If you want to open a successful restaurant in Los Angeles, you need a smart concept, a trained chef, a carefully chosen location, and a lot of money. That's what we all used to think anyway. Thi and Nguyen Tran, the couple behind Starry Kitchen, did things a little differently. A home cook became a head chef, an apartment became a restaurant, and a shot in the dark became a minor phenomenon.
To get the full story of Starry Kitchen, we sat down with chef Thi Tran in the restaurant's outdoor patio, and learned about her past, her unexpected career change, her rotating menu, and a whole lot more. Check back tomorrow for part 2, and later in the week for Tran's recipe for braised coconut pork.
Squid Ink: Five years ago, when you were looking toward the future, did you imagine anything at all like what's happening right now?
Thi Tran: No. I never thought that I would be in the restaurant industry. I thought that I would have been stuck in advertising. It just happens. I guess I'm very lucky.
SI: So let's start at the beginning. Where are you from?
TT: I am from Dallas, Texas, actually. So I grew up in Dallas. Lived there all my life. Then I moved to L.A. in, I want to say 2001 or 2002, I don't exactly remember.
SI: Why did you move to L.A.?
TT: The job market was much better. Originally I was gonna stay in Texas, move to Austin, since that's where I went to school. But I just came out with Nguyen. I packed my bags and left.
SI: Where is your family from originally?
TT: My parents were born in Vietnam, but they're Chinese. And I was born in Vietnam, but I'm Chinese.
SI: How did you get interested in cooking?
TT: I think it was part of being in college. Your parents are away so I just started cooking. And when you cook, you get better. So I started throwing all sorts of things together. And then when I moved to L.A. I started cooking a lot more. I don't know if I was really that good at it. But L.A. made me really expand my palate. So I ate more Korean food, more Asian foods, and got more interested in cuisines. Then I went home and tried to replicate it, or do it my way.
SI: Then you started running a restaurant out of your apartment.
TT: I was laid off, and like any normal thing on Facebook, I said, “anything out there? Let me know.” I used to post a lot of food pictures anyway, so everyone said, “why don't you cook? Why don't you change your career path?” And at the time I was like, “why the hell would I want to do that?” And I had nothing else to do. So we just said, “let's try it. Let's sell food out of our apartment.” So I just started doing it once a week. [Nguyen] said, “you need to do it or you're never gonna do it.” First it was just friends, and then it kept getting bigger and bigger. It was just meat, then I had to start doing vegetarian food too. My vegetarian friends said, “we have to eat too,” so we started expanding from that.
SI: Then the Health Department shut you down by leaving a note on your door? Is that right?
TT: They did. They left a note on my door, and my first thing was like, “God dang it.” Then Nguyen called him and the guy said, “okay we're gonna come out and check on you and stuff.” And they came on a Wednesday at 7 o'clock, but no one had shown up anyway. A couple people showed up just at 6, so there was nobody there at 7, and I was just watching TV in my apron. Then Nguyen said, “come on in,” and I was being pissy, like, “God damn it.”
SI: Why were you actually shut down?
TT: They think we're making money from it, and Nguyen was like, “you know it's just donation based right, just for our friends? It's just a dinner party you know? It's not even open to the public.” And they said, “we think you're making money from it.” And we said, “it's just a 5 dollar donation.” Then they said we're, “just like any hot dog stand.” But we said, “no we're not, that's open to the public.” Then they said, “okay, we won't come back unless there's another complaint. But if they do complain, you'll have to go to court hearings.” Actually, they wouldn't have found out if it weren't for a local restaurant tipping them off. Because at that time, we were actually one of the top-rated Yelp restaurants in the Valley. So they thought wee were taking their business away.
SI: How did the downtown Starry Kitchen come about?
TT: At the time we were doing it, we'd talked about taco trucks and stuff, but that was way before all that stuff was booming. So we went out, but the price was kind of crazy. They tried to charge us like 5, 6 thousand a month for rental, so we were like, “no”. And I just wanted to do a little small place, just to-go. Nguyen actually knows some of the investors here that used to be a sushi restaurant. And they were doing pretty bad, and they gave us the opportunity to come in and be partner. So we thought it was a pretty good deal, and we didn't have anything to lose from it, and that's how it happened.
SI: How's it going so far?
TT: It's been going good. I mean, we're blessed with the space, I always thought, “no, I don't think anybody's gonna like my food.” But it's just been great. We're truly blessed. It's been fun. It's been hard and fun.
SI: What's it like being in charge of a professional kitchen now? How different is it from what you were doing in your apartment before?
TT: Very hard, because you have to start…you have to think about quantity. And it has to be consistent. I don't cook with recipes, I just throw shit together. But at a restaurant, your recipes have to be spot on. So your sous chefs and line cooks have to follow the recipes. But before I just cooked however I wanted. So I had to get used to it. At home I had a gas stove, but here we have a unique situation. It's all induction here, it's all electric, so it made it much harder to cook. So sometimes we have customers complain, because before, we did kalbi, but it didn't come out the way I wanted it to here.
I mean, it's cool, these induction stove tops. The good thing about it is it's very precise. But it has to be stainless steel and it has to be flat bottomed. So we can't use a wok. No aluminum, no nothing.
SI: How big is your staff?
TT: I want to say we have like 8 or 9 people. A couple of line cooks, a sous chef, a busser and, they do different shifts now too because we serve dinner. Some people stay for dinner, and we actually had to hire some new people for dinner. But they're great. We kind of inherited them from the sushi restaurant. I didn't really have to get rid of anybody. I just had to get rid of one person.
SI: How difficult is it to pull of a menu that's always rotating like yours?
TT: It is difficult, but at the same time it's not difficult. A lot of the stuff I already did research and development for, so it's just a matter of rotating things in and out. But I am testing at the same time, so it sort of depends on what menu I have for that week. Some things take a lot longer to make than others.
[She looks inside the restaurant, distracted for a moment.]
Sorry, the New York Times is here too, taking pictures.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.