I am Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen, a formerly illegal+underground restaurant in Los Angeles gone.. LEGIT and trying to go even MORE LEGIT. Ask me ANYTHING (illegal, legitimate or anything in between) I'm at your disposal!
Hi, I'm Nguyen Tran. 5.5 years ago my wife, Thi Tran, +I started an illegal+underground restaurant in LA that eventually became the #1 Asian Fusion Restaurant listing on Yelp (which I still think is BONKERS to this day). Last time we did it, we had 130 ppl go in and out of our home and there was only one rule: NO MOTHER FUCKING SHOES, IN MY MOTHER FUCKING APARTMENT ('cause we're Asian!)
If you want to read more about that fun+underground history, you can read this nifty article I wrote for Vice:Munchies about our illegal adventures here: http://munchies.vice.com/articles/how-to-run-an-illegal-restaurant?utm_source=redditama
We've since gone legit, opened up a brick-and-mortar, went viral, exposed the word to the fun of banana suits, became successful, fucked up equally as much, lost that restaurant, became a pop-up in downtown LA, then moved to Chinatown and we're still a pop-up...
And now we've drawn the line for our Go BIG, Go HOME moment to go MORE LEGIT with a crazy+ambitious(+potentially ludicrous) Kickstarter to #SaveOurBALLS: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1047227143/starry-kitchens-saveourballs-and-our-restaurant
I'm happy to go "open kimono" and answer ALL your questions about how to do this on your own, why this Kickstarter is SO EXPENSIVE (we agree!), our food, why we fucked up, how to do it right, Los Angeles, the best tacos in LA... whatever!
WOW, we got a VERY financially minded person here
Before I jump into this question (so people just don't tear me apart for trying to be greedy, because let's face it- running a restaurant is NOT the best way to make money), when running a restaurant we run it considering the LAW OF AVERAGES. Sure, you COULD put ALL items that are super profitable on, but it may not represent a great selection of flavors+options that people want. So there is a BALANCE OF IT ALL.
The quick answer to your question: our Crispy Tofu Balls. Tofu is cheap, it yields a lot BUT the thing to consider is that it has one of our highest labor costs too because tofu is docile, not incredibly malleable and needs to be handle gently.
Percentage wise profit to cost, still the Tofu Balls. it wins this battle by a LONG shot literally because of the yield (but again because of that yield we incur more labor though too). One case of tofu generates at LEAST 60 appetizer orders or more for us.
Shortest dish: the Lemongrass Tofu might be the shortest, but doesn't get ordered as much (but it is delicious)
Longest dish: probably the Singaporean Chili Crab (our other signature dish). The sauce has 15 different ingredients in it, takes about 4 hours BUT over 2 days to make WITH the crab being the last ingredient to add once it's called out for an order
As far as the correlation: most DEFINITELY. Time is MONEY, and labor cost is the most variable of costs so while something may not take THAT much time. we're in the business of volume so take 5 minutes for prep of one time and multiply that by 100 times over the week, not including the time to actually clean up, get ready, ACTUALLY service the dining room too...
Why am I in the restaurant business again?? LOL
So what you're saying is the balls have to be handled gently, but they do boast an impressive load or profit?
... yes... yes I am
Wow capitalist pig fuck you
WOW - is that geared towards the guy asking or me? I think it's a fair+interesting question (but yeah, fairly capitalist too.. we ultimately serve food for the LOOOOVE ;D)
Hi Nguyen! Your cute interns Brian + David here.
When the Kickstarter gets funded, what will be the changes you will implement with the new restaurant to keep it running profitable and successful?
I should clarify: "not so cute", "unpaid" and "they're graduated and were our interns like 3 years ago"
Well, the major change will be ENVIRONMENT. We haven't had a place that TRULY felt like it was ours. People don't put much stock in a way a place feels all the time, but we think it's even MORE important than the food because it's sometimes WHY people come back, bring people, and enjoy themselves.
The space we're looking at we want to do the following: -open the kitchen, knock out the wall -install a walk-in cooler -update all the electrical+plumbing -re-do the bar (yeah, there's a bar - so THAT is an answer to your question too: we will FINALLY have beer+wine to off-set the expensive costs of food) -and thensome (because you don't want to read what I would be spending if we got the money).
To make more money: actually open consistently (most likely 6 if not 7 days a week) to take people whenever they want so they DON'T have to plan. The thing that does is helps us amortize (big WORD) the cost of all our kitchen labor too. We don't have to worry about perishables and can move product consistently in-and-out and increase our profits in the long run. Also, just being open more allows us to serve more people and figure out how to make every day profitable too.
We would also re-implement POS systems, hire management to deal with the finances+operations nitty gritty that I'm frankly not fond of (I understand it, I just don't like dealing with it as much as the big picture planning for the restaurant). We'd also consider expanding some of the options on the menu to allow for a little bit more variety to appeal to a larger crowd do (but remain focused).
And oh yeah, pay people APPROPRIATE wages so they can be happy to grow the business and grow with it. That's a BIG one people discount all the time. Human capital, in a business of hospitality is of UTMOST importance, and we can finally make our staff.. just a lil bit happier to let them know they're appreciated ;)
Does that help "my FORMER interns?!?"
haha they wish!
"Bonkers" is an excellent word.
How on Earth did you manage to feed 130 people from your apartment?
LOL Thanks. Seriously, it's BONKERS to think ANY of this has happened and how far we've gotten too. How ever I may come off in interviews/reddit/whatever I am SO thankful and appreciative because I NEVER thought we'd make it THIS far.
