COLUMBIA FALLS – After escaping from communist Vietnam in a crowded fishing boat at night, Tien Pham Windauer and 49 other kids floundered in the Gulf of Thailand for four foodless days, occasionally gathering enough rain for drinking water.
When the Malaysian coast guard picked them up, Windauer was nearly too sick to move. Then, a few months later, he found himself on an airplane headed for some strange place in America called Columbia Falls, a trip nearly as disorienting as the boat escape.
He arrived in Columbia Falls on March 28, 1984 – he was 12 years old, didn’t speak English and had no idea where he was. There was cold white stuff on the ground.
Twenty-four years later he sits in his restaurant, Tien’s Place, and proudly declares: “I’m just a local boy.”
Windauer – born Tien Pham in a rice farming village in southern Vietnam and labeled a “traitor” against the communist state because of his father’s military connections – has owned his award-winning Oriental cuisine restaurant in Columbia Falls for five years. Tien’s Place was voted best Oriental restaurant in Northwest Montana by www.restaurantlistings.com in 2007. Offering both lunch and dinner, Tien’s Place serves everything from spicy kung pao chicken to Philly cheesesteak sandwiches to diverse combo platters of varying Asian origins.
“I’ve learned a little here and there,” Windauer said, “and I combine them to make my own things.”
Windauer is a proud man. He’s proud of his restaurant, his family, his friends who helped start his business, his three perfect health department ratings, his food, his awards and his roots. And he has to take pride in what he does, otherwise his 16- to 20-hour days wouldn’t be worth it. Windauer insists on cooking each meal himself. Prep cooks chop and ready ingredients, but he’s always the man behind the pan.
“I’m very selfish about being a cook,” he said. “If I have a day off, we close down.”
“People are like, ‘How come you’re so crazy?’” he added. “I just love it. This is an opportunity I didn’t have in Vietnam. I’m really lucky to be here.”
Lucky to be here – in the U.S. That’s the message Windauer spreads to kids at local schools with speeches he gives every year. He tells them to respect the power of opportunity. He tells them how much he loves working. He tells them his story. Kids everywhere talk about “getting out,” but Windauer remembers as a child looking into the Mekong River and seeing dozens of bodies floating by his village – people who were truly trying to get out and didn’t make it after the Vietnam War.
Appreciate what you have, he preaches.
“I started out with nothing,” he said. “I love to work. To me work is like freedom.”
Windauer was adopted by Bob and Judy Windauer through the Lutheran Social Services. When the wide-eyed, confused Vietnamese boy first arrived in their house, the Windauers sought help from a few locals with Vietnamese backgrounds to help communicate. The boy didn’t have the slightest clue what was happening.
“They came to me and explained what was going on,” Windauer said. “A week later my mom threw me in sixth grade. The only two things I could do were math and P.E.”
In high school, Windauer dedicated himself to sports: wrestling, football, soccer, track. There, he said, he learned teamwork, which isn’t a cliché in his eyes. It’s a fundamental guiding principle he uses at his restaurant and in his life. He brings it up frequently.
As an adult, Windauer developed a love of cooking. He bounced around between restaurant jobs, including a stint as the manager of a Philly cheesesteak shop in Fairfax, Virg., near Georgetown University, serving sandwiches daily to a diverse group of regulars.
“I got to make Philly cheesesteaks for (NBA star) Allen Iverson every single day,” Windauer said. “It was crazy.”
When Windauer hatched the idea to start his own restaurant, he had little money. But he had friends, family and tools. So they all went to work, building walls, re-painting, installing new sheetrock and even making by hand the tables used in the restaurant. It took five weeks with all of the help.
“When I first started I couldn’t afford to buy tables,” he said.
Today, Windauer gives back to the community that helped his business take off and continues to keep him afloat. He offers 10 percent discounts to teachers and members of the Columbia Falls police and fire departments. He holds fundraisers. Lining the walls of his restaurant hang newspaper clippings of local sports teams and framed mementos of Columbia Falls High School state champions. Windauer offers free meals to all state champions, including a 35-member speech and debate team several years ago.
“They all come in like, ‘Man, we’re going to Tien’s and getting some free food,’” he said. “To me, it’s rewarding.”
In November, Windauer plans to visit his family in Vietnam for just the third time since he left 24 years ago. He said he’s excited to bring his wife, Maureen, but his three kids will stay behind. The youngest two, 4 and 6 years old, aren’t quite ready, he said.
And when his family asks about his life in the U.S., he knows exactly how to answer.
“I think life is good, man,” he said. “I think life is so awesome.”
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