Perhaps because he spent some time in the film industry, restaurateur Nguyen Tran has always set himself apart from the foodie pack with his unerring flair for the dramatic. He dresses up in costumes a 5-year-old wouldn't go near — he was once mysteriously groped by a gang of old Vietnamese women when he appeared in public dressed as a banana.
He talks more like a profane extreme-sports star than a chef. And he's proud of his ignorance; indeed, you could say he celebrates it.
“We've fucked up so much,” Tran says of his career so far. “We were in a hole more than once and worked hard to get out of it. That's part of my personality — when you're pushed against the wall, you've got to have the will to push back.”
Tran, 40, is a firm believer in the common observation that you have to be a little crazy to get into the restaurant business. “Most of them have a high failure rate. To be a great entrepreneur, you have to have this insatiable curiosity. It's the shoulda-coulda-woulda thing that consumes me. Sometimes you just have to do it. And sometimes at the end you say, 'Well shit, that wasn't so hard.'?”
Tran laughs. “You might call it fearlessness. I call it idiocy.”
Tran and his wife, Thi, started in the food industry before they were married, running pop-up restaurant Starry Kitchen in their North Hollywood apartment. They graduated to a storefront, and in 2009 Yelp named it the best Asian fusion restaurant in L.A.
The Trans' empire continued to grow, based on delicious pan-Asian comfort food, costumed antics, highly publicized marijuana dinners and cult-favorite dishes such as crispy tofu balls and Singaporean chili crabs. Their fan base has remained loyal through a number of moves that took them to Chinatown with Starry Kitchen. The Trans' latest creation is Echo Park restaurant/bar/arcade Button Mash.
L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold put Starry Kitchen on his 101 Best Restaurants list two years in a row, and Button Mash made L.A. Weekly's 99 Essential Restaurants list in 2016.
Tran is glad that he didn't start out in the restaurant business. “Look, if we'd started cooking 20 years ago, we wouldn't have had the same experience. I don't think we would have approached things with the same maturity.”
Tran says ignorance helped, too. “The naiveté of not being in the restaurant world worked to our advantage. Experience is overrated. It can get in the way. When we analyzed restaurants that failed, it wasn't for lack of experience. It was a lack of passion.”
Tran is unapologetic about his potty mouth, explaining it as part of his perpetually high level of enthusiasm. Besides, he tends to be suspicious of diners who aren't as profanely expressive as he is.
“Say you serve a great salad and the customer says, 'Holy shit, this salad is so fucking amazing!' versus 'Hey, this salad is really quite good.' Which response is more convincing?” His swearing does follow some basic rules, though. “Sure, I'm emphatic and dramatic, but I don't curse people out.”
He's not averse to getting nasty for the sake of self-promotion, though. An iconic early photo shows Tran in lederhosen and a clapboard sign that reads, “Please enjoy our balls in yo' mouth.”
Tran's underlying philosophy is about bravery. It's an idea formed from years of talking to his customers. “I used to for a long time be out there meeting people. It wasn't because I thought people needed to know me but because the best way to make my restaurant better was to get people's opinions and figure it out.
“My restaurant isn't all about me. As arrogant as everyone thought I was in the banana suit, it's about trying to convince people to try something they wouldn't try otherwise. Why not have some fun in the process?”