As far as the 130 ppl. Let's say this, we could fit 10 ppl comfortably in our apartment; 35 ppl VERY uncomfortably and in restaurant terms we pretty much "4 turns" of people going in-and-out over a 4-5 hours span. THAT was MEGA-BONKERS! It was our last night, unexpected, less fun than it is nostalgic now... but also unbelievable to see how many friends+fans we made through our lil ol' apartment
That's incredible! My wife runs a cake business out of our home (don't worry, it's legit). Any advice you might have for her?
haha well, if you're in California it's COMPLETELY legit now for y'all (YAY!) .. plus you know we wouldn't care, right?
Advice: first, thinking is overrated. The biggest mistake (I think) people make is overthinking things (at least at times). You HAVE to push forward, fall on your face, make a mistake, get back up and LEARN. BUT that's where you can figure out the things that work best for you too. Secondly, don't do anything because you have to- do it because you WANT TO. Conviction is ALL you got when you're on your own. If you're doing something because of outside pressure, the result TENDS not to be great either. Thirdly, HAVE FUN! ALL start-ups are difficult, but if she whole heartedly believes in it now or what it can become, keep that because as she takes people on.. that attitude is CONTAGIOUS. And the opposite is true too, because if he's unhappy her staff can only do so much before.. well they leave because she's unhappy.
Hope that helps (read the vice article if you have a chance too, there are some fun lessons in there too :D)
That helps a lot! Thanks!
get to it (and I'd love to know about this cake business and try some.. I LOVE CAKE!)
I love Starry Kitchen! Seriously, you guys are my favorite restaurant in LA!
Are you guys planning to stay in the Chinatown/Downtown LA area if the kickstarter is funded (I contributed to your kickstarter :) )? Also, on your off days, where are your favorite places to eat in the city?
Wuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut? I feel like I'm getting a lot of love here so far (and I don't have any money or free food to give here on a reddit... or gold, sorry, I don't understand the gold yet LOL)
We ARE planning on staying in Chinatown. We LOVE it here, helped build the notoriety of Chinatown w/ Roy Choi+Chego, and we DON'T want to leave it. The community that's building here is SO tight nit and great, I wouldn't leave it if someone offered me a lot of money to (and literally turned down an investor to in fact).
Fave places to eat? OH BOY, TOOOOO MANY: -Kang Ho Dang Baek Jang (protip, it has a long wait time, there is a karaoke bar 3 doors down, put your name down, go karaoke for an hour and half, work up an appetite, return to eat) -Pho Filet -Newport Seafood -Proof Bakery (just had two of their sammies NOW) -Scoops...Chinatown (of course) -Guisados -Mexicali Tacos -Ricky's Fish Tacos -Men-oh Ramen -Bucato -Seoul Sausage (my BALL boys) -Phorage (crazy tasty eggrolls) ... TOO MAAAAAAANY! gwaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Glad to hear you guys will still be in Chinatown.
Thanks for the karaoke bar tip! I've been planning on going to Kang Ho Dang Baek Jang and haven't made it yet, but I'm definitely going soon and will hit up the karaoke bar :)
DO IT! And if you love karaoke, you'll thank me because standing around for an hour and a half is boooooring (plus you might as well SING UP your appetite before you stuff your face with all their deliciousness ;D)
Did neighbors ever have issues with your illegitimate restaurant?
What issues did you run into when your restaurant wasn't up to code?
Now that you're legitimate - are there things you can't do that you enjoyed doing before that wouldn't pass muster with the city/ state or other code?
it's funny THAT is the most common question we get when we drop "the bomb" about our illegal apartment beginnings. The answer: NO, because they were ALL there. (also helps that we were in an industrial apartment complex so the walls were VERY thick... but they were all there eating so it didn't matter so much)
As far as not being up to code: well, it was an apartment. The funny thing about when the health department finally found me and interrogated me over the phone (before interrogating me in person), one of their questions was literally, "do you have a kitchen?" And sarcastically I was like, "yes, it's an apartment. Of course I have a kitchen." LOL And THAT issue only came up when a local restaurant "outted us" BUT to this day I always say I have to thank that guy because if we didn't get caught... we would have never been fully legitimized either. It made us bigger.
And as far as being legit vs illegal+underground? First thing, we lose the "magic" of doing something under the radar and KINDA getting away with it... together. My wife, honestly is a CLEAN freak so our apartment was cleaner than 98% of the restaurants out there. She honestly might prefer that lone aspect of the apartment vs an industrial kitchen: she control ALL the cleanliness. Otherwise, having an industrial kitchen has given her the space, tools and mentality to evolve the food and THAT has been pretty great to watch.
Does that help? (if you want to get away with more, PLEASE do ask LOL)
One last one on the illegitimate beginnings: did you have insurance when you were illegitimate or did you just kind of hope no one fell over and busted their face in your apartment or whatever?
Was it difficult to scale your endeavor and bring on other employees?
Was it at all difficult for your wife or yourself to relinquish some control as you got larger?
nope, no insurance. that's a tricky one too because, unless you have a good broker that will HELP shape your "business" to be insured, you might be out of luck.. with that said, DO TRY! You never know. in between ALL of this we started doing caterings out of our home (between pop #1 and #2), and we took on liability insurance MAINLY because most catering venues require you to carry a real policy ($1M/$3M aggregate)
Scaling WAS difficult for one reason alone: my wife wasn't the kind of person to write recipes at the time. I did always instill in her that doing it out of our apartment should be treated like a learning experience ALL the way through.. but writing recipes, if you don't know already and aren't that kind of person, is a HARD mindset to evolve into. PLUS, if you aren't into writing recipes, you start to become protective (at first) until you realize.. "well, I have employees, and they can't make my food without KNOWING what they're making." My advice on that topic: if it were as easy as following a recipe, EVERYONE would run a restaurant. If you give one recipe to 10 people, you'll be surprised that ALL 10 will be different
as far as relinquishing control, YES it is. When you grow your "baby," it's very difficult especially when you start to trust people and they fuck up. You take it very personally SOMETIMES as if you made the wrong decision. The lesson to learn there is, people ONLY learn when they fuck up so they have to make some of the same mistakes you do in order to appreciate WHY you want things a certain way. No one is perfect, and most people WANT to succeed. It's then about vetting people out that are motivated VS just wanting a job...
