In the past two years, Huy Tran has been on everybody's lips. And it’s not just his smoldering looks that attract the praise; the influencer is equally admired for being a man of many talents, having experienced in a variety of fields, from fashion to F&B.
Last year, making his foray into the restaurant business, the relationship reality television series star founded 030 Cuisine – an Asian-European fusion comfort food restaurant. Huy Tran’s brainchild and passion project, the venue is a fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.
The numbers in the restaurant’s name refer to Berlin area code giving the diners a taste of what’s on the menu. The German capital may be best known for its sausages and beer, but being a melting pot of cultures, it also brilliantly incorporates elements of world cuisines: from Japanese BBQ to Spanish paella, the city’s Straßen are filled with exotic aromas. Even Vietnamese street food makes an appearance.
Vietcetera had the opportunity to sit down with Huy Tran as he reminisced about the development and construction of 030 Cuisine.
How did the love affair between you and food start?
Since childhood in Berlin I’ve always been the cook of the family whipping up meals for everyone on holidays and helping in the kitchen during family gatherings. Gradually I realized that what I had originally thought of as a hobby was in fact my true calling, so I quit my job in the fashion import-export business to open a restaurant.
To kickstart my journey, I decided to study culinary arts, with a specialization in German and French cuisine. That was 10 years ago. Shortly after graduating, I entered a local culinary competition and had the fortune to win one of the grand awards. As a result I was given an opportunity to practice my craft at a 2-star Michelin restaurant.
The apprenticeship was an eye-opening experience. I was able to get a closer look of the meticulous process of making haute cuisine as well as learning the fine points of fine dining.
Why do modestly-sized portions cost so much, for example? Once you realize what a highly choreographed process it is, what level of expertise is expected from everyone on the culinary team, you start appreciating the creative element of the job more.
It was during this time that I realized how I wanted to build my restaurant. My vision was to develop a more casual concept where you are not expected to be a strict upholder of table etiquette. I wanted my restaurant to be scalable, approachable, not intimidating.
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Was the Vietnamese palate ready for fusion cuisine when you opened your restaurant?
To be honest, I hesitated for the longest time. I was under the impression that for most local people fusion is still a very exotic concept and that my restaurant would flop if I entered the market too early.
But returning to Vietnam and spending time to really explore, I saw a very different picture. Young people are very open to new experiences and the market is responding with more and more daring concepts. So the time was right, I felt.
My initial plan was to spend 3 months fine-tuning the product and return to Germany post-opening. But two years on, I’m still here!
You must have experienced quite a few challenges when opening a restaurant in a 'new' land?
Very true! Compared to Germany, where you have shopping malls offering turnkey restaurant solutions, in Vietnam, I had to visit all suppliers one by one to negotiate prices. It was very time consuming. Over time I learned to optimize my procurement and supply process and to set up and manage quality control.
Our culinary model is aimed at Vietnamese customers aged 18-25, so the team at 030 are all young Vietnamese. There were some challenges in the beginning due to cultural differences and the language barrier and it took me some time to fully understand the way of thinking and the mentality of the Vietnamese people: their inclination to operate as part of a system, for example. Now we understand each other better and the circuit runs smoothly.
I recruit my employees mainly based on their attitude and personality rather than their experience. And I’ve happily accepted the fact that we are spending a lot of time on training and guiding the new joiners step by step, as a result.
Everyone on my team is curious, hard working and passionate about F&B. Even during the pandemic, when we’ve been struggling to stay afloat, the team continues to be very supportive and understanding. They even offered to lower their own salary to show their solidarity with me.
Many have said that 030 Cuisine’s success was mostly due to your fame and the “Huy Tran” brand name being so well-renowned. How would you respond to these claims?
My background in the F&B industry and experience running a restaurant have helped a lot. I have also picked up some business management skills working across many disciplines in Germany and Vietnam over the years.
The press often refers to me as a "rich kid", but that is not the case. The source of capital to open 030 Cuisine is actually my savings from working in F&B in Germany and as an influencer in Vietnam.
With the launch of 030, my influencer work supported us a lot in the beginning, just to get the word out. But once we’ve built brand awareness, the focus has shifted to ensuring quality and professional service as the main customer retaining tool.
In terms of personal strengths, I think I am quite creative and work under pressure well. Book-keeping and time management definitely need working on (laughs).
What kind of culinary experience awaits diners at 030 Cuisine?
Initially, my idea for 030 Cuisine was to serve authentic German food. But after understanding Vietnamese taste preference and realizing that diners have become much more adventurous, I decided to switch to fusion.
The beauty of fusion dining is that it promises an exciting discovery, an adventure. At 030 Cuisine we serve fusion comfort food with recipes borrowing 70% from Asian and 30% from European culinary tradition.
The only Asian cuisine I don’t dare experiment with is Vietnamese. Since I wasn’t born or raised here, I don’t think I can do it justice and I certainly don’t want to disrespect Vietnam’s culinary heritage.
In terms of service, we encourage our staff to be themselves when interacting with customers. Sometimes in Vietnamese restaurants service can be quite formal and even stiff, whereas our approach is to let our personality shine through, to be natural. For me, casual dining means that you can be refined yet friendly.
For customers to feel at ease, they need to first be comfortable interacting with the staff. When training my team, I ask them to forget any preconceived notions about restaurant service they might hold and encourage them to express their individuality.
The menu seems to have changed quite a bit compared to the first version. Why is that?
We listen to our customers’ feedback and make sure their preferences are reflected in the menu. This is something we do continuously, not only during the first months following the launch.
The original menu was designed in the tradition of European fine-dining: on paper and with no illustrations. But after recognizing the importance of visuals when it comes to ordering 'exotic' dishes, we changed the layout to what it is today.
It took us about two months to finalize the original menu, a process that involved lots of experimentation in the kitchen, fine-tuning plating skills to make sure the served dishes looked appealing and having friends over for trial feedings.
From 100 dishes in the trial period, we ended up selecting 20 and when the restaurant opened the list was further pruned; down to 13. The menu has since expanded and changed quite a bit, but one thing that remains the same is that the selection is based on the feedback and reviews from the customers.
How long do you intend to stay in Vietnam? What are your plans for 030 Cuisine?
One of the main reasons I left Germany for Vietnam was to step out of my comfort zone and to grow professionally and personally. I’ve been living in Vietnam for two years now and have established 030 Cuisine in one year, yet my journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment is far from completed. So it all really depends on when I feel I’ve “arrived”. Until then I will stay in Vietnam.
My plans for 2020 included expanding 030 Cuisine to Hanoi and Da Nang, but COVID-19 put paid to these plans, at least for now. This is certainly a difficult time for the F&B industry but I am trying to look on the bright side and use this opportunity to give 030 Cuisine and my team some TLC (tender loving care) and be ready to go full speed when business picks up.
This article is adapted by Angie Tran.