Q & A with Good Girl Dinette's Diep Tran: The Politics of Breakfast + Fielding Questions About One's Heritage
Diep Tran, the chef-owner of Good Girl Dinette, talks in paragraphs. Nice paragraphs, punctuated by a lot of laughter and a story or two, often about growing up in the back of one kitchen or another: Her family started the Pho 79 restaurant chain after they immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, and, at home, her grandmother was a formidable cook.
T. Nguyen Diep Tran
Maybe it's not a surprise, then, that Tran riffs off the idea of grandmotherly comfort food at Good Girl Dinette; there are her rightfully popular pot pies, of course, but also thit kho, a bowl of caramelized pork that you don't see too often in most Vietnamese restaurants precisely because it's just that homey. For Tran, though, it encapsulates the Dinette perfectly: It's the sort of dish, she says, that "your grandma makes, puts in the fridge and always gets replenished."
Good Girl Dinette celebrated its fourth anniversary this year, and last weekend launched a brunch that includes a terrific turmeric dill hash, eggs and bacon cured in Red Boat fish sauce and lovely seasonal hand-pies. We talked to Tran about her new brunch menu, but not before she noted that she tends to get asked the same type of questions during interviews. Which opened the door to a conversation about how one resists or subverts stereotyping and the food media's irksome tendency to fetishize foods and neighborhoods. Plus, notes on the difficulties of managing a restaurant while writing poetry, how Victorian and Vietnamese cultures overlap and hosting a weekly supper club well before the so-called underground dining scene took off. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Maybe that's a good place to start. What questions aren't you asked?
T. Nguyen Good Girl Dinette's toasted lemon pound cake, available at brunch
Diep Tran: I feel like they [interviewers] always ask something about my heritage. It's always coded as my "community," and they always talk about it as it being an ethnic community. And they don't know that I opened up the Dinette, really, for dykes, you know?
When I was interviewed by Steven Stern for The New York Times, he asked a lot about my grandparents, and my growing up as basically a kitchen slave in various kitchens. He said, "With your restaurant, are you cooking for a different community? Or are your reasons for opening your restaurant different?" And I said, it's actually not, because I really do believe that my grandparents and my aunts and uncles opened up their restaurant for the community, and it wasn't just Vietnamese. It was very specific: It was for nguoi bac [Northerners], it was for Catholics of a certain ilk -- it was very particular. The idea of community was more nuanced, versus just ethnicity.
I feel like with Vietnamese cuisine, it's almost like talking about Italy, where there's so many different regions that you can't really say there's one unified Italian food, because it's so changeable. But people don't really ask me about that. They ask more of a global question [about Vietnamese cuisine], or they'll ask where you're from or where you were born. And, well, just because I was born in the south of Vietnam doesn't mean I'm a Southerner, at all. So, it's hard for me, sometimes, when people ask about my heritage, because what are you really asking? I mean, I know exactly what they mean, but I don't want to answer that question.
S.I.: But how do you answer that question, about heritage? Because to a certain extent, every person runs into that problem of trying to figure out what someone really is intending to ask.
D.T.: Well, every woman of color. Not everybody. If you're closest to hegemonic society, then you get asked very specific questions about the texture of your bread, or some shit. Otherwise, you get something nebulous.
S.I.: Right, because you know where they're coming from. And you're right, all these words are just codes for ...
D.T.: For what they can only see. They can only see something, which is your ethnicity, or your gender, or maybe your sexuality.
I think that's why I struggled with the breakfast menu quite a bit. You want a menu to make sense; it has to have some sort of internal logic. When I was thinking about things I loved, what I wanted on the menu, I thought, Does it seem like a hodgepodge? But in my head, it totally makes sense!
S.I.: No, it doesn't seem that much like a hodgepodge.
D.T.: Thank you. But that's the fear, right? The menu for me is a snapshot of what it felt like to grow up in the '80s, in Cerritos, being Vietnamese. We ate chao and eggs and pâté chaud in the mornings.
S.I.: I love pâté chaud in the mornings.
D.T.: Right? Actually, my favorite -- and I could just never figure out a way to make it on the menu without people thinking, "This is bullshit" -- but I love just bánh mì and hot condensed milk.
S.I.: Oh yes!
D.T.: You know? But no one gets it. No one gets it. Ok, I'm putting it on just for you.
S.I.: Please! It's like toast and jam.
D.T.: Exactly, right? I had a great name for [the bánh mì and condensed milk], but there were just maybe 10 people who ordered it when I did a beta test, and they were like, "What the hell?"
S.I.: Just put it off the menu.
D.T.: Oh, that's a great idea. I even had a great name for it: Milquetoast, spelled with the Q-U-E, you know?
S.I.: Did you have the same type of problem that you're having with the breakfast menu when you were putting together the Dinette's main menu?
D.T.: In the sense of it making sense?
D.T.: Yeah! And that's why I have that tagline, "American diner meets Vietnamese comfort food," which I don't really like. I know! I know. I know. I have all personal lenders; I don't have any big lenders. It was all these small conversations with people, and having to explain the menu. They're really all intelligent people, but they said, "How do we explain this to other people?" I racked my brain and, off the top of my head, said, "American diner meets Vietnamese comfort food."
I hate the East-meets-West thing, but this is just as bad! I'm just dressing it up in some makeup, but it's just as bad. But they loved it, they got it. It was the working tagline, and it just kept. But I don't like it. I don't like something meeting something, because they've already met! They've co-existed already!
S.I.: A lot of people do respond to that. Because that codes for something, too.
D.T.: I know! I totally fell into that. Because I was tired. And also because I think language around race and culture and food haven't really evolved very much. It hasn't caught up to how we really live.
So, I'm OK with it. Well, no, not terribly OK with it. I don't know how many years it has to be until the Dinette doesn't have to have that tagline.
D.T.: I'd like it now. Officially, I'd like to retire that shit now. It's like that term "female chef," or female anything. You still need it, somehow, because people don't know how to think about these things.
S.I.: Right. I want to get back to what you said in the very beginning, how you wanted to create a place for dykes. What did you mean by that?
D.T.: What it is that I wanted to create a specific space for dykes that wasn't about [being] for dykes. People always say, "Oh, I heard your Dinette is really gay-friendly." But why the fuck wouldn't I be friendly to myself? Again, language hasn't caught up.
I just wanted a space that reflected how I live my life, and how many people live their lives. So, in that way, that's a dyke space. I wanted to create a space that redefined what that was. And to illustrate what is happening everywhere -- it's just that we don't talk about it or think about it that way -- is that queers are just woven into the fabric. They're not assimilated; they're just part of the community. I didn't it to be fetishistic, I didn't want to be like, "This is the only space." It's not the only space. And it's not like we lead with it. I don't lead with it.
S.I.: You worked 10 years in a non-profit before you started cooking professionally. During those 10 years, did you want to open a restaurant?