WOW, that made me sound kind of mature! =)
Sounds like you guys are developing a healthy management style. I worked in restaurants before going to law school and I saw a lot of managers completely freak out on employees for those sorts of mistakes. I don't think I know a single woman who worked in the industry and wasn't sexually harassed by a coworker or a manager.
Your AMA is really fantastic. Great, thorough, knowledgable answers.
Thanks for spending some time here.
tear drop REALLY?!?! (and that's not sarcastic at all because... REALLY?!?!)
I've grown and learned (and fucked up a LOT) in not knowing SHIT about running a restaurant. But there is one consistent thing that I hope my staff (love or hate me) can say, it's because I care so much about it all. So times too much wear it can grate on people, and I'm realizing that more now, but I want it to grow, flourish and evolve (and subsequently I want that of our staff too)
Thanks so much really.. I was SO scared of this reddit, but I guess.. I'm not doing to sucky. LOL
Are there dishes that you did back in the day at your apt that you'd like to bring to the restaurant but you haven't bc of scale/time/etc?
there IS: I've been BEGGING my wife to make this special Lemongrass Pork dish that she did once that amazing, savory, tender, aromatic and simply PERFECT except... that was the time when she wasn't writing recipes so she's REALLY hesitant to re-visit because it'll take a LOT of R+D time to recreate (or not)
We made a LOT of dishes there too. If we can continue, I think it's worth it to re-visit that ENTIRE menu of items because... it IS the foundation of why we started doing this...
... I'm getting all nostalgic for a moment now. Thanks! :)
I have a reservation for your restaurant next Saturday (the 24th).
1) What is your guys' fav thing to make?
2) What drink goes best with the Chili Crab, which I still haven't tried but am planning on ordering when we go?
WOW, thanks for making a ressie. Please come say "HI' when you come in and meet.... IRL?!?! WEIRD!
my favorite thing on the menu is the Claypot Striped Bass. I LOVE the Chili Crab, the the Claypot Bass is what I call my "deathrow dish" and literally the dish I would eat before I die.
My wife's, the chef, is the off-menu Turmeric Fish. It's a striped bass filet that we marinate in turmeric, smother in fresh dill and serve on a bed of vermicelli w/ fresh pickled veg on top, boston lettuce on the side to wrap with and dip in our house made fish sauce. It's SUBSTANTIAL as a dish, but REALLY light (if you want that just update your ressie and we'll hold it for ya ;D)
Best drink w/ the Chili Crab, most DEF a good light and possibly sweeter (aka less hoppy so not as competitive in flavor) beer. OR maybe like a rose, but it's honestly a COMPLETE beer dish so... "BURR" it is!
I had the claypot striped bass the first time I was there! It was amazing! I definitely want to try the tumeric fish; I will be sure to update my OpenTable reservation with that and the sinaporean chili crab. Thank you so much.
Do you have a favorite dessert?
fave dessert? Mine is the off-menu Pandan Churros w/ the Coco Kaya Cream "uh huh huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh" that KAYA.. I just wanna swim in it.. make out with it.. grow old with it... (why isn't Kaya a person YET?!?)
My wife's: probably the 5-spiced apple fritter OR (if it's on, which it isn't right now) the osmanthus panna cotta with red-wine asian poached pear)
Whats your Most popular item on the menu?
By FAR, the Crispy Tofu Balls is our MOST POPULAR dish. So popular we call it "the Game Changer!" For people that hate tofu/deplore it/can't stand it.. they don't know why they LIKE IT!
(and it actually was one of the last dishes we created out of our illegal+underground apartment too _)
Awesome! I would love to try something like that out someday!
/r/morbishkhan is CORRECT! in the kickstarter (link above) we are offering ALL our recipes actually because our ask is almost so ludicrous that we had to offer something equally ludicrous (that we're happy to share). UNLESS you're in LA or coming soon. Our last day in our current pop-up is Jan 31st. Come on BY! :)
Well, if you contribute to the Kickstarter they are offering the recipe for the Tofu Balls as one of the prizes...
btw... thaaaaaank yooooou
For sure, I want you guys to succeed. I still haven't tried the fabled Singaporean Chili Crab. Are you guys serving it through the end of the month?
yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup! I would HIGHLY recommend reserving it at least 24 hrs in advance, but yes, we are still serving our Singaporean Chili Crab til Jan 31st. Come on IN! :)
Hey Nguyen, it's Kyle from back when you were at the downtown lunch spot. Just wanted to say thanks for the "it made me kick a hole in the wall" Taiwanese pork chop. Sorry for not making it up, because I moved and...well, LA is far.
Ever thought about opening a spot in the OC, and when are you going to offend all the people with lederhosen and signs asking people to eat your balls?
I'm ALWAYS surprised who was there for that kick (which if I've never mentioned before, was far more embarrasing for me than LORE would dictate because... I DIDN'T EXPECT MY FOOT TO BE STUCK IN A WALL!)
I HAVE thought about OC because I LIKE the idea of sticking out like a sore-thumb in an area that is: a) equally hungry (if not more so) for some LA crazy deliciousness; b) I kinda love going to Bruxies when I can LOL
As far as offending people there with my banana suit/lederhosen/megaphone while asking people to enjoy our balls in their mouths... naw, I'm not scared of that so much! :)
Costa Mesa wouldn't be so sore thumb-ish, btw.
