A decade ago, Nguyen Tran and Thi Tran were a young couple on their way to having it all. He worked in television syndication, promoting and selling independent films. She settled in at an advertising agency in Los Angeles.
Then, like that, they lost their path to success, their jobs victims of the Great Recession.
Lamenting, Thi Tran posted a simple sentence on Facebook, seeking advice from friends. “I lost my job, now what should I do?”
It was a question that launched a new career.
Her friends told her to cook. Her husband agreed. He told his wife, “Honey, you’re unemployed, you ain’t got anything to do.”
And as as necessity is the mother of invention, that she did. She and her husband went to work cooking, opening an underground restaurant, the Starry Kitchen, in their North Hollywood, Calif., apartment.
“You got to remember we are children of diaspora. Our parents left the Vietnam War to afford a better life. They didn’t want to work in the kitchen or as seamstresses. They wanted us to be doctors, accountants, lawyers, so my wife didn’t know this is something that she could do,” Nguyen Tran said.
Their food was such a hit that Nguyen Tran has authored “Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes from America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant.” The 288-page book, published in June, showcases the pan-Asian recipes, which are buoyed by delicious photos. But it also shares how the couple started their restaurant, and Tran tells stories — some hilarious, some heartwarming — of their journey along the way.
The book includes recipes for everything from Singaporean Chili Crabs to Malaysian Chicken to their specialty, Crispy Tofu Balls. And readers apparently have taken to “Adventures in Starry Kitchen” with reviewers on Amazon giving it what every restaurateur dreams of: five-star reviews.
“This is currently on display on my coffee table. I love the recipes, the photos, and more importantly, the stories that tie the food, people and community together. This is truly a labor of love, and it shows,” one reviewer wrote.
In the book, Tran shows readers just how to make the food that Starry Kitchen became known for as it climbed to the spot of the No. 1 Asian fusion restaurant in the Los Angeles area on Yelp.
Crispy tofu balls is a vegetarian dish made of tofu mashed up with fresh corn, scallions, mushroom-flavored bullion and dipped in green young rice flakes before frying. The Trans created this recipe, and it is one of the unusual crunchy favorites that drew their loyal patrons to their underground restaurant.
Known for its plain taste and various textures from extra soft to firm, tofu is a staple for vegetarians. It is one of the dishes from the Starry Kitchen that has become a savory comfort food appealing to not just Asians but the greater multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles.
The Trans honed their recipes in their apartment/restaurant, but as their venture grew, the mountain of challenges became higher to climb. The health department knocked on their door asking for proper permits, warned that they would have to stop inviting diners to their apartment if they didn’t have permits.
Nguyen and Thi, a pair of chance-not-choice cooks, then moved their location elsewhere, opening a lunch restaurant in downtown Los Angeles with the proper permits. It stayed open for several years before they closed it.
The restaurant business is a notoriously tough one. The Trans, who are from Texas, had to do it on their own because they didn’t have family support nearby.
“Everyone knows running a restaurant business is really hard, but they never share their stories,” Nguyen Tran said. “ My wife is my partner and my weakness. If she’s cracked, I can’t move forward. We’ve been depressed, we’ve been broke a lot, and we can’t talk to our friends — anyone. It’s even harder to talk to our parents. What do you tell your parents, who wanted you to live a better life? That you’re broke, and you have no money?”
“It’s like being twisted with a knife in your stomach, and that feeling happens so often when you run a restaurant,” he continued.
Despite that feeling, Nguyen Tran has not been deterred from the restaurant business. The Trans now are partners at Button Mash, a restaurant/arcade in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles that has gotten rave reviews.
Though the Trans’ journey has been well-publicized, with feature stories appearing in major publications and on a number of television and radio shows, Nguyen hasn’t let the attention affect him.
“At the end of the day, no matter how famous you are, at least in the restaurant business, you still cook,” he said. “I can talk with you right now, but I’m probably going to roll tofu balls, chop onions tomorrow. That’s not a glamorous life. That’s the life that I live now.”
The drive to finish a task is what motivates the Trans. Some call it purpose or mission. Nguyen calls it “completion.”
“When you have a restaurant, you feed people and you see them leave really happy. It makes you understand why you do it even though it takes a lot of pain to do that. Part of that is not about success. That’s a thing that people misunderstand. I think it’s more about completion,” he said. “Like you need to complete something to see if it is a failure. If you fail, you can’t sit around and talk all day long, and for me that’s the part that is exciting about failure. At least you learn more.”
Having a cookbook published by HarperCollins is hardly a failure, in any sense. Still, Nguyen defines a new term of success.
“I’m failing upward.” he said.
The Trans currently live in Los Angeles with their son, Cillían.