Qui Tran left Vietnam as a baby, survived polio, and started working in his mother’s restaurant at age 8. Now, with Nudo House, he’s creating his own legacy
Eavesdrop on a group of St. Louis chefs, and pretty soon his name will come up. First name only, because everybody knows Qui Tran, or wants to. Besides, the name’s fun to say: that clicky hard K, then a pucker (a whistle? a kiss?) and an exuberant “whee.” All in just three letters. They spell a world, drawing you inside.
You’re welcomed with such warmth, you forget how cool Qui is. Heir to the legendary Mai Lee (tucked behind the Best Buy box on the craziness that is Eager Road), Qui added Nudo House in 2017 [repersented by L3’s Kevin Shapiro], shifting from Vietnamese and Chinese into Japanese ramen (but keeping banh mi and pho and sneaking in a curry). In less than a year, the place made the cover of Food & Wine. This spring, he’ll open the second Nudo House, in the east Loop next to The Pageant.
The rest of Qui’s energy goes to mixed martial arts, good causes, the cigar club at The Ritz-Carlton, his wife, his parents and sisters, about a thousand friends, and a miniature pinscher named Snow Pea, in whatever order is required of him at the moment. But the organizing principle is food. He soaks up ideas from every chef he meets, and when he cooks, he’s a whirl of concentrated energy.
“I’ve called a few people ‘the straw that stirs the drink’ here in St. Louis,” says his friend Mike Emerson, co-founder of Pappy’s, “but Qui is more like the high-speed blender. He’s putting in 80, 90 hours a week, but you’ll see him at every possible charity event to support the city.”
He’s also “our own private little Google,” Emerson adds. “Qui says, ‘C’mon, I’ll introduce you,’ and the walls drop. You might think you’re just an acquaintance, but in Qui’s eyes, you’re a friend.”
The Bar at Mai Lee
Most places, people shift their weight from one foot to another as they wait for takeout, flip through a throwaway paper, check the phone. On a Friday night in the bar at Mai Lee, a guy’s sipping a beer, and soon he’s so deep in conversation with another diner that when his paper bag shows up, you get the feeling he’d rather just open it and eat his takeout here. Qui brings out four more bags and sets them on the back bar, rubbing the bartender’s shoulders as he passes. “Hi, Biscuit!” a middle-aged woman says into her phone. “I’m in the bar at Mai Lee”—her tone significant, as though anyone would know the vibe that fact conjures. A young woman orders breathlessly: “OK, so this is how overwhelmed I get. Can I get chicken banh mi and—what’s your favorite non-pho soup? And the pad thai. Oh, and I want some green beans and crab Rangoon.” Qui swipes a card at supersonic speed, scooting a server out of the way by grabbing him around the waist, then calls, “What’s up, Chef?” La Pâtisserie Chouquette’s assistant pastry chef has just walked in, a toddler in his arms. Two women flirt with the bartender in Spanish as he mixes one of Qui’s Asian martinis: ginger liqueur, green tea vodka, and sake. With the warm spice of ginger and a paper-dry finish, it’s wise and innocent at the same time—kind of like Qui.
With his bald head and round, friendly face, the guy just looks happy, without a hint of suspicion or judgment. “I’ve never heard him say a negative thing about anybody,” says photographer Gregg Goldman, “When I need to be put in a good mood, I go sit in the bar at Mai Lee, order some soup and watch the world go by.”
It’s as clear as yesterday: Sau Tran’s arms waving wildly at each approaching car, the headlights blinding for a second, then gone. Five-year-old Qui can’t quite figure out what’s happening, but he can smell the tension coming off his father’s wiry body. Finally somebody stops, and Sau, whose English is just words and phrases, useless as unstrung beads, shows the driver a piece of paper with an address on it. A church. He’s gotten a job there, cleaning at night, and he’s bringing Qui because they can’t afford a sitter, and they’re on foot, and he’s terrified of being late.
This is the earliest memory Qui can summon, a tight hard acorn that contains his future. Like his father that night, he will forever be navigating what’s new and scary, depending on hard work, graced by strangers’ unreliable kindness.
