Author Voice: Nguyen Tran -

Author Voice: Nguyen Tran

Nguyen Tran from

1. What inspired you to open Starry Kitchen?

There are two simple answer to that:

2. What is the trick to making the same food for 60 people compared to when you make it for 5 or 6 people?

First answer will come off as curt… but arithmetic! haha No seriously, mouth counts for so much when scaling up.

Aside from that, it’s about organization of preparation and storage. Preparing things on a larger scale. Not going back and forth on ingredient prep until one is done. To pay much closer attention to how ingredients prepped on a larger scale CAN go bad much more quickly.

Figuring out better ways or better tools to accomplish the same quality and effect in half the time. And then also designing a menu that can either be mostly pre-prepped or put together VERY quickly at the time of order (aka “a la minute”).

I have a big pet peeve when people tell me someone has failed because of inexperience because… EVERYONE has got to start somewhere. The other trick, we just kept pushing whether we succeeded or completely under estimated and messed up.

We got better. We got stronger. We got more confident, and we could anticipate so much more successfully in the process.

Oh, and as corny as it sounds, LOVE! When you make that much food, it’s grueling. Happy people make happy food, and if you ain’t happy… 😉

3. How important is it to you to provide your clients with quality food?

It’s of the UTMOST importance if not for anything but just to know deep down in my soul I tried to give them the best representation and flavor of what we were trying to make. Without quality, everything else falls apart. Everything is a gimmick without the support of quality to hold it up.

And it turns an “amazing” opinion into the ambivalent “meh” which galvanizes NO ONE to try. Without quality, there is no longevity. It’s a fad driven house of cards of that’s just primed to be knocked down by the next person in the game for the same wrong reasons building a vicious cycle distrust with eaters (that may turn to fast food JUST because at least they’re consistent) and a shrinking audience for that business and overall as more and more people get burned by not-so-great food.

4. What do you think is the reason behind Starry Kitchen’s success?

I mean this with the utmost sincerity and not trying to be super clever – I’m not quite sure. I can give you guesses about a number of reasons that contribute to the overall picture of why we’re surprisingly still around and strangely not quite irrelevant (yet).

If any of those makes sense, then those reasons… if none of them, I don’t know how much more I can offer! 😉

5. What are the hurdles that you had to faced with when promoting your food and your restaurant

So many I could probably launch a podcast that would run for almost eternity listing and dissecting all the hurdles, but the ones that come to mind the most are…

Me – I’m a polarizing personality being half of the team of Starry Kitchen, being the face and figurative (and literal) bull horn of the business and… I’m very unapologetic about using curse words or double entendres to emphatically describe how much I love our food.

I’m alright with not pleasing everyone (because I say that in trying to get everyone, you could also not get anyone at all). I don’t take “no”, “I don’t know what that is”, “that sounds gross”, or the condescending “that’s INTERESTING” without actually trying the food and making an actual informed opinion.

Oh, and making any ethnic food has two sets of detractions and distractions.

People near or of that ethnicity where a dish originates from, tend to be the most critical and always questioning authenticity (even if we’re blatantly not trying to be authentic as much as just being authentic to ourselves and what makes the most sense to us).

And the detractors being just people that don’t know enough about the food to assume it may fall short of the predictable mediocrity that is generally out there. I’m not even saying our food is better than that (even though I’d like to think it is!), but when asking someone to stray away from their norm – it can be as much of a battle of convincing them (if not more so) than anyone else.

BUT, they’re the best converts because they’ll go the lengths to tell people how reticent they were to try the food and then how much they love it. That’s the best feeling when that does happen though.

6. Are people generally receptive of the direction that your restaurant is taking?

8 years in – yes. 8-7-6 years ago, we were an unknown quantity. We were a joke and people thought we’d be a “flash in the pan” (as did we to be honest- I had no idea how long we could/would last). But when you stick to something long enough, and show them your tenacity and staying power to not quit… you start getting more people “drinking the kool-aid” and they start to see over time the vision and culture behind something that seems abnormal at first.

But you also can’t evolve something truly great (and I’m not saying we’re even there yet, I should clarify LOL) without having haters and detractors that will give some of the best constructive critique that will take an idea from one place into a whole other stratosphere all together.

Change is the only constant, and staying constant tends to breed complacency and arrogance (in my personal experience- and I am talking about me here). And I think more and more people are coming along for the ride so I guess the answer now is…

Yes, they’re generally receptive of our direction even if they don’t understand it (but they also don’t question as much either!).

7. How does your restaurant take the needs of people with diabetes into consideration?

To be honest: we don’t.

And I don’t say that as if being diabetic is a faux paux in our culinary development at all either. And I know this example I’m about to give is a choice and not a biological processing and digestive condition, but I don’t think it’s very different from what we tell Vegans about making Vegan dishes:

We want to make good food first, and Vegan second because I could serve dirt (as an admittedly extreme and very sarcastic example) and call it Vegan – and that takes no effort if we wanted to be those kind of chefs and restaurateurs.

I will say that even if sugar is the “secret” Asian ingredient in many a dish, the other not-so-secret technique is balance of flavors.

We honestly don’t like using heavy amounts of sugar even if there are places that seem to. I think that’s a horrible way to mask heavily preserved and lined with near catastrophic amounts of sodium foods- which is even worse, right? Those kinds of foods are both not safe for diabetics and people with heart conditions.