And yeah, Bruxie is cool and we do have 2 Santouka spots!
I know, I go to the one in Costa Mesa a lot :)
Do you feel like the Walter White of the Asian Fusion Restaurant world?
"blue sky" is actually my favorite color... ;)
I feel like I'm the Heisenberg before everyone knows it's actually Walter White (if you get my gist ;D)
Don't read /u/Starry_Kitchen's comment if you don't want Breaking Bad spoiled for you.
oops, fair enough!
The first time I tasted your (crispy tofu) balls was at the Rose Bowl Food Truck Festival and have been loving them ever since.
Do you have any plans to start a food truck if this Kickstarter thing doesn't succeed? Any other back up plans for either you or Kitchen Ninja?
Also, I love your personality, but let's face it, some people are turned off by it. How have you dealt with such people / try to resolve any offense they may have felt?
Ngyuen has said many times that there is no "backup" plan to the Kickstarter. They are OUT of the restaurant business if this is a no-go, which would absolutely be a shame for LA dining if they are forced to abandon ship.
Worst case scenario... If they don't succeed, what will the timeline be? They're not going to close up shop immediately, are they?
Jan 31st IS our last day regardless of what happens. So yes, we'll close shop. This is THE definitive ALL OR NOTHING play, so we want it to be as clear+clean cut as possible for us, our staff and our customers because frankly... stringing people along (even if they want it) just ain't a way to go through life, right?!?
I should say I DON'T want Jan 31st to be our last day at all, but we are laying ALL OF IT on the line and frankly, I'm scared because that could be true BUT... it doesn't mean I won't give it my all either! :)
/r/piperdowns (is that the best way to refer to a redditor?) hit it on the head. There are no other plans.
I actually LOVE food trucks since their heyday 5 years ago BUT... most of my friends that started on food trucks have since opened brick-and-mortar restaurants (if that says anything). The funny thing about the "low barrier to entry" idea of "being cheaper", it's not necessarily. It also presents a lower financial success ceiling, and there are other inherent costs (physical, mental and etc) that people may not understand that comes with a truck. For example: when it rains, that is almost a Zero Dollar day for a truck. For my restaurant, sales are slower BUT we do delivery so then it makes up for it.
As far as my personality, OF COURSE I've dealt with a lot of issues with that. The simple answer to that is: I have to fail on my own terms. This business is SO tied to me personally that if I'm not enjoying myself while working hard, why am I doing it? A lot of people don't understand that, and a lot of people like to pass judgement BASED on what they feel other people's opinions are about me.. but there comes a time when you a reach a certain point in your life where.. it just DOESN'T phase you. not because of ego, not because of conceit, but because... you're just HAPPY. It's the best way I can put it. I want to lead everyone to the promise land, but not everyone's ok with the way I do it. LOL
it would be /u/piperdowns
arrrrrrgh.. got it 'r' for reddits and subreddits and 'u' for users... thanks!
I have been a long time fan of SK and want to see you succeed. However, isn't a half million dollars a big ask for kickstarter. Parties and unicorn tattoos aside, it's essentially free money. If you want to be a "legit" business have you consideres giving up some equity and taking on a partner?
argh, why didn't I see this question earlier? THIS is the main question many people have been asking.
First of all, if you haven't seen it already: I highly recommend you check out the kickstarter now because there is a budget breakdown that sets that # in reality. As /u/sergez put it, for a restaurant it's fairly reasonable budget. Most of my restaurants friends are like, "do you think that's enough?"
Secondly, on the topic of "free money." I've finally figured out how to answer this question in as concise a manner as possible. To put it simple: all money, costs money regardless how you get it. Here's a way to break it down.
With an investor: they take risk with you, take equity in return along w/ a percentage of ROI (return on investment) of anywhere between 5%-20% of what they're putting in but they accept that this may not happen, and may take years to happen.
With the kickstarter: it's all about the rewards. Rewards, as I calculate it, can range anywhere from 5% to 50% of the actual pledge (depending on how aggressive a kickstarter campaign wants to be), almost everyone is looking for great value in return (an investor is looking at the long term) and they want it immediately. That also discounts the time it takes to fulfill the rewards as well. The former (investment), is actually the easier path in terms of time, effort and overall payout.
I'm not against equity and partner, and that's not to say I won't take one on later on. Part of the story here is that we were in conversations with people over the last year, and those conversations fell through in Oct. My wife and I set a deadline of end of January to make a decision. I'm assuming in you suggesting this, you also know it takes time to talk, discuss, review, draft, review through lawyers and negotiate terms. For about $500-$700k, from my experience (I used to work in film negotiating finance before all this too), 3 months is too short of a time to negotiate it without giving up "our position of strength."
plus the $500k ask via crowdfunding is consider ludicrous on almost ALL accounts, but I will say I'm interested in the model, the sense of community it brings and... to pave the way for people that have less experience pursuing their dreams, goals and etc to help inspire them to be creative (whatever way they may achieve it) to get where they want to be.
Oh yeah, last reason: I kinda of what to f' sh-t up a little bit too. disrupt the system, and what better way to go out (if we do) then trying for an absurd amount (based on crowdfunding history) and just seeing if it might work.
And to be honest, if this does work, I don't think I'm doing this again because it's SO emotional and stressful to do it this way, but is already a great lesson for me on how this works :)
You DO realize California has some RIDICULOUS laws and codes to enforce, right? Not to mention, it'll be pricey.
