Nickie Tran, Fish Sauce American From Failure to Netflix Star & Celebrity Chef

By Niall Mackay

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Part 1

Part 2

Nikki Tran, a fish-sauce American, worked for a major chip manufacturer in the U.S. before becoming an “accidental chef”.

After “failing hard” at opening a Saigon restaurant in 2010 a drunken night changed her life. One night Nicki steamed some Phu Quoc seafood for friends who loved it so much they encouraged her to open another restaurant, this time smaller, street-food style.

Before she knew what was happening she’d already paid the deposit on a new premises that same night, recruited a chef and within 7 days had opened a new restaurant. Only for the chef not to show up on opening morning! (Even though the fortune-teller told her what time to open!!)

Despite being supported by her famous actress friend, who suggested this new project, to bring in customers this wasn’t a sustainable tactic and business soon dropped off after a month. This was a slap in the face but made Nicki realise she had to learn how to cook properly to build a customer base who enjoy the food and not coming just to possibly see a famous person. 

After establishing herself in Vietnam she went back to the U.S. and started a restaurant in Houston, Texas. At some points spending two weeks at a time between Vietnam and the U.S., pre-pandemic of course).

The clash of two cultures of the workforce proved a massive challenge for Nicki – having to be managed very differently.  

This culture clash doesn’t only apply to differences between Americans and Vietnamese, but the different Vietnamese populations within America. With tension and differences depending on when you got to America, how you got there, and how long you’ve been there.

This extends to the difference in culture between immigrants and their children who were brought up in a different environment from their parents.

For Nicki, one of the worst things a migrant parent can do is not teach their children the language of their homeland. “Why do you want to take that opportunity away from them to speak two, or three, languages? There’s nothing to be ashamed of in your own language or culture” says Nicki.

As a Vietnamese naturalised citizen of the U.S. Nicki doesn’t use the term Viet Kieu to describe herself and does not like the term; “I think when that term was created it didn’t mean well.” She would rather be framed as an American, “I personally just don’t like that term”.

We discuss the recent increase of attacks on people of Asian origin in the U.S. and how even some people won’t recognise the problem in their own community until it happens to them. This problem extends to more than just the Asian community with racism and prejudice existing between and among the different cultures that make up America. Nicki believes education is the solution but it will take time through continual small actions, comparing this to nurturing day by day a Bonsai tree to grow straight.

Finally, we talk about how that drunken decision one night to open another restaurant led to her being Netflix and a ‘celebrity chef’! “I was lucky! I didn’t even know how to cook Vietnamese food very well” Nicki candidly admits.

Nicki fell in love with crawfish, eating it every day when it was in season while in Texas. So on a trip back to Vietnam, she brought back two big bags of Louisiana crab boil seasoning to combine with fresh Vietnamese seafood to share with her family. She made cajun shrimp and other cajun dishes that became instantly popular and the word got out.

This resulted in being featured in a magazine shortly after she opened the restaurant, which led to more print media attention. including an airline magazine, in just a short time. 

She was then approached about appearing on a Netflix show when she didn’t even know what Netflix was! The show was Somebody Feed Phil, with host Phil Rosenthal now a close friend. Nicki has now been on Netflix’s Ugly Delicious & Street Food and NBC’s Travel Voyager and featured in publications around the world such as Vice Magazine.

We had so much to talk about in this episode and could have talked about so much more. So much so I split this episode into two parts!

You can eat at her restaurant at Kau Ba Kitchen in Houston and Kậu Ba in Saigon.

Hope you enjoy this episode!

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