Vinny Eng was at the top of his game in his restaurant career. He was recognized as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s sommeliers of the year. He was a skilled and respected general manager of Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco. Then, one day, he got an offer to become the organizing director for Suzy Loftus’ campaign for San Francisco district attorney. It didn’t take long for him to say yes.
Why would he change his life so radically?
“When the universe calls you, you show up. You find a way,” he tells host Amy Elisa Jackson in this episode of IN PURSUIT. Vinny’s work has always revolved around community, whether in his early career in the theater, his success in the restaurant business, or his advocacy for people of color and LGBTQ rights.
“We are not others in a way that make us foreign to each other. Rather we are others in a way that presents an opportunity for us to discover how much we are alike,” he says. “Your wholeness as a human being is an asset. Like, present your whole self to everyone. Be consistent about how you present yourself regardless of what space you’re in.”
Vinny’s pivot — and his grace navigating it — is at the heart of what the IN PURSUIT podcast is all about: arriving at a split in life’s path and making your best choice. You’ll be inspired by Vinny’s experience as you share in his life lessons.
As Vinny says in the interview, “Don’t ever confine yourself to think that a pathway is the one that you have to commit to. Trust when people show up for your life and trust when people give you the invitation to do something wildly outside anything you ever imagined. And if it feels good in your heart, go after it, go for it. Because when you take a risk in your personal and professional career, people will show up, and support you, and push you, and hold you accountable.”
Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. IN PURSUIT features candid, personal reflections from guests who are looking for answers and evolving to meet the challenges life throws at them. You’ll get inspiring conversations about life and career.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Welcome to IN PURSUIT the podcast from Glassdoor. I’m Amy Lisa Jackson. In every episode, we share the real stories of extraordinary people navigating life’s most pivotal moments at the intersection of the personal and professional.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Have you ever wondered if you could quit your job and make a complete 180 degree turn? Would you be willing to walk away from a wildly successful career to follow your passion? These are just two of the burning questions we have to ask Vinny Eng. Known as the general manager and wine director of one of San Francisco’s most vibrant restaurants, Tartine Manufactory, Vinny Eng left it all behind in April of this year. Spurred by the horrific death of his sister at the hands of police, Vinny left the restaurant world for the world of local government. His new role is as organizing director for Suzy Loftus’s campaign for San Francisco District Attorney. Let’s dig in more to learn a little bit about why he pivoted and how he’s navigating these new job jitters and the path that led to this moment.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Vinny, welcome to the show.
Vinny Eng: Thank you so much.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Before we dig into the career change, take us back. Did you always know you wanted to be a wine director? A sommelier? A man about restaurants.
Vinny Eng: Honestly, to tell you the truth, I moved to San Francisco in 2003 to work for a theater company.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Really?
Vinny Eng: Yeah. And the rent was too damn high in 2003 and so I started moonlighting at a restaurant just to make some extra money. And as you do in restaurants, you just sort of do what it takes to keep the service going.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Was that where you sort of discovered your passion for food and wine or what was it? Was there a moment, a dish, a glass of sauvignon something that just turned you on?
Vinny Eng: I wished there was a specific inflection point. But I’ll tell you, it wasn’t an object that was like a relationship.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How so?
Vinny Eng: Your restaurant becomes your family. You hustle, you work hard, you get through the weeds and at the end of the shift everyone looks at each other like hey, we did it, we got through it.
Amy Elisa Jackson: And so how did you go from, what was family and what was really sort of relationship-building to building this amazing career as wine director? I mean, that’s not something you really stumble into. I would imagine.
Vinny Eng: No, no, no. You sort of find yourselves in situations where you realize that you have an opportunity. And so I was being mentored by my then general manager, Alex Fox, and he decided to make a career change and put in his notice. And in that moment, we all looked around and the chefs and the owners looked at me and they said, “Hey, you’ve been here long enough and you understand sort of what makes this place tick and hum, why don’t you take over as general manager and wine director?”
Amy Elisa Jackson: Wow.
Vinny Eng: And I said, “You’re crazy.” I’ve never done either of those jobs before. And they said to me, “Well, it’s crazy industry, but you know everyone, you trust everyone, they trust you and our guests love you and you love them. And that’s what matters the most. So give it a shot and we’ll figure it out.” So it was very happenstance in a way. There was no planning for it. It was just sort of a collection of people who had faith in each other and who saw what the landscape was and said this is what the situation requires.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Wow. Now you were recognized as one of food and wines top sommeliers of 2019. How did that acknowledgment feel?
