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Meet Kim Vu of Không Tên in West L.A.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kim Vu.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Kim. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
I’m a Caltech-trained research scientist, and I studied biology and chemistry as an undergraduate. I’ve always loved discovering how things work and doing things well.

More than 20 years ago, I started working in restaurants to pay for school, and those same values and critical thinking skills made me fall in love with the hospitality business. I’ve worked all roles across front-of-house and back-of-house, and I take great pleasure in identifying the effective processes that contribute to the success of both my restaurant and catering business.

For me, the food and hospitality business sits at the intersection of commerce, creative art, and love of people. I never considered a career in hospitality; my first job after college was in a clinical research lab for children’s leukemia. After publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, I was burned out and took a sabbatical from research. I then got a sales job that was a revelation – after years of studying and working in science, I felt like I didn’t know anything about how the world “really” worked.

Suddenly, I was faced with the idea that without buying and selling, our world economy would come to a screeching halt! After working for several other restaurateurs and chefs, I opened my first food business, Vucacious Catering, in 2012. It was a culmination of my sales and marketing experience, my hospitality training, and my love for the “science of business.”

I am classically trained in an array of culinary techniques, and I have always believed that all good food starts with good ingredients. I currently serve as the Chef In Residence for the City of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Farmers Markets. As a part of the commitment to the City and the Farmers Markets, I teach people how to cook with seasonal and local ingredients with a goal of getting them excited about eating and buying more from our local Farmers Markets.

There have been other fun experiences along the way, including appearing on Alton Brown’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and being a judge on “Culinary Fight Club.” My newest and most exciting project has been opening Không Tên restaurant with my business partner, Don Andes.

Không Tên is a labor of love and an expression of heritage. We cook New Vietnamese cuisine, and my mission is to advance Vietnamese cuisine beyond what Americans know of it – surely, as a people, we can be more imaginative than just Phở or bánh mì, and I’ve tried to reimagine Vietnamese flavors for current day California. I also hope this concept also begins to address the question of Asian-American identity.

For so many of us, we find ourselves deemed by others not quite Asian enough, yet our experiences aren’t really American either. It’s true that I am nothing like my parents and relatives who immigrated here in the seventies and eighties, and I am also nothing like a young Vietnamese born woman living in Vietnam today. Yet, aren’t I as authentically Vietnamese as they are?

This is my argument through food. While the dishes we serve at Không Tên are in no way traditional, they are one hundred percent authentic just as I am. Không Tên translates to “No Name.” One of the reasons why we chose that name for the restaurant is because there is no name for the type of food we are cooking here.

I met my business partner, Don Andes, through our children. Our eight-year-old boys are best friends, and we’ve known each other for more than seven years. We watched each other grow our separate, very successful, hospitality businesses, and over the years we talked about opening a business together. We searched for years for just the right place, and we finally found the space for Không Tên about a year ago.

Don was the one who named the restaurant. We would work on our concept in the middle of the night – after we came home from working our other businesses. We would email back and forth menus, renderings, and business plans, but we didn’t have a name for the project. All the while, I was pitching investors on the project – with absolutely no name – and one night Don sends me our most updated concept proposal with Không Tên as the project name. I just burst out laughing and texted him right away! He had no idea that I could read Vietnamese, and after that, the name just stuck.

Don holds an MBA in Entrepreneurship from Babson College, where he graduated cum laude, as well as an undergraduate BFA in Music/Music Production from the City College of New York. He owns Little Joy Cocktails, as well as The Holloway, both located in Echo Park.

I serve as the creative director for the business – I drive the food and menu choices, I curate the cocktails and spirits that support the vision, and I outline the service guidelines to produce a specific hospitality experience. Don is in charge of creating and maintaining the atmosphere that houses the concept, which includes designing and constructing the space, keeping us on-trend and in-line with our core vision through menu-mix and pricing, and ensuring our business practices align with our values in HR and finance. He runs the books!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
No, it has not been a smooth road. I’ve got stories!

