
Tu Le and his partner, the artist and filmmaker Matt Bertles, run a micro farm at 328 North in Williamstown — a place he describes as continually evolving in character and growing local relationships.
They began as a flower farm, he said, walking through his gardens on a summer morning. In the pandemic they adapted into a CSA formed around Asian recipes, and now he sees these densely interpanted beds as a creative lab, full of color.
These densely interpanted beds are a creative lab, full of color.
This summer they are running a flower CSA and growing aromatics and herbs for local restaurants from Mezze to the Chingòn Taco Truck.
“I think what’s been lacking here in the Berkshires especially is flavor,” he said. “There’s pockets of it, but I think people are scared to be more adventurous. The food is beautiful — carrots are gorgeous, tomatoes are gorgeous. They taste wonderful farm-to-table. But how do you enhance that?”
The farm and their lives have changed since the pandemic, he said. His mother died just before Covid reshaped the world.
“I was going through grief in 2019,” he said, “… and I didn’t realize how much it would affect me until we started farming that year. We hadn’t opened ourselves up to the public yet, so it was really intentional.”
Gardening gave him a place to grieve.
‘It became a love letter to our parents. This is my mom’s rose garden, and the food I grow.’ — Tu Le
“It became a love letter to our parents for Matt and me,” he said. “Our parents are gone, and we both grew up in Southern California … Matt started planting things for his mom. That’s his mom’s rose. This is my mom’s rose garden, and the food I grow. As I’m working, these flashbacks and memories come back.”
On the hill where the basil grows, Tu Le has planted thousands of flowers, rotating through the season from roses and dahlias and vivid orange butterfly weed.
Laying hens are commenting in the background. Tomatoes and clematis are growing on arbors made of brightly painted bicycle tires — trellis and sculptures Bertles has made.
Their daughter will be married here in September, Tu Le said. Their grand-nieces and nephews come to visit from college in New York and Boston, and a few summers ago six of their grand-nephews and nieces, his sister’s grandchildren, came here for a month — put down their iPhones and iPads to run through the garden, playing badminton and harvesting carrots and peas.
And now their living family influences the garden, as he and Matt plant fruit trees so that in a few years they can make sauces for their first grandchild.
He sees a living, creative place around him — the pineapple mint, the lilies and sunflowers — the rakkyo shallots he has been growing for two years, he will pickle this summer for a winter meal at the lunar new year.
“It is my palette,” he said. “I get to design how this is going to look and taste and feel. that’s Matt’s palette,” as he gestured to a trellis made of vividly bright spokes and rims. “He builds me beautiful things to grow upon.”
Tu Le is also a maker. He has led a varied career in design, before the two moved here, and this year he is writing — contributing to Mass MoCA and MCLA’s care Syllabus and working on longer projects.
‘It is my palette. I get to design how this is going to look and taste and feel.’ — Tu Le
For the last six years, since he and Bertles came here, Tu Le has been creating recipes and writing an interwoven cookbook and memoir he refers to informally as a story from seed to chopstick — looking into the journey as an heirloom seed becomes a plant, and then a time of preparation, and then meal, and a family and culture carry forward across time.
“I don’t know if that’s the title,” he said, “but that’s the idea I’m talking about. … Cooking, the act of it, the preparation, is very much a part of our culture. It’s how we socialize. It’s how we gather as families, and a lot of cultures around the world are very similar.”
And many of them have come here, to America, and become part of the collective lived experience of this country.
“… There are a lot of people like me,” he said, “and our stories haven’t been told … and they’ve been part of our fabric for a long time.”
And so food, for him, becomes a language of family and community, and time and care. Every time his mother sent him into the garden, he said, she was teaching him to know those plants.
‘My lived experience as a refugee is completely different from my parents’, and my siblings’, who came here as children with memories of a childhood.’
The exercise became a constant practice, like learning Vietnamese on weekends, and he feels thankful for it now. He can tell Thai basil by scent and taste and touch and know it as subtly independent from the Vietnamese basil nearby, and widely different from the Greek.