Vinny Eng: Incredibly humbling and also really validating, but not for me, but for this community in California. I made a concerted effort as I developed my approach to building wine programs in San Francisco to really focus on emerging voices in the Bay Area. I was really fortunate enough to be at a restaurant that really embraced the responsibility that we had to our local producers, our farmers. And we took that opportunity at Tartine, both at Bar Tartine and that Tartine Manufactory to codify those values in our operations.
Vinny Eng: And so we built a program that not only supported local emerging and new businesses, but also gave them the opportunity to be part of our platform so that new voices could reach new audiences, so that new emerging producers that were not prevalent in the wine industry found an opportunity to be in dialogue. We serve anywhere from 1500 to 2000 people a day at two Tartine locations, and even if 10% of those people paid attention that could be the difference for a local business in terms of new audience members and new subscribers and new mailing lists fans, and that could be enough.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That is powerful just to recognize your ability to sort of impact not only people’s businesses, but also their ability to expand their ability to reach more audiences, to also build community for themselves. How has your family background coming from Cambodia and migrating here vis-a-vis Thailand, how did that really shape your perspective, especially as you approach sort of building community through food and wine?
Vinny Eng: Food is at the center of every community. It’s something we do every day. It’s something that is both familiar and foreign, right? You sort of think about the rituals that connect the people that you love, and most of the ways in which we organize our gatherings are often around nourishing each other. In one way, I joke a lot with my former staff members, I say the quickest way to the heart is through the stomach.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely.
Vinny Eng: You feed someone and it just dissolves any notion of separation. Thank you for the generosity of nourishing me. Thank you for the generosity of feeding me. And so for me, so much of understanding what it meant also as the child of refugee immigrants is knowing that security and stability is also deeply rooted in access to food. The notion that we’re so blessed to have secure access to food, I’m so blessed. But there were moments growing up when food was not a luxury and also not a given, having to make a choice between paying rent or deciding whether we were having kidneys for dinner instead of a steak.
Vinny Eng: And so that vantage point created this deep sense of gratitude that I found myself professionally in a situation where I was serving things that were privileged, to have that cut, this particular heirloom variety of this vegetable, but also knowing that on the backend of that was a farm and the farmer and farmhands who are not seen. And so we think about the landscape of where we are in our present-day society and we have to keep thinking further upstream about what makes our life possible, who makes our life possible.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I love kind of recognizing the absolute privilege that it is to work in restaurants and work in the culinary world. But then as you sort of think about the other side of the coin as well, working the climb that professional ladder in the culinary world is definitely not easy. What’s been the biggest career challenge you faced as you’ve risen the ranks in the restaurant industry?
Vinny Eng: The better way to sort of frame it as what were the opportunities that were asking for awareness. The hospitality industry is that such a huge inflection point because so much of the dynamic in that space, so much of what, one of my greatest opportunities was re-imagining who a leader, what a leader looked like in that field. Especially in my little microcosm of the professional wine industry, there are very few individuals of color.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Very few.
Vinny Eng: And even fewer that have sort of navigated the pathway to become acknowledged for their ability. And validation to me is often, it’s not something to strive for per se. It sort of reinforces that your values are seen and are important. And for me the challenges were often being in rooms where I didn’t understand why my values weren’t represented. And representation is such a powerful way to create dialogue around what values are important in the space. It’s tremendously important to me that communities of color are represented in the hospitality industry, that queer communities are represented in the hospitality industry, not only in terms of who’s in the room, but more importantly who’s making decisions.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How did you navigate being the only one in the room? As a woman of color, I definitely can empathize and also relate to those feelings, but for you, how did you navigate that sense of otherness? Because you come off as so positive and very optimistic, how did you navigate the otherness?
Vinny Eng: The feeling of being an other is often presented as a prominent choice, but that’s the thing about a choice. You can make a different choice and I made a commitment to myself to find ways in which I could overcome the other, invite in people in the room to realize and acknowledge that there was a different choice that could be made. We are not others in a way that make us foreign to each other. Rather we are others in a way that presents an opportunity for us to discover how much we are alike.
Amy Elisa Jackson: As you think about your journey in the hospitality realm, when you look back to that time, things really took a turn in 2012. Life really pivoted for you. Walk us through what happened to your sister, Jazmyne, and sort of what diverted you on a different path in your life.
Vinny Eng: The universe is wide and vast and there’s so much that we can’t control.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Very true.
Vinny Eng: And in 2012 I got a text message from my sister, Nancy. She said, “Call me.” And we all have those moments in our lives where certain messages come in. You’re like oh my, okay, let’s go.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Something’s up— gird your loins.
