This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Qui Tran of Mai Lee. Part two, a Q & A with Tran, will appear tomorrow. Part three, a recipe from Tran, will be available on Friday.
Qui Tran can't discuss his childhood without mentioning Mai Lee (8396 Music Memorial Drive, Brentwood; 314-645-2835), the restaurant that his mother founded in University City in 1984 -- not incidentally, the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis.
"As a kid, I used to ride my bike up and down Delmar, passing out menus," Tran recalls. "That was my job. I was either washing dishes, because we didn't have a dishwasher, at eight years old, or biking up and down the street, passing out menus door to door, putting them on cars."
"It's the American dream," Tran says of the creation of Mai Lee.
His mother, Lee, had no restaurant experience when the family arrived in St. Louis at the beginning of the 1980s. She did know how to cook, though -- she was already a very good cook, Tran says -- and found work at a succession of Chinese restaurants.
"She learned the business," Tran explains. "She watched them and learned how to set up a kitchen. It's amazing. Now with me being in the business for so long, with all my knowledge of and experience in the restaurant business, I don't even know how the hell she did it.
"In this business it's always, 'Keep it simple, stupid.' We have a few things, and we need to do [those things] well. I don't know how the heck she did it, but she actually kept adding [more things] and figuring out how to do it well."
The Trans did not simply leave Vietnam, but fled the country, fearing for their lives.
"We were poor," Tran says of their life there. "We didn't have anything. My dad was a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, so he was out fighting the Communists. My mother, [her family was] all a bunch of farmers."
The situation reached a crisis point in 1977: "They were going to kill my dad and hence kill all of us, so we had to get the hell out of there. So we jumped the fence. We were boat people. We jumped the fence, hopped on a boat.
"My mom and dad had decided if we're going to die, we're going to all die together, and if we're going to make it, we're all going to make it together.
"They just left their country, a war-torn country, in search of freedom."
The Trans came to St. Louis in 1980, having spent the intervening years in refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Qui Tran doesn't remember at which American port the family arrived, but he distinctly remembers his father circling St. Louis on a map, and the American authorities sending them here.
"It worked out great," he says.