Born in Vietnam, he left as a babe in his mother’s arms. Two and a half rough years later, his family arrived in St. Louis, safe but bemused. They would tell Qui nothing of that journey until he reached his twenties. It lived only in their memories and private conversations.
They kept their culture alive—and theirearlier, happier memories—largely through food. Lee, the calm and practicalone, cooked for a living and soon owned her own restaurant. Sau, a former soldier with a warm heart and a zany, sometimes slightly raunchy sense of humor, worked as an auto mechanic by day and helped her at night. They found a home on The Hill.
Qui knows now what an anomaly they must have been, that first Vietnamese family in a neighborhood with red-and-green–striped fire hydrants. Somehow, though, he felt comfortable. He’d ride his bike around the South Side, stopping at Italian markets. Rice or noodles, fermented fish or anchovies—the differences didn’t seem so big.
He graduated with honors from a city magnet school, studied international business at Saint Louis University, then dropped out, telling his parents a degree was pointless. His future was already tethered to the family restaurant, Mai Lee.
His mother had opened the place when he was 8, and she’d sent little Qui around to all the tables because his English was better than hers. By age 12, he was working 12-hour shifts, infusing them with a sense of fun his mother was too exhausted to muster. Qui needed to have fun at work; his parents left him no free time for parties or games or school lock-ins or spring break. He resented this theft of his childhood (still does), but he limited his rebellion to a little attitude now and then, rolling his eyes at some dictate or scaring them by dating a girl of another race. No wild disobedience; he respected his parents too much. And when they finally told him what they’d gone through to get to this country, the story altered something deep inside him. He couldn’t erase their scars, but he could push a little harder himself—and he could damned well not complain.
Sau and Lee Tran had been quiet for so long. Hiding in Vietnam; isolated here because they couldn’t speak the language; silent with their children for fear of burdening them. Sitting in a tiny storeroom off Mai Lee’s kitchen, they pour out their story so fast, it overflows.
The two met in Can Tho, about 60 miles south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. The city is famous for its floating river markets: Farmers stock the boats before dawn, and the piles of dragon fruit, pineapples, pumpkins, watermelons, and cabbages glow in dawn’s thin light, their colors dancing on dark water.
Lee was a street hawker, and Sau traded on Vietnam’s black market—coconuts, rice, sugar, whatever he could find—desperate to raise enough money to leave the country. Saigon had fallen the previous year, 1975, and Sau, a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, would be risking death to get a regular job. His brother and uncle had already been killed. His grandfather was in a concentration camp. His father was in hiding.
“In 1976 I met my wife, ’77 got married, ’78 I got Qui, ’79 I left Vietnam,” Sau tells me. “My parents can’t go with me, because we don’t have enough money. They say, ‘OK, you guys go.’ I find the future over here.”
Qui, their firstborn, was just 6 months old, but Sau overrode his wife’s anxious protests. Cradling the baby close, he said, “OK, God help me. Or we die.”
With 104 other people, they squeezed onto a boat about 4 yards wide and cast off into the black night, the ocean rough.
“I am very worried about my son and my wife,” Sau says, “because we don’t have enough food. But Qui was still—” he gestures discreetly.
Lee nods. “I feed him.”
The youngest child on the voyage, he then crawled around the bottom of the boat, keeping people’s spirits up. “He was very good,” his mother says, still proud. “He didn’t cry.”
“And we lucky,” Sau interjects.
“Lucky we alive,” Lee agrees. “A lot of people die in the ocean.” This was the peak of the refugee exodus, and the boats were as vulnerable as paper sailboats. Storms wrecked and sank many of them; passengers sometimes starved to death; pirates attacked. “It took three days and two nights to Malaysia,” Sau says. “Almost a month on the beach in Malaysia. Just sand, no camp or nothing.”
“They gave a little food,” Lee inserts.
“Not enough. I find some crab on the beach. Then they put us back on a boat and cut the rope. The boat now 163 people. No water. No food.”
“And no engine,” Lee adds.
“The engine broke.”
After four days adrift without food and water, he knew that in a few more hours, people would begin to die. His son would die.
“No more milk,” Lee says, her voice tightening at the helplessness of it.
