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“Hi, I’m Nguyen. I’m no one special,” is how Nguyen Tran begins his first cookbook, Adventures in Starry Kitchen, and of course it is a lie. That Tran is, in fact, quite special is evident in the first few pages: he writes a cookbook how I write emails to old friends, full of CAPS FOR EMPHASIS and textual vocal fryyyyyyy. He’s irreverent. He’s funny.
It’s a tone befitting the story of Starry Kitchen, the underground restaurant Nguyen started with his wife, Thi, in their Los Angeles apartment. In this cookbook, Nguyen upends the formal constraints of cookbook language in much the same way that he upended the traditional restaurant model. After getting laid off during the recession, Tran convinced his wife Thi Tran (who he lovingly calls a “kitchen ninja”) to start cooking for dozens of people out of their home. It was sort of a dinner party, if you invite strangers to your dinner parties. It was sort of a restaurant, if a restaurant can be defined solely by the fact that it is listed on Yelp. It was almost certainly (definitely) illegal.
And by all accounts, Starry Kitchen was ridiculously tasty. Thi Tran is of Vietnamese/Cantonese descent, and she combines flavors from these cuisines as well as American, Korean, Japanese, and more (often at her husband’s behest). As Tran puts it, “Thi’s version of Asian comfort food was directly influenced by the Kogi revolution happening in LA at the time.” In other words, things can get a little stoner-y. Sometimes literally: Starry Kitchen is famous for pulling off a marijuana-laced tasting menu with fine dining chef Laurent Quenioux.
I tested recipes that seemed exemplary of Starry Kitchen, although I did not test the famous tofu balls. (It’s summer in Texas. I’m not frying anything indoors, sorry.) There was the Malaysian coconut milk- and pineapple-braised chicken, which was ridiculously good, easy, and quick, if not exactly health food. There was a seemingly-simple braised mustard greens dish that, when asked, I admitted tasted so good because it was cooked with beef tallow and pancetta. I also made some cold Korean noodles that will go on my too-hot-to-cook rotation, a super refreshing cold silken tofu laced with Korean sesame seeds and orange juice, and a black sesame panna cotta with green tea lemon shortbread that was a great way to round everything out.
All of the recipes in Starry Kitchen are provided in two quantities: 2-4 servings, and the “BALLS OUT” restaurant quantity of 40-80 servings. This is how I know that the 2-4 serving recipes were quite literally cut down from the large portion sizes mathematically, which results in kind of wonky yields and awkward ingredient quantities. For example, the green tea cookie recipe made easily 10 times as many cookies as needed for the black sesame panna cotta. And the mustard greens recipe called for 14 ½ ounces of young Chinese mustard. Why not a pound?
The good news is that, in most cases, it doesn’t really matter. These recipes aren’t going to fail if you round those mustard greens up to a pound. Or, in my case, just use whatever qualified as a bunch at grocery store. And, more good news, everything was very delicious and relatively easy to make.
There is one thing, though, I can’t stop thinking about. Where is Thi Tran’s voice in all of this?
I don’t know either of the Trans, nor have I eaten at Starry Kitchen or Button Mash, their current venture. I gather that this is their arrangement: Thi cooks, Nguyen showboats. And that extends to the cookbook. If it works for them—if Thi is cool with her husband being the frontman of their duo—then who am I to judge?
Nguyen is lavish in his praise of Thi, writing, “Let me make this absolutely clear: my wife is the true force behind everything culinary...the heart, soul, and taste of Starry Kitchen—that’s all my special lady, our kitchen ninja, Thi Tran.” But he also repeatedly mentions making frequent “requests” concerning Thi’s cooking—that she cook more Korean food, say, or less Vietnamese food—and at one point, when he would like to embark on a new business venture that she is unsure of, writes: “I did something very unique and contrary to my pushy type-A history. I didn’t try to will/persuade/coerce Thi into loving her talent for the food business.”
An occasional brief interjection from Thi would go a long way to ease the feeling I get when I read passages like these. No matter how self-deprecating, it leaves me a bit cold to read these words in an otherwise joyous and bouncy text. If they’re her recipes, her culinary genius, where is she?
Still, I was charmed by most of Nguyen Tran’s antics, and I was thrilled with the food I cooked out of this book. It’s an honest look at opening a restaurant during the crazy, DIY years after the recession, a rarity as those once-scrappy businesses become more and more established and mainstream. Adventures in Starry Kitchen is truly a modern adventure story, punctuated by solid recipes. I just wish the story were a bit less one-sided.