Thach Tran is the executive chef at Stella’s on 16th, a marketplace restaurant that opened downtown in January. This is his account of the journey that led him to this point, a tale that starts at a pho restaurant in Vietnam, detours through an obsession with hand-pulled noodles, stops at a lucky stint helping co-owner Toshi Kizaki wash and scale fish at Sushi Den, and includes a disastrous episode at the James Beard House.
Thach Tran: I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. My grandmother had two noodle restaurants: One was a pho restaurant, and the other served hu tieu [a pork-stock noodle soup]. After school, I’d go to my grandma’s restaurant and she’d babysit me. So at a young age, I was making stocks, serving, washing dishes, doing whatever she needed. She would go to the lady two stalls down and get beef bone; she’d be the first one there, so she’d get her first pick. She’d also buy her flanks, brisket and tripe. When she took everything back to her stall, she’d roast off her bones and make her stock, combining in some of the stock from the day before with the new one — a mother-stock sort of thing. This was at five or six in the morning, because pho is a common breakfast item.
I loved going to her shop. It was inside of an open market — there was food everywhere. It was always busy. There was fresh produce everywhere. People shop for their meals daily in Vietnam. Breakfast, you eat out — you eat your congee or pho or noodles at the market — and then you go shopping and get your ingredients for lunch, and then you go back to market to buy a couple of things to make dinner. So the market is a huge part of life. That market is where I shopped and ate every day. Steamed buns were really popular. The Vietnamese version has pork sausage inside; they’re Chinese-inspired. I love those. And there were tons of dumplings everywhere, and a lot of sticky rice with coconut on it.
I moved here with my mom when I was nine, and we came straight to Denver from Vietnam. The rest of my family was already here. At age eleven, I started watching Food Network — Alton Brown was my favorite. That helped explain the food world to me. I was confused by fast food, and even at the grocery store, everything was packed in plastic; it didn’t look like the market I grew up in. In Vietnam, everything is so fresh: You go to a restaurant, and you pick your fish from the tank and they prepare it. You get your water spinach from the same lady every day, and you know she’s growing it behind her house; there’s no question if it’s organic or locally grown, because you know your purveyor. Coming here, you see your wrapped-up spinach, and you see organic ingredients are more expensive — it’s a different culture. I thought Taco Bell bean burritos were the most disgusting thing I’d ever eaten. So I stuck with what my grandma cooks at home — her pho, noodles, broths. But watching Good Eats and the Food Network helped me understand Western cooking and Italian cooking and opened my eyes to a bigger culinary world. I started making cakes at home — stuff I would never have had or was not available in Vietnam. At eleven or twelve, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
I’ve always been obsessed with hand-pulled noodles. When I was a kid, I was watching a kung fu movie, and there was a chef making hand-pulled noodles. I did some research and found videos of people making hand-pulled noodles. It became a mission for me to learn how to make them. When I worked for chef Jose Guerrero — who runs all the ViewHouses now — he came across a recipe from a chef in Hong Kong and said, here, try this. It just wasn’t pulling the right way. So I did extensive research on flour, on how to adjust the pH level of the dough, on water, on lye water. In my second year of culinary school, in my dorm room, I thought, I’m going to figure this out. And I finally figured it out. It took a blend of two different flours, glutinous and pastry. Lye water helps relax the dough, and you really need just the right amount of water. All the spinning and twisting are crucial — you work the crap out of the gluten to make it stronger. Still, when I see someone hand-pulling noodles in New York or Hong Kong, I just get giddy.
I worked at Sushi Den while I was in culinary school. That really molded me in a lot of ways in terms of plating and knife skills. I was a prep boy, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when Toshi would get fresh fish flown in from Japan, it would be just me and him, scrubbing and scaling all the fish. I loved watching him. He’s still the only one who breaks down whole fish, and I’d never seen a chef break down so many kinds of fish like that. He also said it’s better not to put a bunch of stuff on the plate. I absorbed it all. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a sushi chef. I wanted to get back into a hot kitchen; I like the rush of it. At the time, Jeff Stoneking was the kitchen manager at Sushi Den, and he was leaving to work with Lon [Symensma] on a Vietnamese and French concept [ChoLon], based off of Cho Lon, a big market in Saigon. I was excited to see Vietnamese food elevated to that level.
Lon is great — he’s very talented, and he refined my skills in a lot of ways, promoting me from line cook to sous-chef to executive sous. Flavor-wise, we collaborated a lot. We’d talk about a dish: He always had a vision how he wanted it plated, but he’d ask, “Does this taste right? Does it taste like home? What does this need?” It feels like a big honor when a chef of that caliber asks you those questions. While I was there, we did a dinner at the James Beard House, and he asked me and another cook to come along. We prepped everything here in Denver — it took weeks to plan the menu. We did this lobster dish with lychee and tapioca and a yuzu foam, and we went and bought the lobster and prepped it and cooked it. We got to the dinner, and we were setting up, and I realized, holy crap, I miscounted the lobster. It was about two hours before service, and we were short two plates. It was the most disastrous moment of my career. I was sure I was going to get fired. We ended up running to Chelsea Market and got more lobster, and after dinner, everyone was happy. But that’s when I learned to double-count everything.
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After ChoLon, I decided to move to Seattle, but Stella’s on 16th was being designed by an old GM at ChoLon. He asked, “Do you want to help me with this concept?” I looked at it, at this idea of a marketplace, and I got really excited, so when the owner asked if I wanted to be executive chef, I said yes. I wanted it to be a one-stop shop for the urban crowd down here, with a good classic breakfast menu — we don’t want to be another Snooze — and fifteen sandwiches plus salads for lunch. We do what we can from scratch. We roast all our turkey in-house, and that’s what goes on the sandwich. We want to fill up the hot case a little more, so people can put together a picnic or a party. I wanted a fun marketplace where you can come hang out, have a glass of wine and a sandwich, and take something home for dinner. After fine dining, cooking volume has been a learning curve. I want everything to look really beautiful and taste really good.
If I did my own restaurant, I’d want something small and intimate, where I’m cooking in front of people. I don’t know if Denver would be the place for it; I want more ingredients available to me, more fresh produce nearby. It would have an Asian flair, but I don’t know what that restaurant is yet. There would definitely be noodle dishes, and definitely fish. Sushi. A bakery attached to it. I kind of want it all.
I like to have my hand in everything. I guess that’s why I’m not ready yet.
Stella’s on 16th is located at 1550 Wewatta Street. Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday For more information, call 303-578-5900 or go to stellason16th.com.