Vinny Eng: Yeah. And I don’t think any of us ever, there’s no guide in life when tragedy hits. When tragedy hits and my sister Jazmyne had been struggling with a number of diagnoses, a number of mental health diagnoses. And in January of 2012, she was in crisis at a mental health facility down in Rosemead, in California and was involved in a critical situation with a number of sheriff deputies where she was killed. Killed in crisis, killed experiencing crisis. And sad, sad, very tragic.
Vinny Eng: And a truly American phenomenon, truly American phenomenon where we have failed so many communities in how we support and facilitate the recovery of individuals who live on a daily basis with illnesses that are invisible to our eyes. One in four officer-involved shootings involve someone in mental crisis and these deaths are entirely preventable, entirely preventable. And we have to take a look. These failures are not just failures in those moments, but failures in our communities to really diagnose and embrace the responsibility that we have to take care of each other before things go sideways.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What was your initial reaction after you spoke to your sister, Nancy, and you actually got the news? What was the feeling like? In that moment your just a brother, at the moment you’re just a man. You don’t have a platform, you don’t have a thought about policy or procedure. What was going through your head as a brother?
Vinny Eng: In that moment, everything rushed into my heart. There was nothing in my head. In that moment of just shock, deep shock. And sadness. I think my sister, Jazmyne, was… she had lived through the worst. She was a child that had experienced the worst of human behavior. She had lived for years as a child in labor camps in a genocidal country in Cambodia. And it was just deep and utter sadness that she came into this country, which I love so much and I continue to love so much. I love this country and I love this community and I love the people that I’ve… I love what it means to be American. I absolutely love what it means to be an American because this country embraced my family.
Vinny Eng: But in that moment of receiving that news, it was just heartbreak to think that my sister Jazmyne, my sister Nancy, my sister Susan, my mom, my dad escaped genocide, escaped terror, sought asylum, and was embraced by this country. They escaped harm at the hands of government agents only to experience tragedy in the hands of a government agency. But in that moment of a death, all of that intellectual processing goes out the door and the only thing that you really sort of experiences is deep and utter confusion.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Your family filed two lawsuits against LA County Sheriff Department and ultimately settled out of court. But what it or when did it feel like justice either hadn’t been served or was there a moment when you realized that the issues around mental health and policing were so much larger than this very tragic incident?
Vinny Eng: Justice is a beautiful complex fabric. And that moment where our family committed to a civil action is but one thread in this sort of fabric of what justice looks like. And justice evolves and is something that you constantly have to fight for. And I’ll tell you as one of hundreds of thousands of impacted family members throughout this country. The one thing that I hear constantly from other families impacted by police violence is the refrain is what we work for on a daily basis is to make sure that these things don’t ever happen to begin with.
Vinny Eng: It’s a big and beautiful family that we have not chosen to be part of, but we now embrace and accept and love each other. Every time we’re out in community activated, organizing for change around systems that have unnecessarily taken the lives of our loved ones. The thing that we hear all the time from each other is, I love you, I’m so sorry, what are you doing in your community to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Vinny Eng: Justice is an orientation more so, it’s more than just an outcome. It’s an orientation. It’s an orientation and realizing that there’s no greater force than the power of devotion to each other and the ability to create action out of the love for the ones that we have lost.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How did you juggle the world of being an advocate, as well as having your full-time job? Those seem to be very challenging head and heart moments, right?
Vinny Eng: When the universe calls you, you show up, you find a way. When I look at all the working parents that I’m so grateful to have in my life, and I think to myself I mean I’m like single. I don’t have kids, but I look at the mothers and the fathers who just, they juggle and you just do it. You just get shit done. You get shit done because getting the work done matters. Making space for people to be whole, to be seen, to be supported, to be nourished, to be protected, to be safe, it matters.
Amy Elisa Jackson: So how did you navigate an average day when it’s a 12-hour day at the restaurant, yet you want to comfort another family in the community?
Vinny Eng: I think you must be really candid and transparent with the people in your lives. And I was really candid with my community locally about the struggles that I had with my grief, with my advocacy. I was really frank with my community about why it mattered that I was present or why I was absent.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I think there’s always a fear, right, of talking to your manager or your boss or your client about the demands that you have in your personal life and trying to navigate that professionally. But I think that that’s awesome and really poignant advice for all of us trying to juggle the personal and professional.
Vinny Eng: And I would say this, your wholeness as a human being is an asset. Present your whole self to everyone. Be consistent about how you present yourself regardless of what space you’re in so that you’re not signal switching. There’s one signal that’s really powerful and that’s our ability to tap into our humanity. This is the thing I learned from all of my friends who are parents, from all of my friends are successful advocates, from all of my friends who are amazing, get things done, policymakers. They’re consistent. So that people come to the table and they know what to expect, especially in times when they have to make really difficult asks of you. I’m coming at you and I know you’re going to disagree, but I know that you’re going to be consistently fair to hear me out and that’s why I’m coming to have uncomfortable conversations with you because we need to have a conversation about what is right and I know that you’ll be consistent.