$500k actually seems like a reasonable budget to start a restaurant. It is just unusual for someone to get that much money without paying interest on a loan or giving up equity like any other start up. Unless there is some sort of tie in with Zach Braff we don't know about, I am curious how they plan to raise that much on KS?
Calling Zach Braff!!!
do it! LOL
I keep hoping they have some random celeb fan who could fund this so I can keep eating tofu balls forever.
or ANYONE. we'll see what happens. just keep spreading the word if not . going to post more content/updates soon so it's not the same thing every day for y'all too. thanks for rooting for us :)
to answer the how:
I have NO idea outside of, we have to. There are strategies and ideas, but the simple motivation of "we're not giving ourselves any other option and have no other option" will hopefully reveal something that will work. If not, it will hopefully shed some light on other people that want to pursue this and what mistakes to avoid. Honestly, outside of inspiring, if I can help educate people that are considering this specific path on how to do it better, THAT is also a great reason to do this. Someone's gotta do it and take the sacrifice, and I guess I'm going to be the sacrificial lamb in this case. :)
Ooops, I quoted YOU /u/sergez in the previous comment.
I was going to say I think Sergez POINT is not the budget, it's the "free money" perspective which I think is giving crowdfunding a bad rep honestly. I hope my explanation above sheds some light on the different costs people don't understand or consider with the "donated"/"pledged" funds
I dig your style Nguyen! Too bad you've been found out! I love how people stick it to the Man by going underground. Do you feel as though you'll survive all the ridiculous regulations now coming your way?
the thing about this, we've actually been legit for about 4.5 years so... I guess I can say we have survived just fine. It wasn't easy, but it's also because my wife really endeavored to understand the rules and not get bogged down by them.
now sales tax, that was the kicker for me (and they REALLY kicked me in the balls on thems regulations!)
which items do you order in various ethnic restaurants to see if they are on the ball, and which items do you order in restaurants that you know they can't screw up?
not that I'm a restaurateur, I will say I reserve my actual opinions about most restaurants because I know how hard it is now.
As far as ethnic restaurants and if they're on the ball, I just flat out honestly ask them what dish would they eat if they were about to die.. and THEN figure it out from there.
Sometimes the simplest dishes in life are the best, but sometimes the seemingly simplest dishes are the easiest to overthink and screw up too. Like in french kitchens, the simple test of cooking an egg/french omelette is an AMAZING test.. that most young cooks will fail 9 times out of 10 because cooking is sometimes more a feeling than it is "going through the motions..." at least GOOD cooking is.
I know that doesn't give you a specific answer BUT.. it's up to the Front of House (FOH) to help a diner get the dishes that best represent that restaurant so I base it more on their genuine recommendations than anything
So, I've been going to Starry Kitchen since it opened in Water Court and was most sad to see it move away from near my work place. I went once to the Chinatown location... the food was awesome but the atmosphere was off-putting. Why that location? What were your choices at the time?
Edit: Already contributed to the Kickstarter! $50 on Monday...
haha WELL, the unfortunately downside to a pop-up is that we're at the whim of the location that we're in. To answer "why this location?" the answer is pretty simple: TIMING.
We were looking, so was Grand Star, we fell in love HARD with Chinatown as a whole and... we figure why not make the leap.
And as far as the KS, thanks, and your reason is also WHY we need to get our own space. So we can have our OWN space again too.
Thanks for following our journeys SINCE the Water Court days. We REALLY miss y'all a whole lot: the commotion, the exciting, the hilarity and just serving y'all lunch. :)
I do wish that Chinatown was more accessible to us Financial District workers for lunch... that Dash B is just too slow! And having to transfer metro lines sucks when you only have 60-75 mins for lunch.
I have ideas to fix that so that Chinatown is more successful BUT.. that's literally the cart before the horse while I figure out our final destiny (and no, I'm not making a reference to a hilarious horse driven cart service.. which would be great too!)
Possibly too little too LATE, but the imgur recs got me thinking, "F' IT, I should figure out how to do this anyway" SO.. without further ado, for those of you that haven't made it to our Kickstarter page HERE is the food porn from there:
Black Pepper Crab (our Kickstarter Backer ONLY dish)
Fresh (Ramen) Noodle Garlic Noodles
At the new place, do you have plans to stick to dinner, or do you think you'd go back to doing lunch again too? Any dishes/drinks/other menu changes etc that you would be able to do at your own place that you can't do currently at the pop-up? You guys already do a pretty big variety of dishes, imho! (and all delicious!!!)
Also, random other q: did you guys ever consider doing a food truck? just curious..
the funny thing is, our original reputation was LUNCH (and I miss the 200-300 people we'd do and the craziness),BUT... we've lost that rep as we've now built a rep for dinner-only (which we figured out in one of our mini-pop ups doing banh mi lunch.. wasn't as popular regardless) We probably WILL do lunch too, but then the question will be will it be like the "old days" (chipotle-style: probably not), or be a smaller quicker version of dinner (most likely)
We will do mixed drinks, more recreational non-alcoholic drinks and... well, we're just going to have MORE FUN than people would expect at a restaurant. I can tell you my wife is ITCHING to bring back the Singaporean Cereal Prawns on a daily basis. That's one of her dream dishes to keep on full-time
As far as truck, we DID when we first transitioned from our apartment, but my wife saw the rough conditions our friends go through and she didn't want to go through the same.. PLUS we've popped up 3 different times on a truck so we now have DEFINITIVE experience (to know our full business isn't a truck for us). But if we get our full restaurant going, I'd LOVE to have a truck as an extension of Starry kitchen for events, catering and... for FUN! :)
BLUE (or "blue sky" as I mentioned w/ the Walter White comment.. but most definitely blue.. I'm a FIEND for it, can't explain it)
Great Color! Mine turns out to be blue as well, I just wanted to ask a normal question to ease off all of the complicated questions.
