The Vietnamese-American Owner of Rooster and the Pig Shares His Love for the Desert
Written By: Gina Magnuson The Owner of Rooster and the Pig Shares His Past and Present Story in Food
Photographed By: George Duchannes
Talking to Tai Spendley, the restaurateur behind the popular Palm Springs eatery Rooster and the Pig, the passion and soul put into this project becomes obvious. Immigrating to the states from Vietnam, the son of an American soldier and local Vietnamese woman had very humble beginnings: “I started off as a dishwasher at the age of 13. After school I would dishwash because I was like, ‘I’m gonna buy myself some clothes.’ I wound up in the restaurant business.” Always the front of the house, charismatic Spendley learned the restaurant business from the inside-out, eventually acting as food and beverage director for a wide range of upscale hotels across the country. With his culinary inspiration on overdrive, Spendley decided to develop a Vietnamese-American concept, Rooster and the Pig, a name derived from two seemingly opposing astrological figures who happen to be a perfect match.
Q: Starting your own restaurant is such an ambitious project! How did you get the inspiration to start Rooster and the Pig?
Tai Spendley: It’s funny because all of my friends have been in the business and we always think about it in terms of, “I’ve been in the business for so long, it’s only natural that I do my own thing, ” but I’ve always wondered where the hell do you start? I did know what not to do because I worked for so many places and businesses and I figured out what matters and what doesn’t. What people come to a place for is service and food.
Q: What role did food play in your life while growing up?
TS: My dad was in the military and met my mom. I was born in Vietnam and came over [to the United States] young. My dad didn’t like Vietnamese food and my mom wasn’t sure about American food. Back then, she was doing fusion before fusion was popular. A lot of first generation parents were doing that anyway. When we first came to this country, we were pretty poor; the kids would make fun of our clothes and this and that. But that was the one thing that made me feel like we weren’t ever poor—my mom always made sure that, for dinner, we had so many choices. She would take leftovers and make them feel like they weren’t leftovers anymore. As I got older, I started watching people do “fancy stuff” like putting on dinner parties so I thought I would do the same thing and people enjoyed themselves. That’s what I loved about it.
Q: How would you describe the menu at Rooster and the Pig?
TS: People think that Vietnamese is just pho but it’s more than that. This is how we cook at home. They’re real traditional Vietnamese recipes. Vietnamese food is very simplistic but at the same time it tastes very layered. What I always thought when people asked if this food was fusion was this is just Vietnamese-American.
Q: What does “Vietnamese-American” mean to you?
TS: When I was growing up, there’s a popular dish called bún bò huế and if it was to be traditional, it would have shrimp paste in it and pigs foot sticking out of it. What my mom did with the food was she learned how to have my father eat it with his palate. She would omit certain things but still create the flavor. I noticed she could take all the pungent, esoteric ingredients and take them out and refine the dish. I realized that’s how I came up with the concept of the restaurant and the food—creating things we ate at home. Instead of using lotus stem for a Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup, my mom would use celery but if you gave it to someone from Vietnam they’d be like “What’s this?”
Q: You have one of the most up-and-coming restaurants in Palm Springs. What is the secret to your success?
TS: You know, I think it’s because I don’t take myself so seriously. That’s the honest truth. I don’t try to make something whimsical. It’s funny, I bumped into my friend the other day and he said, “I eat at your restaurant and I love the food, but what I love most is that you don’t take yourself too seriously. You use that blue tape to hang everything.” The wall is just full of blue tape—I don’t want to buy a frame for [certificates] the city is forcing me to hang!
Q: What was your main motivation to start the restaurant?
TS: I got so sick of working for other people, I just wanted my own place. I moved to Chicago because I needed to get out of the desert and it revitalized what I thought about food. I came back and I thought, I’m going to sell my house and start a restaurant. I think it was one of those things where the more you talk about it, the more you manifest it.
Q: Were there ever some tough moments when building Rooster and the Pig from the ground up?
TS: There were points that were like, just out of necessity, you have to figure out how to do it. I enlisted a few friends with tools and we just did it. You should have seen it. I went to Jo-Ann Fabric and I couldn’t believe the foam was so expensive! I got the material and I started reupholstering. We didn’t have any light, so my friend brought two lights from her closet and she held them up [while she worked]. People would walk by and say, “Well, that’s commitment.” I think that adds to the whole environment of the place. It feels more organic.
Q: What do you love most about working and living in Palm Springs?
TS: The heat sucks, but after living here, you tend to like the heat more than the cold. The reason why I like it here is you can be very anonymous. When I lived in LA or New York, you would see the same people every day at the same spots when you got off work. The quality of life here is really good; it’s not super expensive like most cities. You don’t have to deal with parking or traffic. You can just get things done.
Tai’s Dreams of Serving: Steamed Rice Flour Stuffed with Pork
Meet and Greet: When he’s not in the kitchen or front of house at Rooster and the Pig, you can find Tai hanging out with his friends at Bootlegger Tiki and the Avalon Hotel.
Rooster and the Pig
356 S Indian Canyon Dr
Palm Springs, CA 92262