The prodigal son keeps a decades-old restaurant business humming while adding some new twists
Vincent Nguyen’s parents wanted him to go to school to become a lawyer or dentist instead of joining the family business. And for a while, that’s exactly what he did. The Vancouver native spent two and a half years at medical school at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
After his father died, Nguyen returned to help his mother, Ly, manage the family’s Vietnamese restaurant before briefly going back Down Under. “I realized after six more months that family is all you have,” he recalls. “I was down one and decided to come back, stop med school and figure out life.”
In 2015, Nguyen started plans (with his mom and his sister Amélie) to reconstruct the family’s Pho Hoang restaurant on Main Street. The trio revamped the interior (and the menu) to create the chic Anh and Chi (“brother and sister” in Vietnamese).
10:30 a.m. When Nguyen arrives at the restaurant, he usually checks in on the kitchen before making a quick trip for fresh produce in Chinatown. His mother (who still runs the kitchen) oversees a tight ship. “I’ll say, ‘Mom, I got a case so we don’t have to go back,’ and she goes, ‘It’s not fresh; you need to go every day and get it fresh.’ With family, you can say things straight, there’s no beating around the bush, there’s less bureaucracy and less red tape.”
12:00 p.m. As the restaurant fills up (“If there’s not a line outside, I get nervous”), Nguyen meets with his executive assistant and bookkeeper to plan out the coming weeks. On this surprisingly sunny November day, his chat with the former centres on what to serve for Anh and Chi’s Mealshare partnership (“something easily packable– spring rolls?”) and a donation to his alma mater, Vancouver College. Nguyen also announces that he’ll be going to the bank shortly, after discovering yesterday that he was double-charged for a produce purchase. “The bank’s fault,” he says. “I’m a numbers guy.”
Lunch Nguyen tries to have lunch with his mother every day. “We like to go somewhere new, but sometimes we just have it here.” His favourite thing on the menu? That would be the No. 37, formerly the most popular dish at Pho Hoang (also commemorated by a “Since 1983” neon sign at the bar). “It’s our lemongrass chicken and pork chop on rice. I always add a fried egg on top. It’s a classic.”
4:00 p.m. Meetings occupy the grace period between lunch and the looming dinner rush, as Nguyen gathers with his fellow managers and interviews potential new hires. “It’s always tough to find kitchen staff. Front of house is a little bit easier, but it’s about finding the good people,” he says of a crew that hovers around 50. “We hire based on personality. We don’t hire based on skill set because you can teach that. But personality, that’s who they are growing up.”
9 p.m. As things quiet down after dinner service, Nguyen heads home early (he doesn’t take any days off) or goes to the back office to handle emails, payroll and the like. Though the restaurant always seems full, he says he only realized recently that Anh and Chi had staying power in Vancouver’s crowded restaurant scene. “This year we had a great patio season; it was totally packed every day. And halfway through, I sat down on the patio to have a meal and just went, ‘Wow, I think it’s working.’ And then five minutes later you have to go put out a fire.”
11 p.m. Nguyen likes to fix things when the place is empty. After all, he was the “kid holding the flashlight” for his dad when a sink would plug up. And if the 30-year-old regrets dropping out of medical school, he doesn’t show it: “People just need to be brave enough to do what they really want to do,” he says. “That doesn’t mean $50 entrees and fine dining. It means putting some love into your dishes and making your own identity. For us, we’re authentic Vietnamese. Just because we use a nicer plate, a nicer presentation, beautiful decor, doesn’t mean we’re fusion.” Asked if he’d like to expand the business (at one point, his parents owned three eateries), Nguyen doesn’t mince words. “Absolutely, but there’s no rush. We have a motto in the family: We’re going to do it once, and we’re going to do it right.”