“About 2 p.m. day four, we see some rich ship,” says Sau, “but we don’t worry about it, ’cause we see a lot of ships but they never help us, they pass. This ship, they come straight to us. Indonesian Navy. They had water and food, and they fix engine, too. About two hours to refugee camp. When we get there, everybody’s crying, because we are still alive.”
Earlier, a young woman, raped by pirates, had tried to throw herself naked into the ocean. Sau dragged her back. “You die, I die,” he warned, “and I have a wife and baby.”
Later, at the refugee camp in Indonesia, the woman introduced them to her cousin, who was a nurse. Tiny Qui had fallen ill with polio, rampant in the camps. The cousin found him medicine, and he began to recover.
Qui relishes the symmetry: “A saved life saved a life.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN A. ROBERTS
Qui and Thuy relaxing at home with their “road dog,” Sweet Pea.
“Dude, she’s Vietnamese,” a server whispers. Qui darts a glance at the young woman, registers more French than Asian in her features. Other servers dive into the argument, everybody but Qui convinced. Meanwhile, Thuy Nguyen’s Harvard-bound date is asking whether she speaks Vietnamese.
“Of course,” she says coolly, so he challenges her, jerking his head toward the servers. “What are they saying?”
She listens a minute, her lips curving in a slight smile. “They are arguing about whether I am Vietnamese.”
By the time dinner arrives, her date, who’s been trying to impress her with his knowledge of Vietnamese food, is asking what she’d think about taking their relationship to another level. Just then, Qui comes over and introduces himself.
“I know who you are,” she says. “You hang out with my brother, Turtle.”
Qui blinks. Who the hell is Turtle?
Thuy assumed that her brother’s friends would use his pet name, too. They don’t. It takes months for Qui to realize which of his buddies is Turtle. By then, she’s agreed to a date. “She could be with some Harvard guy,” Qui reminds himself, dazed. But it’s not only stars that have aligned: They have the same sort of family, refugees struggling and succeeding in a new culture; the same tiger mom experience, reared to get A’s and never, ever get into trouble; the same love of food and travel.
They live together for more than a decade before he asks her to marry him. She never once nudges him.
Qui isn’t even expecting to propose when he does. His cell phone charger dies. He runs over to the Galleria to buy a new one, and while he’s there, he stops by a jewelry store to say hi to a friend who works there—and asks where the diamond engagement rings are.
“Whoa,” the friend says.
After a minute’s blank stare, Qui nods: “I guess I’m ready.”
He designs the ring himself and presents it with an awkward flourish. “Well, I deserve the ring,” Thuy says, “but I’m not worried about the marrying.”
“I knew we’d always be together,” she explains now, six years after the wedding. “I’m not a fairy-tale person, never have been, but it felt like kismet, like our paths were meant to somehow coincide. We say ‘I love you’ all the time, but I also really like him. He’s interesting.” (When Qui turned 40 and teased that he’d go find himself two 20-year-olds, she rolled her eyes. “You couldn’t stand it, all that yapping and whining.”)
Both the eldest in their families, they went ahead for their parents’ sake. “We were losing family members left and right to cancer,” Thuy says. “His mom said something like, ‘By the time you guys get married, I’ll be dead.’”
Lee was and is perfectly healthy. “Now they’re bugging us for children,” Qui reports. “They’re screwed.” Neither Thuy nor Qui wants kids. “Unless they’re four-legged,” he adds. “Snow Pea’s my road dog. Next I’m gonna get a Rottweiler or a Doberman and name him Fluffy.”
Every morning, Qui rises at 7:30 to walk Snow Pea (“It gives me peace”) and wipe her paws. He kisses his wife and goes off to business meetings about Nudo House (“How do people stand desk jobs?”), then to one or both of his restaurants, leaving by 10 p.m. to work out. He takes two days a year off, Thanksgiving and Christmas, because he and Thuy cook for the family.
They did have a brief shining time when they could take off and travel, spur of the moment: Vegas, Cancun, New Orleans. “Now I’m back in debt big time, building a new brand,” he says. “I have a lot of people’s lives at stake. Marie-Anne [Velasco, his chef at Nudo House] moved her whole family here from Chicago. If I fail, I may screw up her life.” There’s no melodrama in the words, just an acceptance of responsibility. “I’m trying to be more CEO. But I’ve got to be out there all the time, kissin’ hands and shakin’ babies.” He winks. “Restaurants fail when there’s no soul.”