Vinny Eng: And so in our lives both and personally, one of the most productive tools you can have is to be consistent in a way where people can come to you and have an uncomfortable conversation in service of something greater, in service of a larger good, in service of a public good. The mark of leadership is not how you get things done when things are comfortable. The mark of leadership is your ability to convene your community when things have gone crazy and people are mad as hell and they want to see something better.
Amy Elisa Jackson: When was the moment when you knew you needed to pivot and change career to become potentially a full-time social justice advocate or get into local government?
Vinny Eng: It’s not a pivot. When I made the transition to join Suzy Loftus’s campaign, for me it was an expansion. Look at the landscape of where you spend your time and who you spend it with and build the community to support your ability to make sure that every waking moment that you have is invested in an outcome that serves as many people as possible. And so when I got the phone call from Suzy and her staff hey, this crazy thing, there was no question. There was no question.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Really did you accept on the phone?
Vinny Eng: I did accept on the phone. I mean in my heart. In that moment I was like this is crazy and this is amazing. You don’t want to be reckless in moments of opportunity, but you sort of want to map out, okay, what does this mean for my community, what does this mean for my wellbeing, what does this mean for what I’m about to dive into, how will this introduce chaos into my life and how does this serve my community? And for me that final point is the most important. Does this serve my community? Does this serve my heart? And I think when we take the orientation of service, when we take the orientation of being in service to others through your career choices, it really presents a different way to analyze how we make choices.
Vinny Eng: And this campaign has given me the opportunity to fall in love with the city all over again. I’m meeting people that have been in communities that I have never been part of, such a deep, beautiful and enriching way. People who have just committed their lives. I mean being in food and wine and being someone that is serving people is a great honor. I love being of service to people, but it’s different. People are paying you to be in service to them. But there have been entire communities of people in San Francisco that have been in service to other people that don’t get anything in return. People who have worked in violence prevention, people who have worked in workforce development, people who have worked in building power for marginalized communities. They don’t get paid for that. They do it out of the generosity of their heart, of wanting to build a safer, kinder, more expansive community for the children that come after them. And that has been so expansive for my heart.
Vinny Eng: So six months in I just, I see the landscape and I’m like, I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful to be supporting their work. They often say it’s one thing to be given a mic, it’s another thing to pass it. Pass the mic. Give it to someone who has been speaking without a mic. They’ve been speaking in a bullhorn. They’ll give them the mic. And the organizers, the activists, the advocates who have been building safety, building justice in this community for decades and their willingness to embrace and invite me to sit on the side. That’s not my table, that’s your table. I’m just here to take notes.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What are some of the surprising similarities between hospitality and advocacy? Are there any bridges? Obvious connections?
Vinny Eng: Recovery. We’re human. We pursue the best and the perfect in our professional and personal careers. And there are just some circumstances and situations that are way beyond your control. And how you navigate when things don’t go as intended is important.
Vinny Eng: And so what I mean by recovery is when mistakes happen, when things, when disagreements happen, when conflicts arise, how do you communicate with someone? How do you recover the common bond that we have, which is we’re human, right? So how do we recover? How do we restore a community that’s divided? How do we restore a situation when parties are in conflict? So there are commonalities. You acknowledge, you name it. I’m really sorry that we find ourselves at this juncture. I want to have this conversation with you, because we are ultimately pursuing similar things. So lay it out for me. Tell me. It’s no different in the restaurant. I’m so sorry that your steak came medium-well and you wanted it rare. Can I have 10 minutes for the kitchen to make a new one for you?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Did you know you had these kind of transferable skills, if you will? Or that so many of the lessons and skills that you had honed in hospitality were going to be in your toolkit, in your arsenal and so helpful now in the work that you’re doing?
Vinny Eng: My “be human” toolbox.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Your “be human” toolbox.
Vinny Eng: Yeah, I think we all have it. I think it’s really important that you just show up every day as your full self. You be human, you be kind to yourself. Regardless of what situation I find myself in, regardless of what professional role I find myself in, I always say what’s the kindest choice I can make for myself right now? And that’s an important guide. That’s the best tool that you have. What’s the kindest choice I can make? What’s the kindest choice I can make in this moment that does the most good for as many people as possible in as short amount of time as possible? That transfers through every job in every industry, and there is a halo effect. I think it’s really important as we navigate careers and navigate jobs that we think about what the long game is. The long game is that you go home at night and the person that you love, the roommate that you love, the partner that you love, the friend that you love says how’s your day. And you can respond I did the best that I could.
