In Part 1 of our interview with Starry Kitchen's Thi Tran, Tran talked to us about her previous career in advertising, the restaurant she started out of her apartment, how it got shut down by the health department, and how it all lead to her current downtown restaurant. For Part 2, we dig into the difficulties of developing a menu, new cooking possibilities, Starry Kitchen expansion, some of her favorite restaurants in Koreatown, and more.
Her matter-of-fact but inspirational story continues after the jump. Also, check back later to find Tran's recipe for coconut braised pork.
SI: How much testing takes place before something winds up on the menu?
TT: I still do a lot of testing. Sometimes I have an idea, like, "I want to do it." But I test it out first. The only testing I can do on weekdays is on the days we aren't open for dinner. So it's those three days. But if I want to serve it next week, I have to buy it way before Friday so I can start prepping stuff. Sometimes it gives me a headache.
SI: Are there any dishes that don't work?
TT: Yes, there's a lot of dishes that I can't do here. Unless I change them into an electric thing. Otherwise I can't do it. If I need a wok, and I can't use a flat wok on those, plus our hood, our ventilation... and our cooking area has to be within that. And then if we try to build out our kitchen it'll cost six figures.
SI: Does anything not make it on the menu for price reasons?
TT: Yes, definitely. Especially during lunch. We're fast-casual, so we don't want to have a high price point, and then nobody comes. There are things, and I'm looking forward to guest cheffing other places, and at that time I'm looking forward to doing that other stuff.
SI: Anything lined up?
TT: Yeah, but I don't know if I'm supposed to say.
SI: Is there a future restaurant in the works?
TT: Yes. We are talking about it. We do have investors for expansion. And we're actually looking at the Sawtelle area.
SI: Would it be the same, or something different?
TT: Yes and no. I think it would be a little different. I've thought about it, but I haven't really, really thought about it. We'll have to look at the space. But a lot of my stuff is bar food. Good bar drinking. So wherever we go it would be good to have a beer license.
Sawtelle is kind of like Westwood. It's a little disappointing. You think there are so many good restaurants, but I guess a lot of them closed down. We looked at a space, and we're talking about it, but we haven't really moved forward with it. But Nguyen deals with that. I have to deal with here first.
SI: Do you have a favorite dish?
TT: I actually like the coconut pork a lot. [Recipe coming soon.]
SI: What's the best vessel for it?
TT: I love it with the coconut rice. It's just purely comfort food. And actually coconut pork is a Vietnamese dish, but because I'm Chinese and born in Vietnam, I kind of mixed the cultures together. I think it tastes better, and Nguyen thinks it tastes better because it has a lot more flavor.
SI: What are you eating when you aren't at work? Do you cook at home, or go out?
TT: We go out to eat way too much. Even if we don't open for dinner, we don't get out until 7 or 8 from prepping stuff. And I don't want to cook. He always wants to go out. We eat a lot of Korean food. I really like Korean food. But he really likes burgers. I don't. They're too rich for me.
SI: Favorite K-Town places?
SI: So how close are you to your dream job? Is this a lifestyle you can be pretty happy with?
TT: I'm happy. It's fun, as in it's just... I'll be sleeping and actually thinking about cooking. It's a little scary. Then something hits me and I'm like, "I gotta get up and write something." But at the same time, I'm so tired. [A pause.] I'm surprised you didn't ask me why we're called Starry Kitchen.
SI: Why are you called Starry Kitchen?
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TT: It's based on a Chinese cooking show I like to watch. A Hong Kong Chinese cooking show that I like to watch. The restaurant logo design and stuff is from a friend and former co-worker. She designed it. I was like, "design me something." In my head it looked different. But I liked it. It's very cute and very bright. Sometimes people say, "It kind of reminds me of Carl's Jr." and I'm like, "... thanks."
SI: If you were offered a great advertising job right now, would you take it?
Check back later for Tran's recipe for coconut braised pork.