Hey man, will come and check out your food next time I'm in LA. Just curious, during the illegal phase, how did you keep it off the radar for so long of the various govt officials that would want to shut you down when, it sounds like, you were growing in popularity?
oh yeah, don't forget our last day is Jan 31st so come SOON!
the funny thing: I THINK the harder thing is to GET IT on the radar of anyone. (at least in LA- we're a city of 30,000 restaurants and now a burgeoning underground and pop-up scene too).
When it was starting to explode, the only real way to keep it off the radar of the officials is... personally educate people to becareful who they bring and tell SO this can last as long as it does.. it also helps to do what we did too, and be READY for it too. We too "donations" so we weren't a BUSINESS as much as we were a "weekly dinner" party that the health department was just wasting their time cracking down on. (they weren't so happy with that.. but didn't press charges either and take me to Health Department Court "Oh MY!" LOL)
2nd Question: did you or your wife have any restaurant industry experience before the black ops days?
nope, she is actually COMPLETELY self taught. She was forbade from cooking growing up too so she didn't start cooking until she went away from college and missed all her moms food.
Very... I love cooking and I'm pretty good for a total amateur (I was encouraged by my mom and learned at her side) but the thought of cooking for paying customers is terrifying.
but the reality can make you better too. trust when I say that same fear ran through my wife in the beginning, but with anything the MORE you do something.. the more confident you become too. And isn't really just about learning and growing, and if there's any reason I'm pushing so hard on this kickstarter.. it's for HER!
What is the healthiest item on the menu?
probably the lemongrass tofu. It's pressed then marinated tofu and then stir-fried for maximum flavor. Probably equally as health is the stir-fried Cantonese-style Chayote, Goji Berry and Enoki Mushroom dish And.. the Grilled Savory Eggplant.
You want to come in and try 'em :)
Can someone post an imgur album of the food pics from the Kickstarter page? Because there are some beautiful examples of food porn on there.
should I post all my food pics on there? i've never quite understood imgur. tell me :)
It's just a photo sharing site but it makes it really easy to share pictures on Reddit so people can more easily see the food.
a little late, but I figured I'd post it anyway (and my AMA still in the top 10 AMA listings so.. that's kinda COOL!):
I honestly think that your Singapore chili crab is one of the 5 best dishes I've had in Los Angeles in the 23 years I've been here. What is the evolution/inspiration for that dish at SK?
wuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut? So much love here... you would think I paid all y'all. (no seriously, are you fucking SERIOUS?!?!)
The funny thing about the Singaporean Chili Crab is that my wife's was sitting on the recipe for about 2 years BEFORE we started serving it. We ONCE tried to make it within the limited confines of our fire-less kitchen at our lunch spot and ALMOST burned the entire place down. She never thought anyone would love it as much as they do today, and I literally chiseled at her to serve it for years UNTIL we started serving dinner full-time and it made sense.
In terms of evolution, the original Singaporean recipe tends to be TOO sweet and ketchup-y for me so we kept on evolving it until it was a balance of complex flavors (and more delicious). We also didn't start making the Buttermilk Beignets until like.. maybe a year and half ago. we served it with french bread, which was GOOD.. but the beignet (in our eyes) MUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCH BETTER
As a Singaporean who is proud of his food heritage, i'd love to come try your version someday, sounds awesome!
Hi, please do. All joking aside, we're ALSO proud of your food heritage too (hainan chicken, black pepper crab, white pepper crab, salted duck egg yolk crab!)
Keep in mind our last day at our current location is Jan 31st UNLESS (here comes the shameless plug), we actually complete our crazy+ludicrous Kickstarter campaign. I like to say there are only 8 known places in N.America that make this dish, but we don't make it.. it'll go back down to 7!
Otherwise, we do make a little bit spicier than the Singaporean version, less sweet and we serve it with Buttermilk Beignets instead of the fried mantou (which we do love too.... I'm getting hungry just typing this out this AM haha)
Really want to come check you guys out after randomly finding your kickstarter while browsing just now. What do you think would be the least-busy day/time between now and the end of the month, starting after 7 PM on a weekday and anytime on the weekend?
WOW you randomly found the kickstarter AND our Reddit iAMA too. SWEEEEET!
Let's say Saturday is the WORST of them all.. least busy might be (in this order) Thurs -> Wed -> Friday. BUT, to guarantee a table, make a ressie here: http://www.opentable.com/starry-kitchen-chinatown-x-grand-star-jazz-club-reservations-los-angeles?restref=151819
We're only open Wed-Sat/5-9.45p (another reason why we need to get our own place too).
So glad you randomly found us- hope you enjoy the food and decide to "kick in" and spread the word to #SaveOurBalls. It's ambitious, but I'm hoping our story will inspire people to support us because.. IT AIN'T EASY!
What exactly made your apartment an "illegal" restaurant? Was it the # of people?
to put it simply (and I don't mean this to be snarky, but it's gonna come off this way)... 'cause you're not supposed to run a restaurant out of your apartment! :)
OR to be specific, you're not supposed to run a business that is doing transactions (aka taking the moolah!) at a place that is not zoned or sanctioned to run a business. Whether it's 1 people or... 130 people. (which is why I had a donations box because NO ONE paid for anything, they just made kinda donations to cover my costs of this weekly dinner party I just happened to have ;D)
What was mostly illegal about the restaurant?
it was in our apartment and we kinda/sorta took money in a place that wasn't approved by the health department... that's all :)
Haha that's fine :)
oh yeah, and we were getting away with it.. that always helps STICK IT TO THE MAAAAAAAAAAAAAN (even though we're legit now... shhh, don't tell anyone else, gotta keep my street cred LOL)
Hahahaha, i love your attitude with it all
thanks. It's funny when people don't get it, "Why would you want to break the law?"
me: "DUH, 'cause it's FUN to get away with it!"
