Meet Nguyen Tran - the unlikely banana suit-wearing, Virginia born, culturally confused Vietnamese-American son of Vietnam War refugees who settled in Dallas, TX. There, he worked at a dot.com before the first internet bubble burst. He graduated with a, then useless, Computer Science degree, and moved to Hollywood to sell TV re-runs.
Next, he landed at the kingmaker famous, and stressfully infamous, William Morris Agency mailroom. And, in the depths of the 2008 fall of the economy, Starry Kitchen, the illegal-and-underground apartment restaurant he and his wife Thi Tran created out of sheer necessity to survive, was born.
Ahead of Nguyen Tran's exciting program, we thought we'd ask Tran some questions to get to know him a bit better before his event at the Taper Auditorium in Central Library. This program revolved around his unexpected path to becoming a restauranteur and his cookbook/memoir: Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes from America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant.
Even we don't know what to expect!
What book Is currently on your nightstand?
Well, to be honest, I don’t have any book on my nightstand because, and I hate to be so stereotypical and even slightly predictable, I read on the toilet the most—and many times not for the usual reasons other than I get great light there for reading—Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, which is a short-story compilation edited by the king of sardonic hilarity, David Sedaris. For the last year, I really wanted my answer to be Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which is like David Sedaris-lite, right? ^_^
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
About every Encyclopedia Brown book I could get my hands on. I think every kid wants to be some kind of hero, and him being a cerebral superhero, of sorts, really felt more attainable and relatable to nerdy and slightly insecure me. He’s a kid detective solving mysteries, crimes, and his ragtag friends’ problems—I wanted to be that kid, but I honestly, probably [still] cause more problems than I can solve, LOL.
What is a book you've faked reading?
This is going to seem like complete sacrilege, in the most literal sense, all joking aside because I grew up Catholic in the buckle of the Bible belt—t...h...e ... Bible! I’ll admit, I’m not deeply religious, or all that devout too, sorry mom, I blame all the wonderful secular distractions I’m willingly surrounded by—t...h...e...Bible! But the sacrilege to me honestly has nothing to do with how I was religiously raised or was supposed to live by as a good Samaritan and stuff, but because as a piece of literature, it is profound the effect it has had on our world and all the deep allegory, or are they???, within the pages—but what do I know, I wear a banana suit and tell people to enjoy my Crispy Tofu balls over a comfortably loud megaphone.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I’ll be honest, and I don’t think I’m well-read enough to give a good standard answer for this, but my answer that represents more than it should is The Time Traveler’s Wife. I’ll try to give the short story of this.
When I was an assistant at one of the most storied talent agencies in the business, William Morris, before the merger with Endeavor for anyone that’s in the know, one of my favorite scripts I read was the first-draft film adaptation of the book back in 2005. I remember being so swept away with the melancholy and charm of a story built around the stereotypical sci-fi device of time travel that I knew I needed to read the original book by Audrey Niffenegger.
Fast forward ten years, one complete career shift, film to food, many wild roller-coaster-ride-like highs-and-lows, and then completely crashing and burning and quitting and shutting down Starry Kitchen. Later in 2015, it was when we were fun-employed with no thought as to our future, no child yet, and no money that I finally picked up the first novel I would read in at least eight years, The Time Traveler’s Wife. All the lessons, success, and failure of Starry Kitchen was always so time-consuming that it was very hard for me to make time to just sit and read. There I was with nothing but time on my hands, and I poured over that book every moment I could. I loved every moment of being swept away and not having to put the book down at a moment’s notice, at the top of every free soul-searching hike I scaled. And when I finished it with no sense of urgency of anything immediate that I needed to tend to; no emergency at the restaurant waiting for me to solve, and no excuse for me not to start going through my stack ... I continued down that path and then finally picked up The Alchemist. Taking and having the time to read wasn’t a luxury I had or gave myself during our toughest years, and now I can again and I very much cherish that.
What is your idea of THE perfect day?
Super easy answer: swing by Larchmont Village Wine and Spirits and pick up a #3, drive all the way to San Pedro and then swing by Busy Bee and pick up whatever big and inexpensive messy-licious sandwich the soul yearns for the most, because two sandwiches are always better than one, park at the Korean Friendship Bell, sit on one of the steps facing toward the ocean, take in the view, the winds, the kite flying and sometimes even whale watching and just start devouring my sandwiches. I’ve always been fascinated with this one location ever since I saw it in The Usual Suspects, and when I finally found it, when we quit, I just absolutely fell into a deep trance-like love with this place that most Angelenos still haven’t been to or heard of. From there, just randomly do what feels most right: going up the coast to and through Palos Verdes; maybe heading into Torrance for great Japanese food, or even stay home and take a nap and just slow everything down and don’t do anything else.
I don’t need much, but a sammie and the Friendship Bell and I am fine letting life take it from there.
What are you working on now?
Continually failing upwards, is that a good answer? I would love someone to make another mistake and give me another book deal. I really enjoyed the whole writing process and honestly learned so much more about myself in the process. Mass producing and spreading the gospel on the Crispy Tofu Balls—I think it’s time.
Honestly, doing more media, like I shot a pilot for Food Network, not for the fame, of which, I mean, who knows who I am anyway ???, or fortune...doesn’t exist for me LOL, but to spread the word on the stories of amazing food and really ... to be another diverse [Asian] face in the crowd to pave the way for people like my son and other youth to know there is plenty of room for everyone to pursue whatever they feel like and to not be constrained by what history dictates they can and can’t do. That alone motivates me to increase my influence to be the stepping stone for others to build upon.
What was your favorite food as a child? Now?
I’m going to say fried fish with all the crumbs at Long John Silvers was my favorite food ... next to Popeye’s Fried Chicken! Ok, I cheated and slipped in two instead of one. ^_^ Now... the usual answer is usually what I call my death row dish in the book, aka something I would want to eat before I die, a caramelized clay pot catfish and pork belly called Ca kho to in Vietnamese ... and if it’s not that, seriously, a great bowl of pho, like Sup Noodle Bar in O.C., really hits the spot. And fried chicken never goes away as a fave as well, haha.
Do you prefer to cook for others or have someone cook for you?
To be plainly honest, others cook for me. I don’t want to show off, and I’m much slower getting my mise en place together compared to my wife, Thi, as well. Plus, I love to find inspiration at random times and places in life, and many a time it comes at small gatherings that we’re invited to ... and oh yeah, sometimes a break is just nice as well.
Were you an unusual child?
I mean, what is the definition of a usual child? I guess my answer is yes? I was shy and talked a lot. I would build the same 400 piece LEGO castle, by memory, eventually, while watching Saturday morning cartoons every morning for at least a year. I scored high on my IQ tests, but low[est] in discipline and would frequently get straight up zeroes for conduct. I mean, I don’t know—how unusual does some of that sound?
What would be your dream restaurant to open—where what cuisine, etc.?
A tiny unpretentious chili crab shack on the beach ... any beach and that’s all we served, and maybe garlic noodles and maybe tofu balls ... but not much more!
What are you passionate about?
A boatload of stuff including anime, I’ve been seriously watching since 1989, console video games, I own about 600+ games and 25+ consoles, food—no seriously, like a food blogger chasing after the latest and greatest thing, life and trying to reinterpret. and subsequently reprogram myself, all the weird societal standard I was supposed to live by and give my son my honest two cents on that kind of stuff so he doesn’t grow up to be a jerk...like me, I hope!