Young restaurateur: Competing in culinary world takes passion, perseverance

Van-Alan Nguyen, owner of 595 Craft and Kitchen and Art District Kitchen, poses in 595 Craft at Rainbow Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. Dishes include a Nashville-style Hot Chicken Sandwich, left, a Pork Belly Banh Mi, center, and Beer Cheese with Soft Pretzels.

Van-Alan Nguyen began his journey in the culinary industry as a 16-year-old cashier at In-N-Out Burger. Today, he co-owns one restaurant, 595 Craft and Kitchen (as well as the affiliated Arts District Kitchen inside the Able Brewing Company in downtown Las Vegas), and is preparing to open another, Street Burger.

Van-Alan Nguyen

Van-Alan Nguyen, owner of 595 Craft and Kitchen and Art District Kitchen, poses with a Pork Belly Banh Mi and a glass of Beachwood Brewing's Launch slideshow »

“That work experience completely shaped my philosophy on how to create a strong company culture and how to be a responsible business partner to our community,” Nguyen said. “One of my passions is to teach and develop those around me with marketable skills that would set them up for success in the event that they move on to another chapter of their lives. With the training I received from my time with In-N-Out, pursuing entrepreneurship in the food and beverage industry seemed like a natural progression.”

The menu at 595 Craft and Kitchen, a gastropub in Spring Valley, shows how far Nguyen has come since those early years. With apologies to the Double-Double, the pork belly burger or BBQ pork Bánh mì represent an elevated culinary experience to pair with any of 22 craft beers on tap.

And Street Burger, in downtown Henderson, has Nguyen excited about its possibilities, as well.

Do you have any recent news you’d like to share?

At the start of the pandemic shutdown in late March, a startup restaurant group in Henderson reached out to me with an opportunity to join as an operating partner. Our vision was to revitalize downtown Henderson by providing more quality dining establishments. We opened up our first of multiple concepts, Biscuits and Bourbon, in September, and our reception’s been phenomenal. We consider ourselves to be a boutique barbecue restaurant, drawing inspiration from well-known barbecue regions like Texas and Carolina while putting our own Henderson twist on it. By creating quality dining establishments that promote socializing and connecting with each other through food and drinks, we hope to be an addition to the community that people are proud to be a part of.

We are also in the later stages of construction on our second concept, Street Burger, also located on Water Street. It’s a three-story concept with a view of the Las Vegas Strip on the third floor. We’ll have a gourmet kitchen and dining space on the bottom floor, sports bar featuring 20 rotating craft beer taps on the second floor, and lounge/event space on the third floor. We anticipate completion by early next year.

How are your restaurants similar or different?

Arts District Kitchen and 595 both have similar sandwich offerings. Both serve Bánh mìs (Vietnamese sandwiches) and burgers but beyond that, ADK’s menu draws inspiration from street foods from various parts of the world, whereas 595 has more traditional pub offerings with a Southeast-Asian twist. Also, 595 is sit-down casual dining whereas ADK was walk-up service pre-pandemic, and leans toward quick-service. The challenge with that is to increase efficiency without compromising on quality or consistency, because the kitchen flow changes drastically from one to the other. For quick-service, speed becomes a much larger focus. That means we had to streamline certain steps of the prep or cooking process, like getting a deli slicer to slice proteins thinner to reduce cooking time.

How has the pandemic affected your businesses?

It’s almost impossible to operate profitably because of how prohibitive the social distancing and limited-occupancy mandates are. Our teams are doing their best to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic landscape but the restrictions are simply capping the amount of revenue we can generate, especially during peak hours. We understand the importance of having these protocols in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s crippling to our industry.

Who was your greatest cooking or brewmaster influence?