“Since my parents are gone it’s that practice that I’m out of sync with,” he said. “It’s that daily conversations in Vietnamese, or weekly — or what did you add to this recipe. I’m trying to rebuild that based on memory, because not everything was written down.”
In tracing them, he is tellng his own story. He was born in Vietnam, and he came here as a refugee when he was 15 months old.
“So my lived experience as a refugee is completely different from my parents’, and my siblings’, who came here as children with memories of a childhood,” he said. “… I have zero memory or lived experience of running through jungles or learning to walk in a refugee camp, those are shared memories passed along to me those aren’t mine. Those are someone else’s passed along to me.”
And it has taken time for him to bring this story together with his own lived experience as someone queer.
“I’m completely an outlier in my family,” he said, “and I think being queer allowed me to be that. As much as I tried to be like my siblings, I could never, and I was reminded of that at a young age. … Subconsciously that was always in my mind. You’re different. Matt and I talk about that sometimes.”
‘I can’t change who I am. So why not embrace it. I’m glad I did that at a younger age too, because it allowed me more freedom to do the things that we love.’
Many of his siblings are strongly conservative, he said. Only two of them have come to 328 North, though many of their children come often. And so in many ways, he has found his own way.
“And that mentality still carries me now, many many many decades later,” he said. “… I can’t change it. I can’t change who I am. So why not embrace it. I’m glad I did that at a younger age too, because it allowed me more freedom to do the things that we love.”
He came from Southern California to San Fransisco, and then around the world — he has lived in Berlin, Equatorial Guinea, and in Bali, where he traveled to Asia and Vietnam.
In the 1990s he was living in rural Washington state, and there he met Matt, who had also traveled widely in his younger years, from Southern California to New York in the 1980s to Alaska and more. He and Matt have been together now for 28 years.
‘I’m grateful for living in Europe, grateful I lived in Africa and grateful I lived in Asia.’
“Matt and I have always been very vagabondish,” Tu Le said, “and I’m glad we’ve instilled that in our kids. Our kids love travel. Our daughter and son in law are moving to Amsterdam two weeks after their wedding here. If there’s a time to do that, it’s your mid-20s, and we encourage that … this is an adventure.
“I’m grateful for living in Europe, grateful I lived in Africa and grateful I lived in Asia, because of work but by choice. I had to be away from family, but it’s an experience I could never do at my age now.”
In time, the family came east to Pittsburgh, and their, for the first time in many years, Tu Le started putting down some literal roots — growing a garden, sharing food with their neighbors.
“We bought the empty lot next door,” he said. “The city tore the house down and we bought the lot for $600. We were going to build a community garden. We were just slowly … We were a queer couple in kind of a low-income neighborhood, which is kind of how it happens.”
They have both lived in their share of gritty places he said — from Matt’s art school days in New York in the 1980s to his years in San Fransisco in the early 1990s. They were finding their feet in Pittsburgh — and then their lives abruptly changed.
“We had a house fire,” he said, “and we ended up donating that land back to the city, because the kids didn’t want to stay in Pittsburgh area anymore.”
And so now, they are growing a community here. 328North has created a web of partnerships. Tu Le is bringing a wall of flowers the Plant Connector and lavender to Wild Soul River for their teas, and he is partnering with Carrie Granda at Sift Ceramics, who will create vessels and vases vessels for him.
‘I’m leaning into Vietnamese ceramics right now, the use of ginger jars …’
“I’m leaning into Vietnamese ceramics right now,” he said, “the use of ginger jars and these types of vessels. I really like the organic, maternal nature of those jars. So that’s my vibe this year.”
He is already planning for winter holiday festivals and fall weddings, especially for his daughter’s wedding — she has come more than once this summer to walk through the gardens with him and with Matt and talk about the flowers they are growing for her and the tent that will go up after the sunflowers have been harvested.
Tu Le looks around the dense, green stems and the new blooms opening as others close. As he points out the Thai pink egg cherry tomatoes and the beds where bottle gourds grew last summer — where he has plans for beans this year — a hummingbird pauses to hang in the air a few feet away.