Diep Tran, the chef-owner of Good Girl Dinette, talks in paragraphs. Nice paragraphs, punctuated by a lot of laughter and a story or two, often about growing up in the back of one kitchen or another: Her family started the Pho 79 restaurant chain after they immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, and, at home, her grandmother was a formidable cook.
Maybe it's not a surprise, then, that Tran riffs off the idea of grandmotherly comfort food at Good Girl Dinette; there are her rightfully popular pot pies, of course, but also thit kho, a bowl of caramelized pork that you don't see too often in most Vietnamese restaurants precisely because it's just that homey. For Tran, though, it encapsulates the Dinette perfectly: It's the sort of dish, she says, that “your grandma makes, puts in the fridge and always gets replenished.”
Good Girl Dinette celebrated its fourth anniversary this year, and last weekend launched a brunch that includes a terrific turmeric dill hash, eggs and bacon cured in Red Boat fish sauce and lovely seasonal hand-pies. We talked to Tran about her new brunch menu, but not before she noted that she tends to get asked the same type of questions during interviews. Which opened the door to a conversation about how one resists or subverts stereotyping and the food media's irksome tendency to fetishize foods and neighborhoods. Plus, notes on the difficulties of managing a restaurant while writing poetry, how Victorian and Vietnamese cultures overlap and hosting a weekly supper club well before the so-called underground dining scene took off. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Maybe that's a good place to start. What questions aren't you asked?
Diep Tran: I feel like they [interviewers] always ask something about my heritage. It's always coded as my “community,” and they always talk about it as it being an ethnic community. And they don't know that I opened up the Dinette, really, for dykes, you know?
When I was interviewed by Steven Stern for The New York Times, he asked a lot about my grandparents, and my growing up as basically a kitchen slave in various kitchens. He said, “With your restaurant, are you cooking for a different community? Or are your reasons for opening your restaurant different?” And I said, it's actually not, because I really do believe that my grandparents and my aunts and uncles opened up their restaurant for the community, and it wasn't just Vietnamese. It was very specific: It was for nguoi bac [Northerners], it was for Catholics of a certain ilk — it was very particular. The idea of community was more nuanced, versus just ethnicity.
I feel like with Vietnamese cuisine, it's almost like talking about Italy, where there's so many different regions that you can't really say there's one unified Italian food, because it's so changeable. But people don't really ask me about that. They ask more of a global question [about Vietnamese cuisine], or they'll ask where you're from or where you were born. And, well, just because I was born in the south of Vietnam doesn't mean I'm a Southerner, at all. So, it's hard for me, sometimes, when people ask about my heritage, because what are you really asking? I mean, I know exactly what they mean, but I don't want to answer that question.
S.I.: But how do you answer that question, about heritage? Because to a certain extent, every person runs into that problem of trying to figure out what someone really is intending to ask.
D.T.: Well, every woman of color. Not everybody. If you're closest to hegemonic society, then you get asked very specific questions about the texture of your bread, or some shit. Otherwise, you get something nebulous.
S.I.: Right, because you know where they're coming from. And you're right, all these words are just codes for …
D.T.: For what they can only see. They can only see something, which is your ethnicity, or your gender, or maybe your sexuality.
I think that's why I struggled with the breakfast menu quite a bit. You want a menu to make sense; it has to have some sort of internal logic. When I was thinking about things I loved, what I wanted on the menu, I thought, Does it seem like a hodgepodge? But in my head, it totally makes sense!
S.I.: No, it doesn't seem that much like a hodgepodge.
D.T.: Thank you. But that's the fear, right? The menu for me is a snapshot of what it felt like to grow up in the '80s, in Cerritos, being Vietnamese. We ate chao and eggs and pâté chaud in the mornings.
S.I.: I love pâté chaud in the mornings.
D.T.: Right? Actually, my favorite — and I could just never figure out a way to make it on the menu without people thinking, “This is bullshit” — but I love just bánh mì and hot condensed milk.
S.I.: Oh yes!
D.T.: You know? But no one gets it. No one gets it. Ok, I'm putting it on just for you.
S.I.: Please! It's like toast and jam.
D.T.: Exactly, right? I had a great name for [the bánh mì and condensed milk], but there were just maybe 10 people who ordered it when I did a beta test, and they were like, “What the hell?”
S.I.: Just put it off the menu.
D.T.: Oh, that's a great idea. I even had a great name for it: Milquetoast, spelled with the Q-U-E, you know?
S.I.: Did you have the same type of problem that you're having with the breakfast menu when you were putting together the Dinette's main menu?
D.T.: In the sense of it making sense?
