It sounds like an ultimatum in a crime thriller: If Starry Kitchen doesn't get $500,000 by 3 p.m. on Feb. 1, it'll be the end of Nguyen Tran's life.
At least it will be the end of the life he and his chef wife, Thi, know now as owners of L.A.'s much-loved perpetual pan-Asian pop-up Starry Kitchen, a project they plan to close forever unless they are able to raise $500,000 for a brick-and-mortar through a monthlong Kickstarter campaign that launched Jan. 1.
"My life is on the line right now," Nguyen Tran tells the Weekly. "At the end of this month, we either make the money and open a restaurant or we close down Starry Kitchen forever. There's no Plan B. This is the 'go big or go home' moment. It's very scary, but it's exhilarating and it's liberating, too."
Sure, it's a little overdramatic, but Starry Kitchen has never done anything without attitude and pomp (have you read Nguyen's press releases?!). Over the last five and a half years, the project has gone from an illegal underground dinner club serving its infamous crispy tofu balls out of the couple's San Fernando Valley apartment to a downtown brick-and-mortar (where the Trans hosted dinners featuring white truffle, marijuana and illegal Mexican ant eggs) to a roving pop-up to a semi-permanent pop-up in Chinatown, all the while slinging rethought Asian comfort food such as Singaporean chili crab, braised coconut pork and pandan churros.
Along the way, there were banana suits, lederhosen, a long-standing alliance with French-cum-L.A. chef Laurent Quenioux and lots and lots — sack-loads, really — of ball jokes (the Kickstarter campaign is appropriately dubbed "#SaveOurBalls" and top-tier rewards include Nguyen getting a unicorn tattoo with your face on it).
"We didn't know how to run a restaurant when we got our first brick-and-mortar," Nguyen admits. "Since then, we've done a lot, we've fucked up a lot, and now is the time to apply all those lessons we've learned to try and make it bigger. The idea is to start with a clean slate and apply all the lessons we've learned from bootstrapping into a structure that's stable."
For the last year and a half, Starry Kitchen has popped up Wednesday through Saturday at the Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown, but Nguyen says it's time to get a restaurant of their own and put an end to all the instability. The $500,000 will go directly toward build out, furnishings and operations (for a few months anyway) of a permanent Starry Kitchen space somewhere in Chinatown, where it's been a part of the culinary revival of the neighborhood.
The amount may still seem high for a crowdfunding goal — Nguyen says the amount is unprecedented for a restaurant Kickstarter — yet it's not an unheard-of cost for a new restaurant. So why go to the public for help with such a big amount?
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Potential investors for a brick-and-mortar version of Starry Kitchen have come and gone over the years, Nguyen says, but nothing has quite panned out with a favorable timeline. With Kickstarter, the decision is finite. It either happens or it doesn't and he will have closure either way.
"We accomplished more than anyone thought we would, and even though we've gone through a lot of adversity, we're happy with what we've done and we're ready to close the chapter on this if need be," Nguyen says. "I'm giving it my all, so if it doesn't work out after this, at least we give it our all. All the eggs are in this basket. There are no side talks, no other negotiations. This is everything. It's our last stand."