Vucacious Catering had a challenge in finding a home – we moved around from rental kitchen to rental kitchen, and it took me 3.5 years to find permanent space to lease. All the while we were growing, and you can’t even imagine all the issues we had with storing our equipment – it was everywhere! It’s in my house, in my car, and beyond.

Không Tên has its own stories – we had a real issue with our gas and discovered during our soft opening that we didn’t even have enough gas to cook an entire dinner service. We struggled with it for weeks, before our case got kicked way up the chain at the Gas Company and then finally resolved.

For both businesses, I always had a vision for scaling bigger, but in order to do so, you have to assemble a great team that wants to be enrolled in your dream, and you need to inspire them to do their best work. Even when you find people that believe in you and love working for you, sometimes their work output still isn’t what you need.

After investing so much time, energy, effort, and money into people, coupled with the belief that I really want people to grow and succeed, I find it hard to let people go – and it’s definitely hurt my businesses, but it’s something I’m working on.

That is just the tip of the iceberg – I also have two elementary school-aged children, and juggling their busy schedules with mine is a challenge.

Please tell us about Không Tên.
At Vucacious Catering, we are known for being a creative marketing agency that speaks in food. Our goal is to translate our client’s brand vision into a memorable food experience for their guests and support their specific business goals. We are known for clear communication, professional service, and flawless execution in food service.

Không Tên is an extension of this experience combined with my cultural perspective and palette. I am a Vietnamese-American Angeleno that came here by way of Texas, and it was that combination that led to what we do.

We specialize in New Vietnamese cuisine here, which begs the question, what exactly is New Vietnamese?

Looking at first generation Immigrant American cuisines, you’ll find traditional recipes made with traditional ingredients. In California, second wave ethnic cuisines prepare traditional recipes with the bounty of fresh, local California produce and heritage proteins. What would the third evolution of Immigrant American cuisine look like?

I envision dropping the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where we source a large portion of our produce and proteins, in the middle of Vietnam. What would young, Vietnamese-born, Vietnamese-raised, and Vietnamese-trained chefs make with ingredients they may not have seen before? In my mind’s eye, this is New Vietnamese cuisine — a reimagination of Vietnamese flavors for current day California.

I am so proud to be using farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients in a Vietnamese restaurant. I love that we make menu changes on a monthly basis, and we make Vietnamese dishes you will not find in any other restaurant in Los Angeles.

We are constantly making both small and large changes on a daily basis to improve the business. We just brought on more vegetarian items to the menu, and entrees and craft cocktails at a slightly lower price point to maintain accessibility. We care. We pay attention.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Oy. there’s so many. I guess I’ll tell a story about my dad and how he taught me about excellence and potential.

In 9th or 10th grade, I brought home a report card with a 92 in Honors World History. In those days, a number grade of 91-100 was an A, 81-90 was a B, etc.

My dad saw my grade and was like, “Kim! What is this?!?!” Presumably, he thought my grade was too low.

I responded, “Dad, it’s _still_ and A.”

He shook his head and said, “No, Kim, it’s _almost_ a B.”

On that day, I really learned about playing to win versus just playing not to lose. My dad’s point was that my work shouldn’t be enough to “just” get by or to “just” make the grade that I wanted, but that I should always be working to knock it out of the park. I was inspired, and I really felt determined to do better, and in fact, always do my best.

“Still” an A is “almost” a B, and it’s not the same thing as a solid A. You don’t get there the same way, and it doesn’t feel the same.

Pricing:

  • Craft Cocktails from $11 to $15
  • Dinner entrees from $15 to $29
  • $5 Happy Hour, Six Days a Week, 3 pm to 6 pm. (Closed on Mondays)
  • Curated Wines by the glass, $10 to $18
  • $10 Weekday lunch specials Tuesday through Friday
  • $39 Three-Course Prix-Fixe Dinner
  • Monthly Whiskey Tasting with Dinner $75

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Brian and Allison Callaway, Callaway Gable

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