D.T.: Yeah! And that's why I have that tagline, “American diner meets Vietnamese comfort food,” which I don't really like. I know! I know. I know. I have all personal lenders; I don't have any big lenders. It was all these small conversations with people, and having to explain the menu. They're really all intelligent people, but they said, “How do we explain this to other people?” I racked my brain and, off the top of my head, said, “American diner meets Vietnamese comfort food.”
I hate the East-meets-West thing, but this is just as bad! I'm just dressing it up in some makeup, but it's just as bad. But they loved it, they got it. It was the working tagline, and it just kept. But I don't like it. I don't like something meeting something, because they've already met! They've co-existed already!
S.I.: A lot of people do respond to that. Because that codes for something, too.
D.T.: I know! I totally fell into that. Because I was tired. And also because I think language around race and culture and food haven't really evolved very much. It hasn't caught up to how we really live.
So, I'm OK with it. Well, no, not terribly OK with it. I don't know how many years it has to be until the Dinette doesn't have to have that tagline.
D.T.: I'd like it now. Officially, I'd like to retire that shit now. It's like that term “female chef,” or female anything. You still need it, somehow, because people don't know how to think about these things.
S.I.: Right. I want to get back to what you said in the very beginning, how you wanted to create a place for dykes. What did you mean by that?
D.T.: What it is that I wanted to create a specific space for dykes that wasn't about [being] for dykes. People always say, “Oh, I heard your Dinette is really gay-friendly.” But why the fuck wouldn't I be friendly to myself? Again, language hasn't caught up.
I just wanted a space that reflected how I live my life, and how many people live their lives. So, in that way, that's a dyke space. I wanted to create a space that redefined what that was. And to illustrate what is happening everywhere — it's just that we don't talk about it or think about it that way — is that queers are just woven into the fabric. They're not assimilated; they're just part of the community. I didn't it to be fetishistic, I didn't want to be like, “This is the only space.” It's not the only space. And it's not like we lead with it. I don't lead with it.
S.I.: You worked 10 years in a non-profit before you started cooking professionally. During those 10 years, did you want to open a restaurant?
D.T.: Well, when I was in high school, I read Emerson and “I contain multitudes” and the idea of not having just one career. That totally freed me. Like, you can have more than one thing in your life? What?
The only reason why my family had second careers was because they left their country. And even then, a certain class of Vietnamese people address themselves and other people through their profession or trade. And it's always one thing; it's never like singer-songwriter-something, so I didn't think it was a possibility to have more than one career. Then I read that. So I thought about it. I wanted to be a writer, or I wanted to devote time to writing. And I loved cooking too, but my grandma was a mixed bag of gifts. She was so great in the romantic, philosophical sublime sense of terrifying and terrific.
[My sister and I] were like my grandmother's commis. We'd peel vats of shrimp, but we never got to really cook. When my sister and I started to learn how to cook, we decided to cook different cuisines that weren't in my grandmother's purview. My sister was baking. Me, because I was reading so much Victorian literature [at the time], I focused on Victorian cuisine.
S.I.: What exactly is Victorian cuisine? Like English …
D.T.: Well, you know, high tea.
S.I.: Scones …
D.T.: And potted meats.
D.T.: I didn't like scones.
S.I.: Oh, right, because of the baking thing.
D.T.: I bake for the restaurant, but that's not my thing. It was more because I wanted to recreate something I had read: A goose versus a chicken, a pheasant under glass.
S.I.: So did you actually do that? Did you cook all that stuff?
D.T.: The goose?
D.T.: Yes. Not the pheasant. But quail. I loved Babette's Feast! One summer after I saw Babette's Feast, I was working for one of my aunt's restaurants, and I saved all my money. My sister and I were so enthralled by the idea of [the movie], just blowing all your money in one night. I think I saved up $400. I invited all my high school friends. I wasn't out at the time, and I remember spending part of that budget on stationary. It was written in quill.
S.I.: Of course it was.
D.T.: I was totally in the closet! I had no boyfriend to worry about, and all these romantic friendships. I remember handwriting everything. I think I invited six friends, and I remember writing on the bottom, “P.S. No boys, ok?”
When I came out, it was not a surprise.
S.I.: Yeah, isn't that true for a lot of people.
D.T.: Yeah. I just loved the idea of extravagance. I was drawn to works that were fanciful or not pragmatic.
S.I.: That's very Victorian.
D.T.: I know. But I feel Victorian culture and Vietnamese culture, in a way, are very similar: A lot of triangulation, a lot of things unsaid.
S.I.: A lot of repressed feelings.
D.T.: Yeah. They're different, but in many ways, I understood.
S.I.: How did that party turn out?
D.T.: It was awesome! Well, I made so many mistakes. I whipped cream for the first time.
S.I.: By hand?