Amy Elisa Jackson: So speaking of long game, do you feel like being an organizing director for Suzy’s campaign is a brief detour or do you envision this being a permanent change? Do you feel like you’re ready to pivot potentially away from hospitality and further into community organizing? Or like you said, do you just feel like there are two sides of the same coin?
Vinny Eng: I’ve always organized in my community. Every time you organize a dinner party that’s community organizing. You know what I mean? So it’s in all of our fabric to organize in our communities, right? This is the thing that was so important to me when I made the transition. I am so grateful that I have such a beloved community in the food and wine profession here in the Bay Area. I love every single person that has made my career possible. And I hope at some point that we will have the opportunity to engage and collaborate again because supporting our farmers is important. Supporting are new emerging queer and communities of color that are coming up in leadership in the food and wine community is so important to me. I’ll be there. I can’t wait to come back. And sometimes it’s like a tour of duty. You get deployed. And so I guess that’s my long-winded way of saying that things haven’t changed.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Good because the foodies who are listening, as well as those who love a good meal and a good glass of wine are relieved right now. They’re breathing a sigh of relief that you have not ditched them for the world of local government. We’re thankful.
Vinny Eng: Don’t ever confine yourself to think that a pathway is the one that you have to commit to. Trust when people show up for your life and trust when people give you the invitation to do something wildly outside anything you ever imagined, that you should consider it and imagine it and think about how it creates community. And if it feels good in your heart, go after it, go for it. Go for it. Because when you take a risk in your personal and professional career, people will show up and support you and push you and hold you accountable. And that’s the thing that comes from this. Love, real love and real meaningful relationships are not just about cheerleading. It’s about accountability.
Amy Elisa Jackson: As you look ahead to 2020, it’s a new decade.
Vinny Eng: Lord, help us.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I know, but as you look ahead, what are you in pursuit of Vinny?
Vinny Eng: Love. Love and forgiveness. I think about this work that I’ve done since 2012 and the thing that’s the tool that has really helped me is forgiveness. You sort of forgive the universe for the things that have caused you the most sadness. When you touched suffering in that way, it’s a gift. It’s a gift to see suffering because then it gives you the opportunity to see how others suffer. And when you see how others suffer, it makes it that much easier for you to love someone that’s not like you.
Vinny Eng: So back to this notion of the other, how can we learn to love people who are other from us, love them in such a way that we can hold space to say I fundamentally disagree with you, you need to do some work about your racism, your transphobia, your homophobia, all the things, that’s your work, not my work, but my work is to love you and to show you that when you’re ready-
Amy Elisa Jackson: …I’m here.
Vinny Eng: … I’m here. I’m going to love you fully, but your work is your work. You got to go do your work. But when you’re ready to receive the love that I am capable of giving you, I am right here.
Vinny Eng: And that requires forgiving someone for not having done the work yet. That requires forgiving someone for saying something hateful, that is hurtful to your heart. That requires forgiving someone for being separate, for being distant, but also knowing that your truth means that you are not their separateness. You are not their hate. You are not their phobia, that you stand in your love and you forgive and you say reconciliation is possible if you show up at this table, you do your work and when you’re done with your work, you come to this table and we’ll build something better. And that’s what we’re all capable of in the choices that we make in our professional and personal lives. We are capable of building something better. You stand in your truth. You stand in your light. You stand in your love, but you over there, you do your work. I will call you out on the things that hurt people. You will not hurt my community. You do your work and when you’re done, come here and let’s build something.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I love that in pursuit of both love and forgiveness in 2020.
Vinny Eng: And in life babe, in life.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Vinny Eng, thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with us here at Glassdoor.
Vinny Eng: Oh my goodness. This is probably one of the strangest, most unconventional conversations you’ve had.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It was fantastic. Thank you so much.
Vinny Eng: I’m so grateful. Thank you for having me.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Thank you for listening to IN PURSUIT the podcast from Glassdoor. This episode was produced by Lee Schneider and Allison Sullivan, music by Epidemic Sound, production by Red Cup Agency. Look for us on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re on Apple Podcasts, don’t forget to share the love, give us some stars and leave a comment. Thanks for listening. I’m Amy Elisa Jackson Jackson, and this is IN PURSUIT.
Click to listen now. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. IN PURSUIT features candid, personal reflections from guests who are looking for answers and evolving to meet the challenges life throws at them. You’ll get inspiring conversations about life and career. If you have a question or feedback for us, message us on Twitter (@glassdoor, using the hashtag #InPursuitPod).