Mary Nguyen is no stranger to tough decisions. After pursuing a career in finance, she woke up one day and realized it wasn’t for her. “I found myself spending more time reading books about food and downloading recipes off the Internet than learning about the financial markets,” she says, “so I decided to quit my job.” Nguyen recently made another tough decision: to close P17, the restaurant she’d poured her heart and soul into for more than a decade. Find out more about what led to her decision and what it means for her remaining restaurant concept, Olive & Finch, in the conversation that follows.
Westword: This is a time of transition. P17 closed in May, and you’re expanding Olive & Finch. Why did you decide to take this step?
Mary Nguyen: The closure of P17 comes after more than eleven wonderfully rewarding and successful years. With the exponential growth of Olive & Finch coinciding with the growth of my family — my husband and I welcomed twin daughters in December 2014 — I made the very difficult decision to sell P17.
Olive & Finch is a concept that fits perfectly with the casual yet sophisticated vibe of Denver. We’ve been intentional in selecting both the Uptown and Cherry Creek locations first, and have our eyes set on additional spots around the metro area.
Other chefs I’ve talked to compare opening and running a restaurant to watching their children grow up. If so, then the closure of P17 must be like watching kids go off to college. What do you miss most about that restaurant?
Opening and running a restaurant is a lot like raising a child in that you start by nurturing and guiding it, hoping for success, and then letting it stand on its own. Over the years, I have witnessed so many changes in Uptown — including the developing “restaurant row” and P17’s part in it — and I am very proud of the success we’ve had in Denver’s culinary scene, much like I would be of a child. Although selling P17 was an emotional step for me, getting the Olive & Finch Cherry Creek location selected, designed and built means that I haven’t had a lot of time to miss P17. But I definitely miss the staff. Thankfully, many have moved with me to Olive & Finch.
Why grow Olive & Finch as opposed to P17 and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, your previous restaurants?
Olive & Finch is not only a concept that has been well received in Uptown, but also something with much opportunity for expansion in the entire metro area. It’s a concept that resonates with people, and, very importantly, it reflects what I want in my life right now when I dine out: a thoughtful, well-prepared meal that’s quick and casual in a setting both stylish and comfortable. Olive & Finch is a concept that really resonates with everyone.
When is Olive & Finch in Cherry Creek scheduled to open? How will the new location differ from the original?
I’m anticipating a fall opening. The new location is more spacious, with increased dining-room seating as well as an expansive and inviting patio. The menu will be expanded, offering more items for breakfast and lunch as well as entrees that will be available after 11 a.m.
What would you be if you weren’t a chef?
I would be a doctor. I like the notion of helping people, healing people. So if I didn’t feed people, I think I’d find another way to serve people.
What’s a career highlight?
One of the highlights of my career thus far was being asked to participate in the filming of The Empowerment Project, a documentary that encourages, empowers and inspires women to go after their career ambitions.
This is a hard business, and even harder when juggling twins at home. What keeps you motivated?
Having the opportunity to do what I love and the freedom to do what I want are pretty motivational. Now that I’m a mother, I really want to make sure that I’m a positive role model for my daughters. So although it’s challenging to leave them every day, it motivates me to know that I’m setting an example for them to work toward their goals.
Your children are too young for this now, but what’s one piece of advice you’ll give them as they grow up?
I have lots of advice. Hopefully, they’ll listen! I want them to know that they should follow their passion. No matter what those passions may be, achieving goals takes hard work, but things are possible the harder they’re willing to work.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
I’ve changed careers once before, and making the decision to sell P17 was similar — more of a course change. It has since been the hardest decision I’ve made in my culinary career, but I knew that my personal and professional goals would only be achieved by letting it go and focusing on the Olive & Finch concept.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
My problem is that I don’t have any food aversions and I love to taste everything, so my guilty pleasure is having too much of everything. For example, if I want to eat cheese, I end up having four to five different kinds to choose from. Ice cream — same problem. I buy and try four different flavors. When I go to a restaurant, I have to order the entire menu. It’s awesome for the tastebuds but awful for the waistline.
As a restaurateur, how do you feel about raising the minimum wage? If such a law went into effect in Colorado, how would that impact your business?
I think raising the minimum wage is great. Costs associated with living in Colorado have increased, so it’s only appropriate that the minimum wage should do so, too. I don’t have an issue with raising the minimum wage. We pay our employees a living wage (above minimum wage), so it won’t impact our business.
If you could have dinner with any famous person, either living or historical, who would it be, and why?
I would have dinner with the actress and activist Emma Watson. She’s such an inspiring, beautiful and exceptional young woman. When I think of role models for my daughters, she is exactly the type of celebrity I’d want my daughters to look up to.
Best tip for a home cook:
Read the recipe and “MEP,” or mise en place your recipe. Get all the ingredients ready, measured, cut and chopped before actually executing the recipe. It’s far easier and faster, and you won’t make as many mistakes. And you’ll feel like you’re on the Food Network.
What book is on your bedside table right now?
I have two books. The Social Animal, by David Brooks, is a great book that explores life and people. Also, I have What’s Going On in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. My twins are entering toddler age, so this is a challenging time for my family. I need all the help I can get!
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Now for some hard questions: Beer or wine? Ice cream or cake? Broncos or Rockies?
Those are really hard questions! I think it all depends on the venue and the time. I’d say wine unless it’s a hot summer day, in which case I would choose a lambic. Cake if it’s a cool day and I need a pick-me-up. Otherwise, it’s ice cream all the way, especially if it’s Movenpick, a Swiss ice cream maker. Who are the Broncos and the Rockies? Just kidding…but not really.
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
How about: “How many locations of Olive & Finch do you intend to open?” I plan on opening three to five more Olive & Finches within the Denver metro area within the next five years.
Olive & Finch is located at 1552 East 17th Avenue; for more information, call 303-832-8663 or go to