D.T.: Yes, by hand. But this is why I hate bad recipes — my teenage self couldn't figure some shit out. Soft peaks, stiff peaks, don't overwhip it, what? But now I understand. You have to make mistakes in order to know what the food is supposed to taste like. But I always thought a recipe was a magic formula: You follow everything and you're good. I didn't whip the cream enough, and I made a kind of pavlova. It looked great, but then it started to sink.
I had to beg my grandma to please let me have the kitchen. And she said, “Alright.” But the kitchen was her domain. And she was hovering around me and criticizing every. single. thing. that came out. I just remember thinking, “God, leave me alone.”
S.I.: How old were you?
D.T.: 16? 15, 16.
Right before my friends came, she said, “Everything you've made is shit.”
S.I.: Oh, no.
D.T.: I was so traumatized. I think about that every single time I try something new.
S.I.: You're just reinforcing that scar.
D.T.: Yeah! But all my friends loved it, and it was great. $400 for one day, totally worth it. I don't remember the food very much, but I remember it was so fun.
S.I.: So, you did 10 years in non-profit.
D.T.: Yeah. In college, I took a class with Edna Bonacich, and this was during the L.A. Uprising — or Riots, or Rebellion — and she imprinted on me an ethics about the world should be, or how we all should contribute. It was the first time I ever heard about social justice. I knew what was right and wrong, but not in the grand scheme of things. I was really inspired by her. I thought I was going to a professor of literature, but that didn't seem to be fulfilling. I really wanted to do some kind of community work, or social justice work. I thought about Emerson, and then I heard somebody say, “Oh, you can do non-profit. The burnout rate is about 10 years.” I thought I could give 10 years.
[But] I cooked all through college. College is where I really blossomed, because no grandma! No grandma and my own kitchen. One time I had a three-hour final that I did in an hour, because I had a turkey roasting. They were like, “You're done?” And I said, “Yeah…”
S.I.: “…I got something else to do.”
D.T.: … something more important than the goddamn final. The turkey was awesome by the way.
So I worked in the non-profit, and I loved it. Not every part of it, but I was really engaged. Seven years after graduation, I said, “It's almost time. That decade's almost up.” I took a business course. I didn't even know what kind of restaurant I wanted; I just wanted to cook food that delighted me. For a year before I opened my first restaurant [Blue Hen], my friend and I cooked every Sunday. Every Sunday for 10 hours, we would just try to perfect something.
S.I.: Are you that type of person generally? Because 10 years — that's one hell of a long-term goal.
D.T.: Well, it wasn't goal. It was more like a deferring. I defer very well.
S.I.: So what, you deferred your decision?
D.T.: Well, I knew I wanted to do that. I have competing desires, obviously. I knew that if I opened a restaurant — well, I knew how my family was. They didn't have a life. And I just didn't want that. I also felt it would not be as intellectually stimulating as working in a non-profit. I worked crazy hours when I was working there, but I also had time to write. I used to write poetry — which does not go well with restaurant management, by the way — and I felt like doing non-profit and writing poetry was something that could go hand-in-hand. But the restaurant was the restaurant. It was possessive. So I wanted to have it, but I just didn't want it quite yet.
But I don't know. What do you know at 19, when you decide you're going to do something like that, you know?
S.I.: But you stuck with it.
D.T.: I did. Because I loved it. My love for cooking deepened. But I still do regret not giving my writing that kind of devotion. Like 10 years of writing, nothing else.
S.I.: That's a hard thing to do.
D.T.: It is. When I sold my first restaurant, I had some time. Two years. I went back to poetry, and the first thing poetry said to me was, “What?” It was really pissed at me, like a pissed off mistress, or a girlfriend you ignored.
S.I.: “You're coming back?!”
D.T.: Yeah. “Fuck you, you were at the restaurant!” And I had to make that decision again. But poetry does not pay. In that way, I think I'm very much pragmatic, even though I love the idea of just, Fuck everything.
S.I.: Yeah, and go find a cabin in the woods.
D.T.: Yeah, I would love to live an ascetic life, actually, just by myself and my typewriter. I think the restaurant business is all about relationships, which I love, but I also like solitude, and I find I don't have enough of it. It's not that I hate people, but I'm fine until someone asks me a stupid question.
D.T.: No, by “stupid,” I mean something that's kind of offensive-adjacent.
S.I.: What's a type of question that's harmful to you?
D.T.: Well, they all live in the same area, in the same neighborhood. Like “Where are you from?” “Are you French trained?” “Do you speak Vietnamese?” Anything with “my country.” All that stuff — the question doesn't harm me, it's what I have to do to answer that question that's harmful to me. Because it's almost like I have to put on a conical hat [to answer the question].