(but in this case "getting away with it" was just serving people delicious food+having fun, so I guess it wasn't THAT bad LOL :D)
Hahaha I agree! Anything illegal that isn't immoral and not getting caught doing is worth doing :P
... somebody on the interwebs should make out w /u/Vazmanian because I CONCUR!
What's the R&D process like for getting an item from idea to being on the menu?
now THAT's a really good question.. that's fairly difficult to answer.
Well, it starts with whether or not my wife is inspired by something. I'll throw a SHITLOAD Of ideas I'm excited about, she'll reject most of them UNTIL she finds the idea that she loves (and there's no rhyme or reason, it's just when she feels it). And THEN the magic begins:
She then get's in this mode where she writes a WHOLE lot of notes, does a lot of research, see what she likes and doesn't like to turn it on it's head, writes a rough recipe based on all that... and then we buy the product, she makes+preps it, cooks it, I instagram it and then we try it.
We don't have specific criteria outside of: does this taste like anything we've had? Can we see us getting REALLY excited and others getting just AS excited about it as us? Do we FEEL like we love this dish in our SOUL, or is it just good enough?
And THEN the real test is to see if the staff can make it consistently because.. we're honestly in the business of consistency. If it's great, but it doesn't come out great often, we just can't serve it. But when we can... whooooooooa NELLY! That's some magic in your mouth right there!
Do you smell what the rock is cooking?
I think I DO! (if my nose deceives me and it's not truffle scrambled eggs, crispy ass hashbrowns, sour dough bread with some homemade preserves... then I'm gonna be disappointed!)
...btw, this response was amazing. where were you when.. nothing really dramatic happened in this AMA. WEIRD! :)
What was illegal about your restaurant?
also tackled this with my reply to /u/mokoyo above but I'll add a lil more detail... because it was in my apartment.. that wasn't a restaurant.. and was actually an apartment.. that people kept coming to eat our delicious warez at :)
basically, you should be renting an industrial space that the health department can actually inspect to give us a letter grade. I'm pretty much my apartment = F (because it wasn't restaurant.. even though my wife kept our apartment kitchen WAY cleaner than most industrial kitchens out there)
What was the main reason that made the legit restaurant went down ? And how did you overcome the negativity comes from it ?
very good question, and one of the hardest to convince people of: our legit restaurant only went down because of internal reasons (I wasn't making enough to pay my partners and they wanted to take control into their own hands- which is understandable). On the surface, I was probably juggling too many different events/ideas/concepts and I possibly realized too late to pull back from ALL of that and just concentrate on our re-building our main business. I could literally see the sales decline, and then I could see it incline again when I got proactive in it. It's a tough swing, but it took about 2 months for that business to swing back UP!
As far as the negativity, the cold hard answer is: you can't really pay attention to any of that negativity. You have to plow forward and do the best you can. Being consumed by that, in my experience, doesn't result in anything and you have to realize as the business owner if you don't pave the way for your business, staff and yourself no one else will. The short of the long of it: we GOT better, our food got better, and then we received accolades (yelp, press and etc) to validate that too which spread the word of mouth. Everyone WANTS to be a with a winner. That's human nature, which can play in your favor when nurtured correctly too.
I hope that helps clarify :)
Thank you so much. I have a dream of opening my own place too, so I have much to learn . I'm certain that your restaurant will be a big hit , and i hope i can give it a try one of these days.
Thanks. We've been pretty successful for a couple that had no experience before, we just want to call the shots and get our own place again- that's all!
And if you really want to open your own restaurant, my other pieces of advice for you are:
"Thinking is overrated" - you're eventually going to have to take the leap and start down the path to see how far you can make it and how much you REALLY want to do it too.
"do it because you love it and it's fun for you, don't do it because you see it as an opportunity" -that opportunity part, yeah, that can+will work and you'll probably be better with the finances. But if your goal is to make people happy with the food or concept you're in love with, you then become the visionary for all your staff and if they can smell you're just doing it for a buck.. they will treat it the same as you do, "as an opportunity" to just work a get a buck too.
Sorry but how do you pronounce Nguyen? Is it like Newgen or Noegen?
haha FINALLY! Long story short: Vietnamese is a combination of Chinese and French. Historically we used to write in Chinese letters (and the Vietnamese language also has a lot of similarities to Cantonese- formerly prominent language of Hong Kong from the Canton region BUT not so much), and then the French took over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos to create French Indochina, bring in Catholicism (I'm actually Catholic.. I mean, BARELY) and romanized all our words.. and fucked up our language in the process (I think it's hard at least)
/u/FireFawkez took a good shot at it. I romanize my name to simplify it even more: "Wyn." But honestly it's more like "WING" or (Ng is kinda a silent sound that comes from the back of your throat) "Ng-WING"
.... man I'm thirsty pronouncing my name over and over again :)
What do you think about the hostility (or a lack of) among different Asian groups (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean etc)? Is this a big problem in California, and does this affect the restaurants' business? Does the political situations in these home countries directly affect the situation?
First of all, I'd LOVE to know where you live and what hostility you're observing.
THIS would be a topic in itself, and I think you would want to specify too BUT I'll take a stab at it.
From my observations, EVERY ETHNIC GROUP (Asian or not) tends to stick together out of familiarity at the very least which will create pockets in a community (Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Saigon - as examples) kind of out of happenstance.
