Passavant’s Beloved ‘Susie Soups’ Uses A Secret Ingredient

By Zach Petroff Eagle Staff Writer

The only word that Ba Thi Nguyen knew when she started working as a dishwasher for the Passavant Retirement Community in 1976 was “Hello.”

Nguyen, who goes by Susie, and her family were part of the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Her family was taken by boat to Guam, where they stayed until they received sponsorship into the United States.

“I ran with everyone,” Nguyen said. “Everyone was going out and getting on the boat.”

While her family moved to Washington, D.C., Nguyen made her way to Pennsylvania, near Evans City, with a friend.

“I told her I needed to look for a job,” Nguyen said. “I asked her to help me because I couldn’t speak English. The only (English) word I could say was, ‘Hello.’”

Nguyen was able to get a job working as a dishwasher at the Passavant retirement center, where she has worked for the past 48 years. After teaching herself English, Nguyen became one of Passavant’s most popular chefs.

Known best for her soups, Nguyen uses a special ingredient in her recipe she brought with her from Vietnam, “tình yêu” — or, as it’s pronounced in English, “love.” Nguyen’s soups are front and center this Super Bowl weekend, as Passavant is holding its third annual soup sale. Open to the public, customers can purchase a pint or quart of her homemade soup.

Rebecca Hlavach, general manager of dining services for Cura Hospitality, said the soup sale started during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to give residents the ability to have a unique dining experience while still following social distancing guidelines.

“And now it’s one of the favorite things,” Hlavach said. “It’s winter time, so it’s cozy and it just checks off all the boxes.”

This year, Nguyen made her famous stuffed pepper soup, chicken and dumplings, and Passavant potato soup — 40 gallons of each.

Hlavach said Nguyen’s soups have always been a “big hit” around the assisted living facility. Soups such as broccoli and cheese, wedding soup and even crabby Swiss are popular dishes that residents look forward to when Susie is behind the ladle.

What makes Nguyen’s soup so popular appears to be a result of the amount of consideration she puts in while cooking. Fellow cook Joyce Jacobs said Nguyen’s secret is the “tender love and care” she puts into each batch. She said she would describe Nguyen as a perfectionist, who makes sure each meal is prepared correctly — even if it drives Jacobs “crazy.”

“We work together everyday, so of course on some days we’re fighting like sisters,” Jacobs said. “But we always come together and get it done. I love working with Susie.”

Hlavach said she also would describe Nguyen as a perfectionist, but without the negative connotation the word sometimes brings.

“She’s a perfectionist because she is very proud of what she does,” Hlavach said. “She knows that (the soup) is a representation of her, even if she didn’t make the soup from start to finish that people anticipate it’s her, so she wants to get it as close to perfect as humans can get.”

Not a stranger to hard work, Dave Tofanelli, Cura Hospitality district manager, said since he’s known Nguyen, she has approached her job with the utmost professionalism and dedication to her craft.

“I’ve known Susie for 12 years,” Tofanelli said. “She’s totally dependable, she lives local here and even when we have really bad snowstorms, she would not call off. I would drive by where she lives, pick her up and bring her in because she didn’t want to miss work.”

Nguyen’s dedication to the job included teaching herself English while she was a dishwasher. By familiarizing herself with the food tickets from residents, along with help from her co-workers, Nguyen was able to teach herself how to read and speak in English.

“I would picture the words in my head,” Nguyen said. “That’s how I would work on (learning how to read). It was a lot of letters, it took baby steps.”

Nguyen jokes now that the first word she learned on her own was “no.”

Whether it’s hard work or having a blend of just the right ingredients in each batch of soup, one thing seems to be clear, according to Hlavach — everyone looks forward to what Nguyen has cooking in the kitchen.

“Honestly, and this is like a cooking thing,” Hlavach said. “Susie puts a lot of love into her work, and it’s not that other people don’t, it’s that she’s become such an expert and when you do something for nearly 50 years, you are a supreme expert.”