Behind Nudo House’s long counter, hands move so fast they blur, hoisting a bain-marie, stirring a giant wok, dipping spring roll wrappers, raising a wire basket of marinated hard-boiled eggs from a steamy pot, fist-bumping as workers pass.
“Lot to do, little bit of time,” mutters Chris Ladley. They open in 10 minutes.
Out front, Wil Pelly moves with Zen concentration, arranging tiny empty black containers to await hot sauce. “I like to guess how many,” he says over his shoulder. “I was one off.”
Pelly was a chef at Sanctuaria, then the Robust group. This, he says, “is a different kind of kitchen than any of us are used to. Almost every single person, when we opened, had run kitchens. It was like a home for wayward boys. Hang out at the bar at Mai Lee long enough, Qui’s bound to hire you for something! But a lot of us were raised in French-style kitchens. I was a yeller. I used to throw things.” What made the difference? “Qui. I’m not saying he walks on water, but he nurtures. It’s something I’m not used to.”
Pelly starts chalking the blackboard of specials. People will say “hoisin” as “hah-why-sin,” he predicts, “and think it’s from Hawaii. You’d be amazed how many people mispronounce things and say it authoritatively. ‘I’d like your pho’ [pronouncing it ‘foe’]. You want my enemy?”
Two minutes till opening. Trays of food are ready, the spring rolls lined up like soldiers. Ladley tastes broth like a sommelier. “You’re looking for the fat content, the flavor, the sweetness,” explains Pelly. “With the pho broth, making sure you can taste all the spices.” He points to a high shelf that holds glass jars—cloves, star anise, allspice, cinnamon sticks, coriander…
Executive chef and co-owner Velasco joins us. Tiny, with a wide smile, she looks about 12. Once, when she was in Chicago, Anthony Bourdain bought dinner for a group of young, broke, worshipful food nerds after a book signing. He kept calling her Cookie. “You can call me Cookie all night,” she retorted, “but I can still cook you under the table.”
She and Pelly (whom she fondly calls “our Bart Simpson” because he’s made it his job to prank and pester) tell me about the broth kettles, Thelma and Louise. They ran 24/7 for a solid year. “For a milky pork broth, we boil the bones at a high heat for 20 hours,” Velasco says, “so opposite the French style, which is to simmer low. Broth’s just bones and water, but you pull out all the collagen, which is what gives that lip-smack of flavor.”
Of Filipino, Chinese, and Hawaiian descent, she speaks German, Spanish, English, Tagalog, and French: “I took Mandarin, but the only things I know are the bad things. Same with Vietnamese. It helps in the kitchen.” Raised in Montreal, she studied economics and took a job with a bank. “The humming of the computers, it just wasn’t my thing,” she says, shaking her head until the ponytail under her ball cap swings almost horizontal. She took off, traveled through Asia, cooking along the way and then in New York, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Vancouver, Chicago. After landing a job as a sushi chef at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, she moved on to The Chase Park Plaza as chef de cuisine.
“Qui and I met when I was teaching at L’École Culinaire,” she says. “I’d go to Mai Lee, just sit at the bar and have soup. One day I walked in wearing my chef whites, and we got to be friends. I’d say, ‘I just want to open my own place. I want to make sandwiches.’” She’d staged in the best restaurants in the world, but at the end of the day, she’d “just grab a really good sandwich and a nice beer or glass of wine. I wanted to do comfort food but make everything properly. I hate shortcuts—like improper butchery, or not brining meat.”
Velasco had moved to Chicago with her husband and baby when Qui called and said, “You still want to open that restaurant?” They came back. She liked Qui’s vision: “Top-notch food, but something you could just run to no matter what you were wearing, no matter how you felt.” They researched ramen, flying around the country to taste the best.
“Even though I felt like I did a decent version of it, something was lacking,” Qui says. “That’s when I sought out Nakamura.” One of Japan’s four ramen gods, Shigetoshi “Chef Jack” Nakamura agreed to come to St. Louis and consult.
