lifestyle • 28 Jun, 2017
Interview: Nguyen Tran’s Adventures in Starry Kitchen
America's most famous underground restaurant releases asian-inspired cookbook
The story goes like this. The US economy tanks in 2009. Nguyen Tran and his wife Thi find themselves, like a lot of others, unemployed. Rather than sit around, they open a semi-legal underground eatery, Starry Kitchen, right there in their apartment. Almost overnight, it becomes the #1 Asian Fusion Restaurant in LA.
After threats of closure from the city’s Health Inspectors, Nguyen and Thi switch it up, and Starry Kitchen becomes a pop-up restaurant housed in a space better known for serving sushi. They move to bigger premises by popular demand in Chinatown, The LA Times calls their Singapore Chilli Crab ‘a cult item’ and a star eatery is born.
Now the pair are telling the story of “their beautiful accident gone right” in their new book, ‘Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes From America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant’. We got the low-down from Nguyen:
Did the popularity of the pop-up surprise you?
I'm surprised by ALL OF IT! Growing past the first pop-up. Becoming legitimate. Being found by the LA Times, the New York Times and NPR. Getting the book deal…
Where’d you even get an idea like that?
When I was five, my parents took me to someone's house for lunch. The front door opened and we were led to the backyard — a fully fledged restaurant with tables, chairs and so many people running around, eating, ordering and having a great time. This experience has always stuck with me as something very special, not particularly legal but amazingly resourceful.
What were the ingredients behind that sudden success?
I think it was the confluence of people looking for answers. We were all broken (and broke) and searching for like-minded souls. People told other people. And at the same time our food was evolving.
How was Asian food in LA before you opened?
I think LA is the Asian cuisine capital of North America. It’s diverse. There’s the biggest Korea-town. East LA is the hotbed of Cantonese-, Mandarin-, Szhechuan-Chinese, and Chinese-Vietnamese (as well as straight-up Vietnamese). There’s Filipino in Filipino-town and in Panorama City. Thai food in Thai-town, but throughout LA, and great sushi in Little Tokyo, Sawtelle aka Little Osaka, Gardena and Torrance.
What did you bring to that mix?
We jumped on that train by focusing solely on Pan-Asian comfort foods — the ‘peasant dishes’ served in Asian homes but not necessarily in restaurants. We added our sense of fun too. Our Singaporean Chili Crab’s served with a savory Buttermilk Beer Beignet (a French-Canadian donut) instead of the typical fried-steamed bun you’d get in Singapore.
There’s a section in the book titled ‘The Thai prostitute who introduced me to pandan’…
The 'Thai prostitute' story introduces the dessert it directly inspired. Once you guys read the story, I hope you'll understand why I'll never forget this prostitute, who I didn't sleep with but took out to dinner, and who changed my outlook on the world. There are sections, sub-sections and stories that are either relevant to the dishes or the time period of Starry Kitchen.
Give us some advice for couples doing business together.
For us, our love story has had a lot of ups-and-downs (including in the restaurant business). I'd like to think it's made our relationship stronger by (barely) surviving it all.
The book’s published. What’s next?
I always say that we've failed upwards to get this far. My main crazy-focus is to try and mass produce our most famous signature dish, the Crispy Tofu Balls. It's the dish that best defines us. It's also the dish that people get most mad about if we run out! I want to spread our love and this dish around the world. Will it happen? I have no idea, but I can and will certainly try…
The 'Crispy Tofu Balls', one of Starry Kitchen's signature dishes
Images courtesy of Julia Stotz & Amazon
Words by AA