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The Zero-Cost Kitchen: A Vietnamese-Mexican Couple’s Initiative

Every day, Mr. Nicolas Antonio and Mrs. Trần Hoàng Kim in District 12 distribute 200 free lunch boxes in just ten minutes, a job they’ve been doing for four years now.

At 8 a.m. on July 26th, Mrs. Trần Hoàng Kim (37 years old) swiftly stirs the stir-fried vegetables in the pan and occasionally checks the simmering pot of braised fish to ensure all the spices are well mixed. Next to her, Mr. Nicolas Antonio scoops out hot rice from a large pot into individual boxes. The husband and wife have been diligently preparing food since early morning to provide meals in front of their house at alley 43, Vườn Lài Street, to those in need.

Their schedule for preparing charity meals begins early in the morning at 5 a.m. Mr. Antonio, a Mexican national, drives Mrs. Kim to the Thủ Đức wholesale market to buy vegetables, fish, meat, and fruits. An hour later, they start cooking, with Mr. Antonio handling food preparation while Mrs. Kim takes charge of the kitchen.

“”””Preparing hundreds of meals requires skill; sometimes, he wants to try cooking, but I don’t let him, so I mainly assist,”””” said Mrs. Kim.

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Mr. Nicolas Antonio and Mrs. Trần Hoàng Kim preparing charity meals on the morning of July 26. Photo: Quỳnh Trần

At around 8:30 a.m., the cooking is complete, and the husband and wife divide the food into disposable boxes. The daily menu varies with about a dozen dishes, each meal consisting of vegetables, a main dish, and a dessert. On average, a single cooking session uses approximately 25 kg of rice and 40 kg of vegetables and meat, with a cost of one million Vietnamese dong.

“”””Initially, it was from our own pockets, but later, with the support of many kind-hearted people. Some days, if we don’t have enough funds, I cook vegetarian meals for our fellow citizens,”””” said Mrs. Kim.

Every day, even though the meals are distributed at 9:30 a.m., many people have already gathered and are waiting inside the house or outside the alley half an hour earlier. In less than 15 minutes, all 200 portions of food are distributed. Mrs. Kim stated that anyone, regardless of their circumstances, can come and receive a free lunch. She prefers to call it “”””zero-dong meals”””” instead of free to ensure that people don’t feel like they are receiving charity or feel embarrassed about being in need.

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Every day, Mrs. Nga comes to collect 4 portions of food for her family. Photo: Quỳnh Trần

Among the people waiting to receive meals on July 26 is Mrs. Nga from Đồng Nai Province, who works as a lottery ticket seller. She walks nearly two kilometers every day to collect 4 portions of food for herself and her grandchild. “”””Selling lottery tickets doesn’t earn much, but getting free meals helps me save 20,000-30,000 dong for lunch. I can use this money for other things,”””” shared Mrs. Nga.

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Half an hour before mealtime, many people had already gathered inside, waiting.
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Each person can receive multiple portions of food, depending on their circumstances.
The menu changes daily, including vegetables and main dishes.
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200 meals are quickly distributed in just 10 minutes.
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Half an hour before mealtime, many people had already gathered inside, waiting.

Ms. Kim has had a 9-year relationship with Mr. Nicolas Antonio. When she returned to her home country, the two registered for marriage and planned to move to Mexico to start a new life. However, realizing that their kitchen was not being shared with many people, she persuaded her husband to stay and pursue their passion for charity work.

“”””I plan to stay in Vietnam until the end of next year or longer until I find someone who can take over the kitchen,”””” Ms. Kim said.

To support his wife’s charity kitchen, Mr. Nicolas Antonio used his family’s money to buy groceries. The house where they distribute free meals was also newly rented at the beginning of this year, more spacious and with a wide enough alley for people to come and receive lunch every day.

He mentioned that during this time, his wife has not gone to work to focus all her time on cooking for the less fortunate. “”””My job is only to assist my wife in cooking and distributing meals every day. Seeing my wife happy helping many others makes me happy,”””” said Mr. Nicolas Antonio.


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