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Meet Victor Tran of Smoky Pan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Victor Tran.

Hi Victor, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Hi! I’m so glad you reached out! Back in 2017, I was let go from my last tech job, so I decided to temporarily find my first restaurant job while I kept coding. It was supposed to be temporary, but by 2019 I’d moved up several positions at four different restaurants before having to leave to help my family business as my dad was going into retirement. I figured I had a good run; three years, four restaurants, starting as a Line Cook and finally being called “chef” at the NoMad Hotel, even if I just felt like a little line cook? I even got to cook for Vanity Fair. Let me just kick back and go back to a desk job for my family’s sake.

But that itch never went away, and I kept wanting to be my own boss after my experiences literally burned themselves into my arms–and my mind. I picked the name Smoky Pan because the best flavors come from a pan that’s starting to smoke. In the private catered events I held, I wanted to reproduce the Vietnamese-Chinese flavors that my grandma cooked in her lifetime.

When 2020 brought the pandemic, I shifted from catering to deliveries & pickups. The original plan was to have people pick up their orders from my home near Pasadena, but I soon found out my customers were scattered all throughout L.A. because they heard about me from someone who attended so-and-so’s pre-pandemic holiday party or giant barbecue.

And here I am, nearly a year later, still producing cooking videos, experimenting with recipes, and working on menus while I code and cook.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Every day has been a new challenge in some way, shape or form. Any restaurateur will tell you that the hardest part about the business is finding the right people, and that’s just been accelerated by the pandemic as everybody scrambles to open ghost kitchens. In March 2020, I tried looking for commercial kitchens to lease for my business, but all the affordable ones were snatched up by people who’d anticipated the huge blow to the industry, so that left me with meal deliveries from my home kitchen. Without a commercial kitchen or investors to back up my business, all the marketing, scheduling, recipe and menu development, purchasing, and accounting fell on me alone. I’ve been learning the stories from every cook that I’ve ever worked with to try and streamline my home kitchen and turn it into a delivery business. From what I can tell right now, most of the problems really stem from the fact that my customers are scattered all over LA County. Since I’m doing the deliveries by myself, it’s been hard trying to schedule everybody’s meals week by week because of the high variance of orders and addresses. I found myself falling into a trap: I want to make enough money to pay for a ghost kitchen and employees, but I can’t afford a ghost kitchen because, working alone, I can’t generate enough income for employees and a ghost kitchen. It’s still a problem that I’m working on while I keep looking for a better way to run my business.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about Smoky Pan?
Through Smoky Pan, I take orders from my Instagram and Facebook pages, where I sell Vietnamese food inspired by my upbringing, coupled with my training in fine dining and high-concept cuisine. The overall goal is to knock fancy food down a few pegs, so I’m bringing them to the public at affordable prices. I often say that I specialize in Vietnamese food, but I’m really trying to honor the flavors that I grew up with at home and all over California. It’s a difficult balance trying to stand apart from others by assimilating some of their flavors into classic Vietnamese recipes, which kind of turns them into my personal creations. That irony doesn’t escape me.

While a lot of cooks throughout Los Angeles pride themselves on being culinary artists, I take pride in considering myself more of a mad scientist towards food and flavor development. Maybe it’s the part of me that started as a programmer, but I really enjoy showing people my hypotheses, tests and experiments, for better or for worse, which is why I’ve also started the Smoky Pan YouTube channel to back up my online marketing efforts. This way, my customers get to feel that they’re along for the ride with me as we experiment with flavors together.

As far as services go, I’ve been scheduling and delivering throughout LA County and the San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods throughout the week. I typically have my west side deliveries Wednesday and Thursday, and then try–keyword “try”–to deliver to the SGV on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, but it often changes depending on where my customers are ordering from. Sometimes it’ll be completely inverted, but, as the saying goes in market research, “I need more data” to determine where I’m going next!

We love surprises, fun facts and unexpected stories. Is there something you can share that might surprise us?
Something surprising… I guess most people who know me or my business would be surprised to know that I enjoy gardening, and I’ve been growing a lot of the ingredients for Smoky Pan from my own home. I’ve been upcycling food waste into compost and then turning that into soil for the garden. If you feed your soil, you feed your produce, as they say!

I’m also learning Japanese and Spanish to supplement my Cantonese and Mandarin, just for fun. How’s my English?

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Image Credits:

Matt P. Photos

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