David Chang and Roy Choi are two chefs who have influenced my approach to food. The first Asian fusion dish that inspired me to think about layering flavors was the short rib burrito from Kogi. My LA friends raved about the flavors that Chef Roy created and how he pioneered using social media as a tool to reach his customer base with his food truck, so there was quite a bit of hype surrounding that first bite. It didn’t disappoint. Around the same time, I learned about David Chang’s concepts and his impact on the culinary world. That inspired me to experiment with flavors and build a menu that showcased a few Vietnamese staples while also incorporating other Southeast Asian flavors into familiar pub offerings. With the help of a good friend and teacher, Chef Walter, I learned about the inner workings of a full-service kitchen and developed a menu that’s evolved into what it is now.

What is your heritage and did that influence the dishes on your menus?

Growing up in a low-income Vietnamese household, we were fortunate to have a lot of homemade meals from our parents and grandparents. I didn’t realize how much I took that for granted until I moved to Las Vegas and could no longer enjoy it. I also remember making regular trips to Vietnamese delis with my grandfather and ordering Bánh mìs for the whole family. Most shops offered awesome deals like “buy 3 get 1 free,” which allowed us to feed 10-15 people for just around $20. Those fond memories inspired me to showcase Bánh mìs and a few other Vietnamese staples.

Do you have an unusual or secret ingredient you’re willing to share?

We use fish sauce in several of our signature items. By itself, fish sauce is very pungent and can be overpowering, but it’s also a very versatile ingredient that plays well with others. Used as a part of the marinade for our Signature BBQ Pork Bánh mì, it adds a depth of umami and savoriness that balances out the salty and sweetness from the soy sauce, brown sugar and honey. Typically topped with fresh jalapeños, cucumbers, cilantro, Vietnamese mayo, pickled carrots and daikons, Bánh mìs are one of the most layered and flavorful bites I can think of.

What is the formula for a successful brewery or craft beer restaurant?

We preach to everyone we work with the importance of product quality, great service, and maintaining a clean and organized restaurant. Those three core values are the first thing that gets instilled into every In-N-Out employee, almost to a relentless degree. I’m pretty sure that’s the first sentence of their mission purpose statements. We believe that if our businesses have a strong command of those three components, everything else will fall in line ... or at least be manageable challenges to overcome.

With three restaurants under your belt, are there plans for expansion on the horizon?

I’ve been blessed to be able to get to this point because quite frankly, I’ve been winging it from the very beginning. Truthfully, each project that we’re a part of means that there’s another revenue stream that we can use to promote our people and provide higher-paying jobs, which ideally increases their quality of life. When people join our teams, we communicate to them that we don’t want them to remain stagnant or be OK with complacency. Working hard to create quality concepts allows us to deliver on the promise of taking care of our people by providing more lucrative positions they can step into as a career. Our plan is to continue this cycle until we can’t any longer.

Who do you admire? 

As I get older, I reflect more on the struggles my parents faced as refugees from the Vietnam war. They faced unimaginable challenges but relentlessly worked their butts off to provide us with a life better than they were afforded. They moved to this country with no money and little education but persevered through it all and still managed to raise us into responsible human beings with a strong moral compass. We didn’t appreciate the hardships they faced while trying to find their place in an entirely different culture while struggling to make ends meet, and going to school while raising four kids. It wasn’t until we all grew older that we realized how difficult adulting is. I admire their resilience and the sacrifices.

What is one modern luxury you can’t live without?

Are toilets considered a modern luxury? If so, I choose that. Can you imagine a world where you have to dump sloshy buckets of pee and poo around? Hard pass.

What is something that people might not know about you?

People get surprised when they learn about my age. When we signed the lease to 595, I was only 27. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to build a concept and survive this long but the journey’s been far from smooth. I’m sure I would have benefited from a few more years of mentorship from other leaders in the industry but I am very grateful for what I’ve been given.

Do you have advice to offer aspiring restaurateurs?

Only pursue this industry if it’s truly a passion. The daily grind will wear you down if you don’t truly enjoy everything about being in a restaurant. The culinary world is far from the glorification of food that we see on Netflix. Creating a well-oiled machine takes a lot of preparation, patience and perseverance. If you don’t have the resolve to show up day after day, even in the face of imminent failure, you should invest your time and resources elsewhere.