We visited Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen in Bushwick and talked with founders, Sahra Vang Nguyen and Johnny Huynh about growing up as Vietnamese Americans and how they, along with friends Daniel Bridge and Jeanaro Sar, came together and founded the Brooklyn hot spot known for fresh and edgy Vietnamese cuisine.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your background?
Chef Johnny: I was born and raised in Bushwick, grew up in an apartment building 1 block from Lucy's. Growing up in Bushwick, I was the only Vietnamese kid. Food was my strongest connection to my culture because my grandmother would make it for me. I wanted to learn more about my culture so I looked up jobs on Craigslist and I found "An Choi," which is a Vietnamese restaurant in the Lower East Side. I got a job as a sandwich boy. There, I met the owner, Tuan Bui, and the chef at the time, Dennis Ngo. Tuan and Dennis taught me a lot about cooking and Vietnamese food. Dennis owns Lonestar Empire and he's the person who taught me how to smoke brisket.
Sahra: I was born and raised in Boston, and like Johnny, my parents came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. When I was really young, like in elementary school, I remember my mom would pack me Vietnamese food and leftovers for my lunch, and I would feel embarrassed to open it in the cafeteria, because Vietnamese food has strong smells like fish sauce, soy sauce, curry, etc. and it didn't look like the food all the other kids were eating. Of course, a lot has changed since my elementary school days, where my culture is a source of pride and inspiration, not shame.
How do you know each other?
Sahra: Johnny brought us all together. Johnny met Danny while working Smorgasburg and Summer Stage events together -- Danny was at a pizza stand. Johnny met me through my friend Carson, who owns "Outerborough" at Smorgasburg, a few years back when I was filming Carson for a short documentary, and Johnny was working the Lonestar Empire stand at Smorgs, and he also just started his own business, called "Best Summer." Johnny brought Jen in, who had been working in the service industry for years and wanted to be part of something special. The four of us opened "Lucy's Vietnamese Kitchen" together. About a year into it, we started a second business together, which is a catering service. Johnny brought his childhood best friend, Travis, into this partnership.
What made you decide to break into the restaurant business and open Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen?
Chef Johnny: My grandmother raised me, so I knew that one day I wanted to open something in her name. After working at An Choi and the Smorgasburg markets for several years, I was ready to do something on my own. One day I saw the "For Rent" sign hanging at the location, which was a block from my apartment, so I called the landlord, got my team together (Danny, Sahra, and Jen), and on my 25th birthday I signed the lease.
Sahra: In addition to Lucy's, I have a career as a writer and filmmaker, where I'm passionate about sharing stories of underrepresented and historically marginalized communities. I'm also passionate about uplifting and sharing the stories of the Vietnamese American experience, history, and culture. So when the opportunity came to be a part of Lucy's Vietnamese Kitchen, I knew that it would be an entrepreneurial venture where I could help spread Vietnamese food and culture through the restaurant platform. Also, it's become increasingly clear that Vietnamese food has risen in popularity within mainstream America, and I feel it's important that Vietnamese and Vietnamese American people are part of this conversation and process.
Any advice for people thinking of opening a restaurant?
All: It's not easy. You must be crazy to want to do it. But if you are going to do it, find yourself the right team that works for you, listen to each other, be open to change and compromise, and remember that the goal is to always become better as individuals and as a collective.
What’s next for your partnership?
Sahra: Follow us on Instagram to find out!
What are some of your favorite items on the menu? Any favorite Vietnamese ingredients?
Sahra: That's like asking you to pick your favorite child. They're all different, and offer something different to people whether it's flavor profile or dietary restrictions. I love the pho broth because it's 100% vegan, and I feel like we were the first restaurant to offer a vegan broth (and only a vegan broth) in Brooklyn, since we opened in March 2015. I'm not a vegetarian but I love the Lemongrass Tofu Banh Mi because Chef Johnny's lemongrass marinade is bomb dot com, and the garlic aioli he makes for the bread is so good -- I always ask for extra aioli.
Chef Johnny: The vegan pho with 14 hour smoked brisket is a special one for me because I feel I was able to combine something Vietnamese inspired, like the pho broth with all its traditional spices, but make it vegan, offering a clean and healthier version, and then throwing 14-hour smoked brisket on it, which is a very American concept. It's a little bit of Brooklyn and a little bit of Vietnam, so it's "Brooknam."
What can people expect to experience at the Goodie Foodie Night Market at Space Ninety 8?
Chef Johnny: I'm going to be making something I've never made for the restaurant before, and that's 5 Spiced Vietnamese Rub Ribs with a Hoisin Sriracha glaze. I actually created and debuted this concept while filming a reality cooking show called "Big Bad BBQ Brawl" for the Cooking Channel. The show should be coming out in May.
Sahra: This is the first time we're collaborating with so many different people and brands in New York City, so I'm really excited to combine all of our creative energies and support each other. Everyone participating is creating and debuting something brand new that night -- new food, new cocktails, new merch. People can definitely expect an unprecedented night of specially crafted goods and positive vibes.
Lastly, What are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?
Sahra: Around the neighborhood by Lucy's, my favorite places are Mixtape Bushwick, Starliner, Talon, Dromedary Bar, June Bar, and Sally Roots!
Lucy's Vietnamese Kitchen serves classic dishes inspired by the owners' families along with an edgy flare that reflects the adaptations of first generation cooks.
Follow Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen on Instagram
Come out to Goodie Foodie Night Market at Space Ninety 8 this Thursday April 27th from 6-9pm!
Photos: Andrew Supnet