We try to make fresh food. We try to make them taste the best way possible. We aren’t trying to mask anything, and we’re just trying give people balanced flavors with balanced ingredients at the end of the day whether someone’s diabetic, is gluten intolerant, has a heart condition or similar.

I’m sure this might not be the most popular answer, but contrary to my customer service ideal – in this case we are trying to feed as many people as possible and just make them feel good. Is that so wrong?

8. Your book was warmly received. Did you have any idea that it would?

Nope. Absolutely not. I’m even flattered that you think my book’s been warmly received. I’m not sure the verdict is even out, and I also don’t want to get lost in the simple fact: I HAVE A BOOK! That’s such a crazy thing to consider.

Vietnamese-American kid born in Fairfax, VA, grew up in Dallas, TX, was so culturally confused and ended up trying to be white just to fit in most my life until I was 18 years old and is a huge videogame nerd… got a deal to write words about our story on the bet that other people may appreciate what we’ve been through and/or the food that we make? INSANE I TELL YOU!

But I will say every nice word I genuinely appreciate – this is a very special accomplishment to me, and I still can’t believe it’s even real. I hope that sounds genuine because I don’t know how to sugar coat how I don’t understand how we got this far in the first place, and I know and appreciate how lucky we are. ^_^

9. What does healthy eating look like to you?

Balance. Moderation. Discipline.

I’ve watched people eat, change in weight, demeanor, confidence and thensome for a long time and I feel like excess is the singular enemy to healthy eating. Sure, we can calorie count, lean towards organic foods and just be more educated on the products we’re putting into our bodies- that has a huge probable effect of leading towards a healthier life style… but I’ve seen people that do that but eat excessively almost in a way that they’re trying to convince themselves this is the way and yet their souls don’t quite believe it.

I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but I feel like the difference of the NEED to do something and the WANT (and with that comes more acceptance of information and confidence of execution) are very different for us as humans.

And sometimes just “listening” to our bodies to see how we feel with excess, certain kinds of foods and thensome.

We’re all more empowered than we want to give ourselves credit for (or want to take responsibility for) I think… but I’m also a crazy intense person so I don’t know if I have any credibility to give anyone advice or judge others for that matter. 🙂

10. What is it about Asian food that is taking momentum in North America?

I think mainstream awareness (TV, internet, social media), more exposure to Asian cultures in our communities and… this is going to sound possibly pompous or made up, a LOT of the food tastemakers in the “influencing community” tend to be Asian. Asians, as a culture, are VERY opinionated when it comes to food and also just as emphatic to share great food finds too.

And with that, we’re proud of the foods we grew up with and I think we take a lot of pride when our culture comes more into the limelight (Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, new school Sichuan Chinese, etc).

Oh, and because, as a sweeping generalization, Asian foods tend to be packed with incredible flavors and yet not as heavy and are perceived to be healthier in overall recipe and culinary construction than at least Western American culture.

I don’t know how to tackle this in a shorter conversation (and how not to be inclusive of everyone, and not offend some people in the process), but I think many of the flavors of Asia are so bold that can lead to an awakening for many in the process too.

Who knows? I’m not quite sure, but I’m happy to make it and serve it!

11. How involved are you in the process of ensuring all meals meet the health standards put into place?

I am DIRECTLY involved in the entire process. We want people to have a great experience with our food. We want people to come back… oh, and we don’t want to be shutdown in the process of being lazy too, so there’s that.

But with restriction, I think comes true ingenuity no matter how stringent. It’s easy to complain about some strict standards, but it’s easier (to me) to figure out how to make it work in our favor and make our food just as good if not better if those measures weren’t in place.

Honestly, it’s so engrained in our minds when it comes to development that we don’t think twice about the health standards anymore. It’s part of our daily restauranting lives and we just make it work (while being happy with the food that we make).

12. What are some of the myths that people have about Asian food which you would like to call out on?

M… S… G is bad for you… it makes you sleepy… it’s unnatural. Oh LORD! (but it is like a super concentration of salt – so I do agree with anyone that is SUPER thirsty after having foods w/ MSG, oh man, so thirsty!).

Funny thing is- we don’t add MSG to anything. So I should say that upfront (I wish we did sometimes though – it’s SO good).

BUT, because it has a stigma that is associated with the creation of Asian food, I have to deal with it quite often actually. It does surprise people when we educate people that MSG is more common and natural like in: parmesan cheese, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and the like.

The only other one was when I used to ask people if they liked Asian food, so many would reply, “Oh yeah, I eat SUSHI!”.

Haha I would like to clarify that SUSHI, in my opinion, is not necessarily representative of ALL Asian culture of food, but is specifically one kind of cuisine that is from a very specific culture (Japanese) only to really be replicated by the Koreans (they have kimbap, which is delicious alternative to rolled sushi, and when I’ve had it usually has something like spam or beef and a pickled veg wrapped in rice and a dried seaweed).

The best part would be the people that would look back at me with confusion as if they thought sushi was their ticket to be all knowing about Asian culture.

Otherwise… oh, and not all Asian food is healthy, but I’m sure that’s something I need to expound on. 🙂

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