Q & A With Starry Kitchen's Thi Tran: How to Go From Dallas, to Advertising, to Running a Professional Kitchen
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."