Chef Chat, Part 1: Trong Nguyen of Crawfish and Noodles, on Leaving a Successful Career to Become Chef at His Restaurant
This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Come back to read parts two and three, which will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.
Photo by Mai Pham Trong Nguyen, the owner and chef of Crawfish and Noodles
It's taken me years to find Crawfish and Noodles. I've seen it, driven by it, heard about it, read about it, and have been meaning to try it at least a couple of years now, but it wasn't until a few friends and I decided to entertain an out-of-towner that I made it to the popular shop. And wow.
Crawfish and Noodles, I discovered, definitely has great, tasty crawfish. But there's more to it than that. The restaurant also offers an extensive Vietnamese menu that is both authentic and delicious -- some of the best I've had in the city. In fact, since I visited it for the first time three weeks ago, I've been back no less than five times, tasting some superbly prepared dishes by chef and owner Trong Nguyen. Nguyen sat down with us to chat about how he came to own what is arguably one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.
EOW: You are not a trained chef.
TN: No, I am not.
EOW: How did you come to be a restaurant owner, and how did you come to be working in the kitchen?
TN: Everything comes with habit, just like anything you do -- you like it, you do it. I went to eat out a lot, and my job before involved a lot of traveling.
EOW: What was your job before?
TN: I did entertainment marketing for all the casinos -- entertainment, hotel restaurants -- that was my industry.
EOW: What made you decide to open up a restaurant?
TN: My family wanted to have a little business, but I still had my job at the casino. During that time, we ran the business but it wasn't successful, because I couldn't be at two places at the same time. I had to be a part of the casino, and on my day off, I'd help at the restaurant. It wasn't working. So in the end, the only choice I had was either to let go of the restaurant or come back and pick it up, and I chose the second option.
EOW: When you opened up the restaurant, then, were you supposed to be a part of it? Did you have a specific role, or were you just helping out?
TN: At the beginning, we had the plan that we would open up the restaurant as a family. I was the main guy to run the restaurant.
EOW: You were the main guy to run the restaurant? But you still had the other job?
TN: Yeah, that's right, so it was very hard for me to be in two parts of town at the same time.
EOW: So who was cooking at that point?
TN: At that point, we had a chef that we hired from outside, and some of the family members would come and help out. But it wasn't working out. When you do the restaurant, you have to have a main chef, and the chef needs to know what he's doing.
EOW: So you hired the chef but the chef didn't know what he was doing.
TN: He assumed he knew what he was doing, but in the end, I had to come back and run the show. So when I came back, I took everything over, let go all the crews, rehired a new crew and came in to train them from day one.
EOW: When did you decide that you had to be here full time?
TN: When I saw that the restaurant was all the way down at the bottom.
EOW: What was the bottom?
TN: Bottom means that we keep pumping in the money and the customers still complain left to right. And when you actually taste your own food, the food is not there, the quality is not there, so whatever your customers say is true.
EOW: Ooh, that hurts, huh?
TN: Yep. I mean, I've been out there in the casino industry. I know a lot of customers, they know that I have a restaurant, so they come in to support. But friends, family, they come to support you one time; the second time, the food has to be good for them to return. So the restaurant was emptier every day.
EOW: This was how far along in the business?
TN: This was close to six months in the business.
EOW: Which is the breaking point...
TN: Yes, that's the usual breaking point, so I was lucky to make the decision that I had to come back and bring the restaurant up.
EOW: Was there any other income at that point?
TN: No. There was no other income.
EOW: Wow, that's a big risk!
TN: That was a big risk for me and my family. This was four years ago -- my kids were pretty young. A lot of people think that's a crazy risk. Some of my friends said, "You are at the executive level, you're earning six digits and now you come back to live on your credit cards?" But some people need to believe in what they do, and I believed in what we were doing here.
EOW: Did you not like your other job, or was this one just a stronger pull, because owning a restaurant is hard work?
TN: I didn't say that I didn't like my job -- I loved my job. I had a very good position as an executive running the Asian marketing department for the casino. But I had to either risk the business, throw the business away, close the door and say, "I give up; whatever I put in there is gone." Or I had to give up my career at that time and go back. But it was more for the face of the business, because people didn't think I was capable of doing this.
EOW: Oh! So it was a pride thing...
TN: Yep. So some of my friends said, "Trong doesn't know what the hell he's doing. He wears a suit around the casino, he doesn't know anything about cooking, how is he going to run a restaurant?"
EOW: Yeah, that's my question!?
TN: Exactly. That's the question that people ask. But you are the only one who knows who you are and what you are. So when I tell my customers that I'm the main chef, they are surprised. Even my close friends for years, always see me and them going to a restaurant, they never know the true side of me.
EOW: What is the true side of you?
TN: That means take off the suit, wear the chef's jacket, cook, clean, do whatever it takes, whatever a chef does.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Nguyen.
Crawfish and Noodles
11360 Bellaire Blvd
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