Velasco loved how scientific Nakamura was: “He had all these gadgets to test the minerality of the water—chlorine’s not so good for broth. We had a little chem lab going on. We learned the proper way to extract flavor from bones, which noodle goes with which stock, which tare [flavoring], which level of brix [sugar content].” She pulls out a pocket refractometer that measures the brix. “The noodles need to be cooked for 45 seconds exactly,” she continues. “The alkaline level is what gives the noodle its bounce and texture.”
Qui nods, not looking up. He drops miso and spice into a bowl, pours in steaming stock, adds a plop of noodles and braised chicken. Ramen’s varieties are regional: dried mackerel flakes and strong pork in the north, chicken boiled milky, tonkotsu-style, in the south. Velasco describes the tantanmen, warning that it isn’t for everybody: “Sesame paste and chili paste to start it off in the wok. We sauté garlic and ginger and green onions in sesame oil, then add bonito flakes, a strong tuna, so it has that fishy funk that makes your eyelids sweat.”
She and Qui crave that funk. Unlike their spouses, they’ll try anything—fresh raw urchins, raw oysters by the platter. Bring it. Qui does, however, “loathe balls. I literally can’t wrap my mind around the idea of eating something’s testicles.”
To change the subject, I ask what his favorite comfort food is.
“I’m a soup guy. You can’t manipulate it or mask the tastes. It takes time.” He looks up. “Most soups don’t have enough flavor. There needs to be more care.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN A. ROBERTS
One evening, Qui was behind the bar at Mai Lee when he heard his name yelled—and then screams. He banged through the door into the kitchen, saw a worker with a knife in his hand and, without thinking, ran over, grabbed his wrist, and slammed it on the counter. The man had just thrown a big Chinese cleaver at a coworker. “The kid had ducked, thankfully,” Qui says, “but then the guy grabbed another knife. I got it away from him and kicked him out of the restaurant.”
Was Thuy a wreck when she heard? “She doesn’t know that story. I never bring drama home. When I come home, I’m smiling and relaxed. Her job’s stressful enough.” He sees my brow furrow. “I deal very well with stress,” he assures me. “My staff says I’m Zen-like.” How’d he learn? “From my dad yelling all the time and my mother blowing up because she holds it in. I thought, ‘There has to be some kind of middle ground.’”
He’s found it. He doesn’t swallow stress or spit it at other people; he just chews like it’s tobacco, keeping his equilibrium. His tattoo is a dragon and a phoenix—fire and water, masculine and feminine. He cooks, which in Vietnamese culture is strictly a woman’s terrain, but he also does mixed martial arts. “I don’t compete,” he says. “I just train.”
“Well, let’s put it this way,” a friend drawls. “Ninety-nine percent of people in the city don’t want to get in the room and ‘train’ with Qui.”
When I tell Qui he seems too gentle to be a fighter, he smiles. “Martial arts teach you discipline; they teach you to be calm. If you met a true martial artist, you’d be, like, ‘This guy’s a fighter?’ I’m the first to apologize and walk away.”
His family is Buddhist, but without the scaffolding of organized practice: “We don’t need anyone to tell us about respect and dignity.” At work, he’s learned that the best way to calm someone is to—he points to his ear—“listen. ‘I didn’t like this,’ someone might say. ‘You’ve never eaten mushrooms, you come to my place, you don’t like mushrooms, well, that’s not my fault. But it’s ‘What don’t you like?’ Because if it’s too salty or too spicy, I can fix that.” He grins. “Then there are the times you say, ‘OK, I’ll take it back,’ and they say, ‘No, just pack it to go.’”
His wife’s wit is deceptively sharp: “It’s a Southern ‘Bless your heart’ kind of thing,” he says with a grin. “She’s good at putting people down without them even knowing it.” Immediately, he amends that, doesn’t want to say “putting people down.” This man has no sharp edges, no desire for confrontation. “If somehow you can show you are a bigger person in a more intelligent way,” he says, “that screws the idiot up more than actual force.”
