"Food is the one thing that I grew up knowing would bring family and friends together, soothe wounds and mend hearts as well as improve any party or celebration," says Mary Nguyen, chef-owner of the Vietnamese-French bistro Parallel 17. "I entered this profession because it's the way I express my creativity and concern for others: I cook to make people happy."
But for Nguyen, making that passion come to fruition hasn't been easy. She was born in Vietnam, and she, her siblings, nieces, nephews and parents escaped during the fall of Saigon with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They made their way to Colorado, where Nguyen went to high school in Denver and college at the University of Colorado at Boulder before being recruited to the lucrative world of finance. "It was hardly the trajectory to becoming a budding chef," jokes Nguyen.
Still, she spent much of her free time hosting dinner parties -- drawing on her heritage and favorite family meals to create Asian-inspired menus for her friends. Those dinners marked a major turning point in her career: "I realized my love for cooking and abandoned life in the financial realm," she admits. She opened Blue Fire, a local catering company, which she followed with time at the Beehive and then an apprenticeship at Hapa in Cherry Creek, a pass-through that turned into a three-year stint, eventually leading to the executive chef position. Inspired by her Vietnamese roots and love of Vietnamese food, Nguyen opened Parallel 17 in 2005.
She talks about her emotional career change from successful financier to struggling cook in the following interview, as well as her controversial stance on butter (it's overrated, she says), her dislike for chicken breast and scrambled eggs, and her incredible respect for Teri Rippeto, chef/owner of Potager -- and a person she has yet to meet.
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, colorful, flavorful, healthy, simple and clean.
Ten (or twelve) words to describe you: Serious, self-critical, opinionated, caring, honest, fair, open-minded, lucky, loyal and generous.
Culinary inspirations: What am I not inspired by? I get my culinary inspirations the same way everyone else gets inspired -- by anything and everything. And different dishes are inspired by different things. I think you can get inspiration from anything if you're open to it and looking for it. I was inspired to open Parallel 17 while I was traveling throughout Vietnam and experiencing all the varying dishes and seeing the extensive French influence in food throughout the country in a landscape that was so tropical, beautiful, raw and surreal. Parallel Seventeen's concept was solidified when I came back to Denver, dined at the many Vietnamese restaurants along Federal and realized that although the food was good, none showcased the French culinary influence in Vietnamese cooking. Most, in fact, focused more on the Chinese influence, and none did it in an atmosphere that represented the beauty of Vietnam.
Proudest moment as a chef: What makes me proudest as a chef is hearing from guests that they've had a great dining experience. It's not about any awards or who's the best of this or the best at that. It's about feeding people's souls and making people a little happier than when they first walked through the door. That makes me feel like I've accomplished my goals, and I strive for that every night.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more restaurants -- independent restaurants, ethnic restaurants, holes-in-the-wall -- just more restaurants in general. But I think that before that can happen, Denver needs to grow in population by another couple of million. We're a young city, but it'll happen.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer new culinary student graduates with the ego and mentality that they're going to win Top Chef and that celebrity status is all you should be aiming for.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Community of talented chefs who support and encourage each other. Denver is a great dining city, and once we grow in critical mass, all of the talented chefs that we currently have are going to be able to open more restaurants, which means that we'll be able to compete with cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Ratio of corporate chain restaurants to independently owned restaurants.
Favorite cookbooks: I think that changes as you evolve. I prefer cookbooks that go through every ingredient and tool used and that have pictures and step-by-step guides -- books that really go into the history and the culture of the food. Right now I'm reading (and love) Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Send me to homes around the world so I can learn real authentic home cooking from every country and culture imaginable.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Tiet canh. It's a traditional Vietnamese dish that's served only during special occasions and normally only prepared by men, although my dad secretly taught me how to make the dish a couple of years ago. It's made from raw duck blood, cooked with duck gizzards and sprinkled with crushed peanuts and chopped herbs. When you actually eat it, it's kind of like a Vietnamese pizza, because the blood is chilled (so it can coagulate), so it resembles tomato sauce -- and you eat it on top of popped rice paper.
