LA Feast: An Adventure with Starry Kitchen: How an Illegal Restaurant in Nguyen Tran’s Apartment Evolved into a Career in the Culinary World
As we gear up for our Los Angeles feast on July 28th at Vibiana, we feature another one of the chefs on our roster, this time turning to Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen. He shares with us the story of how an illegal restaurant that started in he and his wife’s living room culminated in a career in the food industry with the opening of Button Mash on Sunset Boulevard, the release of his first cookbook, called Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes from America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant” and a newfound understanding of what it means to be an Asian American today.
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Starry Kitchen traces its origins to what Nguyen Tran called his “death row dish”, a clay pot of caramelized fish and braised pork over a bowl of rice. It was his first international trip out of the country and the first time he would really go home, not to his Texas abode where he was raised but to his roots in Vietnam. Nguyen was around the same age as his parents were when they fled the country after the Vietnam War during a two week window of immunity granted by the communists. At 16 or 17 years old, they scurried onto boats, facing the open sea with nothing but optimism, hunger, fear of pirates and the promise of America.
“I rejected my culture until I was 18 years old. Partially because I find that in the diaspora dilemma, you’re caught between two cultures. One that you’re in and one that you actually are. I was trying to be white for no other reason other than I just didn’t want to stand out. My parents took me back to Vietnam for the first time and then everything changed,” Nguyen says openly.
Named by Thi after her favorite cooking show in Hong Kong, the apartment patio turned Pan-Asian comfort-foods restaurant first opened its doors. A donation box sat in the corner and folks threw in a suggested $5 to dine and commiserate. Being an “eternal optimist” it never worried Nguyen that strangers were coming to regularly occupy their home. “I believe in humanity, bad things happen don’t get me wrong, I’m not blind to that but it’s beautiful when you trust people and the things that come from that,” he said. The sounds of acoustic Led Zeppelin wafted down from the fourth floor every Sunday as folks from all different backgrounds and affluence came with different palettes, without expectation. “The purpose of unemployment isn’t necessarily to find a new job but it’s about reinvention,” Nguyen said.
The health department soon caught wind of what Nguyen and Thi were doing and so Starry Kitchen was forced to go rogue. The operation went from the porch into their home where they could fit “10 people comfortably and 35-40 people very uncomfortably”. Afraid that inevitably pointed to something bad when you had strangers elbow to elbow with each other in another stranger’s living room, Nguyen served with one eye closed, one eye open. Yet instead the efforts that people went through to sardine-can themselves to enjoy a meal at Starry Kitchen showcased the best in a dining experience as people turned to each other more readily and engaged in opportunities for conversation that are so often missed.
With food arguably being the avenue down which we’re most willing to travel to explore another culture, buzzwords and phrases like the appropriation of culture, fusion, authenticity and white privilege arise on the regular. While folks were riled up over the Bon Appetit’s pho piece and the cultural controversy surround it, Nguyen’s reaction was to go straight to source and get in contact with chef, Tyler Akin, directly and befriend him. “It’s a hipster white guy that’s telling me about pho and of course my knee-jerk reaction would be to be mad but when I watch it, this guy just really likes pho and I have no problem because he’s furthering my culture. Food is something you want to share and if we run a business that’s what we’re doing anyway. I get white privilege and that plays into my upbringing too but there’s something ubiquitous about food that culturally brings people together,” he said.
Perhaps it’s not about solely about visibility and it’s more about stewarding culture, acknowledging origins and adding to a conversation but knowing what your role is and who you’re speaking for in that conversation. Nguyen, an Asian American who truly embodies the term, instead sees it as his responsibility to “represent the culture of my upbringing and further the education of our culture and food.”
We ask him what’s next and he kind of laughs before replying, “the book is the current thing that’s happening and we failed upwards to get to this point but the answer is uncertain. Not because I’m nervous but I’m uncertain in the way that I’ll accept whatever comes our way with open arms. I think it’ll open a door of some kind but I won’t know until I get to that door.” Starry Kitchen does not only tell an Asian American story but a universal one, infused with hope that seizes upon passion.