Politics is a chasm he usually leaps or sidesteps, “but sometimes it’s such crazy shit that you have to step in. This whole [Brett] Kavanaugh thing was going on, and an older white man said, ‘It was, like, 35 years ago. Who cares?’ I said, ‘Let me put it into perspective.’” He gave a hypothetical example: Say a boy was molested by a priest 35 years ago. “When the kid 35 years later comes out and says something, no one shames him. But if a woman comes out…”
After Donald Trump became president, a customer remarked to Qui, “You’re lucky we let you into this country.” Qui replied evenly, “You are absolutely right. I’m so lucky that President Ronald Reagan let us into this country. I’m very proud of the way President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush talked about the importance of immigration for this country.” Qui’s eyes blaze for just a second, then soften. “For me, in the restaurant business, it’s all about constant change. But not a lot of people are OK with change. They’re sitting on their couch in their own home with the same neighbors, and all of a sudden they get an influx of people they’re not used to dealing with, and it feels like an invasion.
“I don’t want to call that man a racist,” he continues. “You’re prejudiced because you’re not exposed to certain things. It’s not that he hates me.” He looks into the distance. “I’ve been judged every day. My father and mother taught me that respect is earned. I don’t go in assuming I will be accepted anywhere. I go in knowing I have to earn respect. And if they still don’t respect me, that’s OK. It’s not like wanting water. I will concentrate on the people who want to work with me, who want to do good, who share my vision.”
He pauses. “The Communists locked my grandfather in a concentration camp for 10 years. But the beautiful thing is, he got to live the last 16 years of his life here as a free man. He’d been fighting for freedom his whole life.”
Gerard Craft and Kevin Nashan, the first two St. Louis chefs to win James Beard Awards. Emerson. The other Mike, Del Pietro. David Choi of Seoul Taco. They all met Qui in the bar at Mai Lee—back when it was on Delmar—and they’ve been in constant touch ever since. Nashan, the culinary genius behind Sidney Street Café and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., calls it “borrowing sugar”—which might mean advice, or a replacement for a piece of equipment that’s just broken down in the middle of a catering job. But the friendship’s more than transactional.
When chefs come to St. Louis, Emerson says, ‘They sit down at a table of eight guys and say, ‘You all own different restaurants? And you actually get along?’ The collaboration’s 15 years old, and you can put Qui, Kevin Nashan, and Gerard Craft at the head of the parade—with me banging the cymbals in back. So many people have come through here and thought, ‘Man, that makes a lot of sense. Why aren’t we all working together?’”
Did the coasts learn from this gang of chefs in St. Louis? Nashan shrugs. “I don’t become friends with you because I heard it’d be cool to be friends with you. What happened in St. Louis was all of us getting along—which is not really traditional in the restaurant business.”
As soon as they realized “that if we were going to do this, we needed to all do it together,” Qui says, St. Louis’ food scene started to blossom. “Before that, everybody was really snobby. I don’t know why. We don’t make money in this business; we smell like oil and smoke; there’s nothing glamorous about it. But it was this boys’ club. I didn’t have a lot of friends in the restaurant business back then.” Now, he does. “And now it’s the women who are starting to shine, and that’s a very, very beautiful thing.
“For me, it’s always been that way,” he adds. “My mom’s a beast. She’ll outcook and outwork any man. But there’s been this generationalized sexism, like institutionalized racism.”
Qui’s openness extends to food itself. “Watching him dissect a bowl of ramen is like watching a brain surgeon,” Emerson says. Critiquing what’s wrong with it? “Oh, no. With Qui, it’s always what’s right with it.”
He’s not a purist about mixing influences, either. “I don’t feel like certain things are sacrilege,” he says. “It’s like adding hip-hop to rock: It can be amazing. You walk into my kitchen, there’s Indian spices, African spices, olive oil.
“I don’t need to ‘elevate’ a cuisine,” he adds. “If people can make beans taste like beef, how can you beat that? If someone says, ‘I’m going to elevate Vietnamese food,’ that’s an automatic turnoff. This cuisine’s been cooked for kings and queens. There’s no need to make it better.”
“Find out what kind of catering Mr. Grossberg needs,” Qui’s mom had instructed. So Qui rode his bike to the glossy Clayton office above J. Buck’s to meet Grossberg, son of the founders of Delmar Gardens. They were—though Qui didn’t know this yet—Hungarian Jews who’d lost the rest of their family in the Holocaust.