Weirdest customer request: Don't mean to sound like a Goody Two-Shoes, but I don't think that a paying customer who asks for something different is making a weird request; it's their right. I hope it doesn't make me weird that I don't like scrambled eggs or chicken breasts.
Current Denver culinary genius: I think that this city has so much talent that we have geniuses at this and geniuses at that. Some are better business-minded than others, some are better entertainers than others and some are better innovators than others, but they're still all geniuses. And then there are all the hole-in-the-wall places that serve amazing ethnic food -- Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern -- that are never mentioned. We're all trying be the best chefs we can be, and we're all driven, passionate, creative and love what we do, but if I had to talk about anyone's culinary accomplishments, I'd have to say that I have profound respect for Teri Rippeto, who quietly opened Potager with great success and hasn't faltered in the twelve years she's been open. She forged relationships with farmers and showed Denver diners the importance of eating locally and responsibly long before the current farm-to-table phenomenon. She's not only deliberate in her food, but her restaurant is beautifully clean and simple, the service friendly and impeccable. She focuses on her restaurant without trying to draw press, and after more than a decade, Potager is still, in my view, one of the most successful restaurants in Denver -- and most of that success has been through word of mouth. And I haven't even ever met the woman.
Favorite celebrity chef: Thomas Keller, because he's self-trained, passionate and driven, and despite all of his amazing success, he seems to be a very down-to-earth and humble man who doesn't have a need to sell his pots, pans, knives, soups or sauces to the masses. He's more widely known than any other chef in this country, but it's strictly for his talent and commitment rather than his commercialization of himself. He just does his thing and simply does it better than everyone else.
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Celebrity chef that should shut up: I don't watch too much television or the Food Network, but when I flip through the channels, there's always that guy named Guy-something-or-other that drives me crazy. I have no idea who he is, what kind of show he's on or if he's any good, but he's just very obnoxious and in-your-face. He scares me.
Hardest lesson you've learned: My parents immigrated here in the mid-'70s at the fall of Saigon with just the clothes on their backs, a family of six to feed and no grasp of English. I was raised fully aware of all the sacrifices they had made in order to give their children a better future, more opportunity and security. Growing up, education was really important; it was the path to security, and there was a lot of pressure to be the doctor, the lawyer or the investment banker, because at the end of the day, if there was money coming in, you were secure. Success in my family -- and I think in a lot of immigrant families -- is equivalent to security, not necessarily happiness. So when I graduated college, I followed in all my brother's and sister's footsteps and entered the world of finance. I worked as an investment banker and a commodities trader, and although my future seemed very secure, I didn't get the happy feeling that I was waiting for. You know -- the feeling you get when your parents and teachers tell you to work hard, study, get good grades and land the awesome job...and then you'll live happily ever after? That never happened. So I decided to do something about it, but it was one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in my life, because it meant going against everything that I was taught to believe. To my parents, their hard work and sacrifices weren't supposed to produce a cook who made minimum wage and didn't know where the rest of the rent would come from. What about my security? Anyway, I quit finance all together -- and never looked back. I'm following my passion, and I'm happy doing it every day, no matter how stressful it is. I will always be a risk-taker, because without taking risks, you're not living. I've learned that you've got to take risks, no matter the outcome.
What's next for you? Because Parallel 17 is a French-Vietnamese bistro, the food is pretty focused, so I'm limited to the things that I'm able to serve. As a chef, I love to experiment with different foods and create different kinds of dishes that I'm not known for. I'd love to open a very small, twenty-seat restaurant that focuses on honest and good food that's not limited by borders or trends. I'd only be open for dinner, and I'd change the menu weekly and only offer a five- or six-course prix fixe option. I'd also love to make sushi again.
To read part two of my interview with Mary Nguyen, click here.