If there's any hostility, it's usually based in history if anything and historically (and this is not my opinion as much as I observed): the older generation/old school (60 years of age and above now) of Asians tend have disdain for one culture: the Japanese BECAUSE of their historical attempt at conquest of all the neighboring Asian countries (which I would like to clarify I love the Japanese and event studied Japanese for 3 years btw.. so let's not take this out of context :D).
And that fact: no joke. Older Chinese, older Koreans (who felt potentially felt strongest stranglehold at the time, IMO, supported by the fact that many Koreans are in fact fluent in Japanese as a result of their occupation- it does help that grammatically Korean is structured EXACTLY the same as Japanese though), and older Vietnamese too.
So YEAH, anyone that around during THOSE times: yeah, hostility would be an understatement.
I don't think that affects business as much as you would think. Sometimes it's just a matter of evaluating some cultural trends of who's more industrious, captalistic, doesn't take no for an answer within their respective communities (I'm not going specify the groups for these sweeping generalizations for fear of sparking a debate that frankly.. I have no time to participate in- I gotta save my restaurant! LOL)
Does political situations at home affect business/race relations here? I'm not going to say no to that because it all depends on what's at stake at "home" to be honest. I will say the Taiwanese dedication to politics at home is VERY impressive though. So much that Taiwanese-American's that are old enough to vote will fly home to vote and affect change during certain heated elections. It's pretty cool!
... well that was longer than expected (and kinda makes me sound like I know something.. OR I'm just pulling stuff outta my ass- I know it's one of those two :D)
I'm in Houston. A lot of Chinese and Vietnamese people. The problem I described are mostly encountered online; not much experiences in real life. But the thing I remembered most is like half a year ago, when Vietnam had anti-Chinese demonstrations over disputed islands, there are people on a Chinese-language forum (for Chinese people in US) suggesting avoiding Vietnamese-owned businesses for a while.
oooooh! That makes sense. That was a BIG deal in Vietnam too. Well, I'd say when there are situations like that naturally that can spill over to ex-pats/diaspora from their home country.
Did you read the uproar from their respective countries over the instagram of Miss Israel and Lebanon in the same shot? Yeah, I'd say that kind of stuff CAN affect ethnic/race relations and hostility. YIKES!
"Pepper?, that makes my asshole itch
... I wish I had a had an answer for that. Even a google search doesn't help me out, but my answer WANTS to be "Demolition Man" for some weird reason. Something about that unanswered joke w/ the three shells that still makes me laugh LOL
What is it???
Did you ever serve "exotic" meats, such as cat, dog, elephant, or human?
my chef wife, she ain't so into that (aka deplores that kinda stuff) and doesn't care about the gimmick of it. Legality we could careless about (we did 2 mariijuana dinners 2 years ago, and smuggle illegal ant eggs too).
closest thing we'll get to that are maybe classic braised/stewed offals you would find in Asian households
..but we'll probably do another marijuana dinner again SOOOOON! ;)
Awesome! :) Don't know if I would be down for the ant egg thing though. As long as it was washed thoroughly, I'd be down for the offals.
haha ant eggs ("escamoles" in spanish) are definitely an acquired taste and a delicacy in many different cultures. Part of those is that they're illegal to import and I bought them for $150/kilo so there's always THAT mystery that makes people curious enough to try them as well.
What do they taste like? And what is the texture like?
Hey, first of all... I LOVE YOU! Love your curiosity.
They're a lot like caviar honestly, just a little bit bigger and not perfectly spherical either. Texturally like eggs. A little bit briney, and that's it. Usually served as a baja style taco and.. splash DELICIOUSNESS!
Speak more on this marijuana dinner! Ant eggs sound interesting
And here you are again? =)
On the ant eggs: ant eggs or ANY foreign pest in any form (live or larvae) are illegal to import into California for a very logical reason- AGRICULTURE. You bring something in, it multiplies and destroys a crop, completely fucks with those economics for a while... and we did it anyway ('cause it's a illegal and... well the eggs were also dead too, but STILL illegal!)
Ant eggs are a delicacy in a LOT of cultures because if you think about it, before we had the luxury of grocery stores we as humans had to seek out food (and particularly protein in this case) in ANY form and.. one is an ant egg. I had a couple of sources to import them from other countries, but all those "moles" were getting caught at customs now so my search was turning up dry! After searching for a while, low and behold I get put in touch with a relatively famous Mexican chef (I ain't gonna say) who got them from Oaxaca to Tijuana, smuggled across statelines to San Diego, I sent my intern to go down there for the exchange ($150/kilo!) and then... poof we have ant eggs.
We were working with a local celeb chef, Laurent Quenioux, who has a LOT of experience and he just saute's in in butter and serves in a baja-style taco (apparently how it's commonly consumed in Mexico City too!)
Does that help?
As far as the marijuana dinner.. haha I'm keeping this shorter (plus there are more articles about those if you search "starry kitchen marijuana dinner" I think). We cooked w/ marijuana BUT not your normal edibles, and opened them up to the public with the risk that we might get caught. We didn't, they got high and everyone had a great time! (YEEEEE HAW!)
cause I'm NUTSO! It's also because I am.. in person.. a VERY excitable person. I promise that if you ever meet me, it'll become ALL too clear that I actually type the way I speak too. :)
I love the way you type! I understand why certain words are capital and it keeps me enticed! One of the better AMA's I have come across :)
... and someone else on the interwebs should ALSO make out w/ /u/joey1026 because you're FUCKING AMAZING!
and really, "one of the better?" CRAP, that's really made my day. Super sweet.
(...so has anyone HERE made-out w/ /u/joey1026 as suggested???)
what dish gives you the most profit?
what dish is percentage wise the best profit to cost?
what is the shortest and what is the longest dish to make and is there a correlation between cost and time?
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