S.I.: Well, that goes back to the whole woman of color thing — those questions are particularly bad when it comes to talking to women of color.
D.T.: Yeah. And in food, too. I'm sorry, but people get stupid in food in terms of analysis about race, class and gender.
S.I.: Tell me about that.
D.T.: Ok, I'm going to call you guys out, food writers.
D.T.: Food writers, you have to up your game! For example, if there's an article about a woman who's really proficient at something, somehow it gets fetishized. Like it's an anomaly.
D.T.: Like “women butchers.” I understand, that's great. But the way that some people write about it, you can tell they're writing about it because it's, “Oh my god, I can't believe that that could happen” versus “Hey, this is great, this is an evolving face of food.” But that's not sexy, right? And there's always some juxtaposition of some femminess about them.
And also the idea of slumming it [to eat certain foods] and how there's a street certain cred about it — I hate that. No one wants to be fetishized. And I feel like food writing is really fetishistic.
S.I.: Just to loop back — you hit your 10 year goal with your non-profit, then got into the restaurant business. What were the Good Girl Suppers?
D.T.: The Suppers were sandwiched between my first restaurant and second, current, restaurant. After I sold my [first] restaurant, I was very happy. It was a great learning experience. I learned so much about myself, became a better cook, a better person.
But I didn't have the restaurant anymore and just found myself getting really depressed that I wasn't cooking for other people. Part of the joy for me, and many cooks, is that it's a call and response. I had all this money because I just sold the restaurant, so I said, I want to cook for friends.
S.I.: What year was this?
D.T.: 2006. Mid-2006. I just started cooking for them and buying expensive cheeses and other stuff. When I had my first restaurant, I was very pragmatic and very worried about budgets, and that's not the way I love to cook. I love extravagance. I love the idea of going to International Marine Products and buying two things of uni, and not worrying about how much my food costs are.
So I kept cooking, and they felt really bad, because they knew how expensive it was. It was an ongoing thing, so they said, at least let us buy you something. So I decided to do a wish list of cooking implements I wanted, and I was very specific. They would stress out — “What kind of rasp do you want?” — and their eyes would glaze over. So they said, “We would just rather give you money so you can buy the stuff.”
So, that's how we started: I wanted to cook for my friends, and they wanted to invite other friends. Because their other friends would say, “Hey, we heard about this thing …”
And it was just really fun. Just really fun. I just wanted to return back to joy, I wanted to be able to access that part of me again.
My grandfather was still alive at the time, and I went down to see him. He said, “What have you been doing?” And I said, “Oh, I've been really busy. I've been working on this thing.” He said, “You're starting a new restaurant again?” And I said, “No, it's just this thing for my house, and my friends are coming over.” And he said, “Just like your grandmother!” Because that's what she did. Then I realized, ah, I'm my grandmother.
When I was working in non-profit, I was very removed: My childhood was my childhood, my youth was my youth, and now I'm an adult. And maybe I disavowed my childhood. You know how Joan Didion wrote in Slouching towards Bethlehem, on the importance of keeping a journal? Because if you forget that 19-year-old or that 20-year-old in you, she's just going to sneak up on you all of a sudden? That's what happened! I just thought I was a different person, without any context, then I opened up the restaurant, and there were so many things that were like my grandmother, and I hadn't had to think about her in all that time. With every dish for a long time, I remembered that time when she said, “Everything is crap, no one will like it.” Every time!
So the moment my grandfather said that, I kind of began to appreciate my grandmother a little bit more. She gave me [a love for cooking], so how can you begrudge that? So now I acknowledge the grandma in me.
S.I.: Did the Dinette spin off of those Suppers?
D.T.: Well, I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted something to do with food, still. I just knew that if I just did something that brought my joy, I would find what I wanted to do next.
I work the best when I don't have to think about the world, or an audience, just when I'm trying to please myself. I learned that from writing — you try not to worry about your reader.
S.I.: Right, you have to write for you.
D.T.: Yeah, you just do something that moves you. So, it kind of happened. Not that I didn't make decisions about it, but I'd find myself driving and then all of a sudden looking for “For Lease” signs. That was my trajectory. And all my friends supported it. I think they knew before I did.
S.I.: Like coming out.
D.T.: Yeah. And the Dinette was really good. I couldn't have had this restaurant without my non-profit experience. I couldn't have had this restaurant without my first experience. I couldn't have had this restaurant without the Suppers.
S.I.: Building blocks.
D.T.: Yeah. And it felt really good. It still feels good. When I walk in, even if crazy stuff is happening, like my staff needs five days off and I'm working doubles, in the end, I feel it's the restaurant I want. And I don't have to compromise to anyone else on that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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