Grossberg’s secretary looked up with a smile: “Qui, Gabe just called. He’s running a little late.” Qui shrugged. I’m 14 years old. Whatever! About eight minutes later, Grossberg swept in, saying, “Qui, I’m sorry! Thanks for waiting. Give me just a second.” He greeted his staff warmly, handing out hugs and handshakes. Qui, whose family was far more reserved, was riveted. Grossberg thanked him again for waiting and asked, “D’you mind if I smoke?” Dazed, Qui shook his head, thinking, This is your office. Do whatever the hell you want!
In another part of his brain, a single sentence was playing over and over again, like the bass line in a rock anthem: I want to be like this guy.
Now, they’re financial partners, and as they prepare to open the second Nudo House, they’re contemplating a third. But his parents are still verklempt over the first one.
“You know what?” Lee asks me, leaning forward to grab my arm for emphasis. “He opened the restaurant, he don’t tell us! He knew I would say no. A customer told me!”
Tentatively, I mention what a great location the second Nudo House will have. She frowns. “Two is enough.”
Nashan grins at the account. “Mai Lee’s his mom’s place,” he says firmly. “Nudo’s his own deal, his own identity. It’s Qui’s vision and Thuy’s, and there’s soul to it; it’s not scripted.”
It was Thuy, by the way, who fell in love with ramen first. She took Qui to a restaurant in Chicago and said, “Why can’t you do this?” It was also Thuy who came up with Nudo House’s pho dip, a fusion of banh mi and the French dip. And it was Thuy who suggested soft-serve ice cream (lychee and coconut, not chocolate and vanilla). Qui heaps credit on her, but she waves it away: “I just want my husband to have the food I like readily available for me!”
When I say I could see Qui on TV as a celebrity chef, Thuy hesitates: “He absolutely has the charisma. But what drives Qui is meeting people, talking to people, and I’m not sure a camera could give him that. When he found out there were people coming to look for him at Mai Lee when he was at Nudo House, he got really upset.”
Early in their years together, Thuy blurted, “Why are you so happy all the time? You wake up happy!” She used to pick fights with him, “just because I was so irritated that he was happy all the time. But he just handles things really well.”
What gives Qui joy, she says, is “when the people around him are happy. He is driven to please people, but not in a people-pleasing way. He just wants the people around him to enjoy life.” What annoys him? “Whining. Toxic people.” Scares him? “Failure.” What do all the people who flock around him not realize? She stops to think. “He’s a pretty open book. People think he can’t be this happy and this energized all the time, but he is.” Another pause, and a gleam comes into her eye. “He likes Taylor Swift. And he won’t admit it, but he likes rom-coms.”
Affection and humor: Qui Tran’s patent medicine for stress relief. “I don’t laugh around anyone else as much as I laugh around Qui,” says Loryn Nalic, co-owner of Balkan Treat Box. “And his dad is so funny. We call him QuiDad.” She turns serious. “I don’t think happiness is a state of mind as much as it is a moment. You have to find those moments, and they come with not taking yourself too seriously.”
If Nalic were directing an actor to play the part of Qui, she’d say, “You need to be animated. Engaging, inclusive, and silly. But you also have to be no-nonsense, because at the end of the day, there’s no bullshit.”
She realized just how hardcore Qui was when they catered a wedding: “He had this giant gas wok, and it was pumping out a lot of heat and fire. We’re cooking in this tent, and the rain’s coming down in sheets, and the sides of the tent are drooping around him, and he’s just flipping food at top speed in this hot-ass wok, water dripping on his head, acting like it’s 70 degrees and sunny. He didn’t even look up.”
In addition to Nudo House, Kevin specializes in and represents several national and local restaurant concepts. L3 Corporation is a leading retail commercial brokerage firm specializing in tenant representation, landlord representation and property acquisition and disposition. Members of L3 Corporation have brought deals to fruition in excess of 35,000,000 square feet spanning over 100 cities throughout the United States and Canada. L3 Corporation is focused exclusively on retail real estate. Contact Kevin Shapiro for more information on Nudo House or for any of your retail real estate needs.