It's a good year for Parallel 17, a modern Vietnamese restaurant from chef/owner Mary Nguyen. Not only is the restaurant celebrating its seventh year in business, but tomorrow night, Nguyen will serve an eight-course meal with Travel Channel's Bizarre Eats host Andrew Zimmern. Now Denver's Hottest Chef discusses how she got into the business, the challenges of opening up concepts in Denver, and why she loves serving adventurous dinners:
You opened Parallel 17 seven years ago. At what point were you in your life? Well I don't have a cooking background. I used to be an investment banker, and I used to trade properties, but I've always loved hospitality and I love food. So it was always a goal to open a restaurant. I basically left finance and started working in different restaurants around town. I worked at Hapa in Cherry Creek, and then I worked at The Beehive [when it was in Denver]. I also worked at Starbucks, so I was working all three jobs at the same time when I first started in the service industry because I wanted to learn as much as I could. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and go to work at Starbucks at 4 or 5 a.m. as the opener, and then I'd finish around 10 a.m. and go to Hapa to work the lunch shift. The Beehive was only open for dinner, so then I'd work on the line in the evenings. I did all three jobs for at least a year, and then there was the opportunity to grow with Hapa, and that was an opportunity I didn't want to miss, so I started full-time with Hapa. I left there when I was the executive chef and sushi chef, and that was three years later.
When I started P17, I was — and still am — a novice. I've been really lucky...There's so many aspects of running a business that make it easy to be unsuccessful — whether it's staffing, location, construction — things you don't anticipate. Seven years ago I had a sense of what the business would be like, but at the time, I don't think I understood the time commitment and hard word it would entail.
How much time are you working between your two restaurants? Probably 80 hours a week. Whether it's doing administrative work, expediting, cooking, or menu development — there's always something.
Do you regret anything about the career path? No. I went to college, and my whole family is in finance. All of my brothers are bankers on Wall Street, and I gave that up because this is what I wanted. It's so fulfilling. I look at people around me, and I'm lucky enough to know what I'm passionate about and be able to do it. That's very rewarding.
So The Beehive just reopened in Boulder. What do you remember about the restaurant when it was operating in Denver? I remember knocking on her door — she [Janice Henning, chef/owner] had an ad in The Westword, because back then, that's how you looked for a job, there wasn't really a Craigslist. She posted an ad for a sous chef, and I had no idea what a sous chef was, but I went to the restaurant and just knocked on the back door. I was in a three piece suit with a briefcase, because at the time, that's what I knew as an investment banker. I said, "So I saw your ad for sous chef, and I'm here to apply for it," and she looked at me, asked for my resume and said, "I'm not really sure you're qualified, but I'll hold on to your resume." I remember telling her that I just loved her restaurant and that one day I wanted to open a restaurant just like hers, and she looked at me with a look that basically said, "Yea, you want to open your own restaurant? It's a lot of work. It's not this Top Chef world with millions of dollars involved." I have fond memories of her. I loved the ambiance of The Beehive, and the food was always so fresh and flavorful.
So Denver has a pretty small female executive chef pool. Why do you think that is? I love Denver and I love being a chef in Denver, but I also understand that there are differences in this market compared to bigger markets, like New York, LA, San Francisco, etc. As we become bigger and more known for food, and as we get a populous that's more supportive of our dining scene, we as chefs will be able to do more and give women more opportunities. I, myself, try to hire as many women as I possibly can.
You own Street Kitchen Asian Bistro in the Tech Center. How's business there? It's definitely a completely different market. We have a really busy lunch, and dinner... it's more convenient for me to be here [at P17], because our business is here at dinner. It's definitely hard, as at any new restaurant because you're finding your core group of customers. It's a little different. Different area, different clients, different palates — it's a challenge, but a good challenge.
So this dinner you're hosting with Andrew Zimmern, what's in store? John Emmanuel [Chef at Project Angel Heart] is the head of the DAEC, which is the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club, and they are a group of people who get together and just try crazy food. And when I say crazy food, I mean crazy food. I love the group because there's a lot of things I would like to cook — maybe not pork uterus to the general public — and when I do these dinners, it's awesome because I have free reign. We get to work with ingredients that we would never get to work with. Last time we served ant larvae and balut egg, which is a duck fetus that's poached. It's so good! This menu I'm doing bamboo caterpillars, pork uterus, lotus root, different mushrooms — just a bunch of stuff. I try to do a dinner every year, and this will be the third.
So you're obviously a pretty adventurous eater. Well, a lot of these foods are staples in other counties, and that's what people eat. There's no reason we shouldn't eat these things — white, chicken meat isn't the only meat we should eat. What I try to do is present it in a way that's really approachable and flavorful. It's not like we're in Thailand eating silk worms on the side of the street. I try to make a lot of these dishes in a way that you don't feel like you're eating something that you normally wouldn't. We as Americans, myself included, shy away from things we don't normally see on a menu. But, it's not like you're going to go to a store a buy caterpillars and open them like a can of tuna fish. I would hope that as a consumer, you're going to trust that I know what I'm doing and that I'm going to do in a way that's safe.
Where are you eating when you're not at work? I always try and go to Sushi Den because I love sushi. I make sushi at home too. In terms of adventurous eating, I go to JJ's Chinese. They have everything.
Now that you have seven years as an chef/owner under your belt and two restaurants, what's ahead? I'm happy where things are. The crew here has definitely been supportive of me, and I've been able to support them. I may own the restaurant, but in reality, we all own it together. I can't do this without them. I've been lucky and blessed with the crew here. Some of them have been here since day one. With Street Kitchen, I'm definitely happy with it. It's going to take some time since it's a different market. I'd love to do more concepts. I'd really like to do things that aren't specifically Asian because I feel like there's a lot more than just Asian food. I used to live in Mexico, and I love Mexican food. If I'm not eating sushi at home, I'm eating things like ceviche and tacos. I'd really like to open something with more of a bar environment.
Word on the street is that there are still tickets for tomorrow's Adventurous Eaters Club with Travel Channel's Bizarre Eats host Andrew Zimmern. Call Parallel 17 at (303) 399-0988 for more details.