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’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.
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.
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.