Snō by Tony Nguyen will open in Tower Grove South this summer.
Tony Nguyen could have opened his debut restaurant anywhere. In fact, he had a couple of attractive offers to do so in Los Angeles where he'd made a name for himself as one of the city's most talented chefs. One prospective investor owned the L.A. Weekly
newspaper and offered to finance his dream endeavor; the other wanted to give him space in a soon-to-open hotel. On paper, the offers made sense, but there was something telling Nguyen that he should look to the place where it all began for him.
"The whole time, I just didn't feel like these were things I was interested in, and something felt off," Nguyen says. "I'd been reading about St. Louis, and I've always been proud of the city I'm from. Every time I'd come back, it just felt so comforting; people take the time to talk to you and give you love and Midwest hospitality, even when you're just getting a haircut. Everybody here loves to eat and supports new chefs and businesses, so we decided to come back. We believe in St. Louis and believe they will support us."
Now, Nguyen and his wife, Jessica, find themselves just blocks from where he grew up getting ready to open his first solo project, Snō by Chef Tony Nguyen (3611 Juniata Street)
. Named after his mother, the Tower Grove South restaurant that is slated to open this summer is the culmination of a career that includes high-profile jobs in Houston, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. The latter, an eight-year run as executive chef at the highly-regarded Crustacean, placed Nguyen at the right hand of owner Helene An, a revered chef who was referred to as the "Mother of Asian Fusion Cuisine" by the Smithsonian and is credited with bringing Vietnamese food to the United States.
Courtesy of Tony Nguyen
Chef Tony Nguyen is excited to open his debut restaurant in his hometown.
Nguyen's first forays into cooking were decidedly humbler, however. The son of Vietnamese immigrants who spoke no English and had little money, Nguyen began cooking out of necessity. With his parents always at work, he often had to fend for himself at mealtime, so he'd throw together whatever was around the house. Fortunately, that was usually quite a lot; he recalls a family life based around food, and even though his parents worked a lot, their weekends were spent cooking. He describes his family's kitchen as being filled with the smell of fresh stock cooking on the stove, noodles boiling in a pot, ribs and chicken wings marinating and fresh baguettes waiting to be spread with pate.
In their leisure time, the family would gather together to watch television — he laughs when he says that they stole cable because they could not afford it — and the one channel they could all agree on was the Food Network
. Nguyen was enamored with Emeril Lagasse, so it made sense that he would gravitate to the restaurant industry when it came time for him to get a job.
"My first job was in a restaurant, but I was a magician," Nguyen laughs. "It was just some chain place. I'd pull gold coins out of sugar packets and stuff. I did that for about three months or so, but then I went back into the kitchen and saw somebody portioning out hamburgers and wanted to help."
Courtesy of Tony Nguyen
Jessica Osborne-Nguyen looks forward to sharing her passion for sustainable seafood.
Nguyen ended up working in country clubs, a formative experience that set the foundation for his career and gave him the chops to get into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He furthered his education at Cornell University's hotel and restaurant management program, then returned to St. Louis to do an internship in sushi at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Clayton. Following graduation, he decided to come back to his hometown for good and helped open the restaurants at the Lumiere Place Casino on the Landing; he was so young he had to get a special pass to be in the building because he wasn't allowed on the gaming floor.
Though Nguyen loved being home, his the job with Lumiere Place felt too corporate. He decided to parlay his casino experience into a shot at the big leagues, leaving town to work for chef Rick Moonen in Las Vegas, a gig that ignited his passion for sustainable seafood. From there, he went on to the acclaimed L'Atelier De Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand, then eventually to Los Angeles and the famed Crustacean to work with An.
Nguyen credits each of his jobs as having a formative effect on his cooking philosophy, though his time with An perhaps best illustrates what he hopes to do at Snō.
"She'd be called the 'Mother of Asian Fusion' and always ask what did that even mean," Nguyen explains. "In our food, maybe there is a little Asian influence, but we don't let that stop us from doing what we want to do. I love Spanish food, too, so maybe there will be tomato bread with Thai basil. I'm going to Italy in a month, so I might do something like a pasta with fresh clams, but maybe with a pho broth, and instead of white wine, maybe I will use sake. We never want to limit ourselves. I know there will be a little influence of Asia, but I consider this a chef-driven restaurant."
Courtesy of Tony Nguyen
Jessica Osborne-Nguyen and Tony Nguyen will open Snō sometime this summer.
To that end, Nguyen describes Snō as the food he loves to cook and eat. With his wife, Jessica Osborne-Nguyen helping him sketch out a vision for the restaurant — she is a highly trained and talented chef in her own right and has worked for such greats as Nancy Silverton and Jean-Georges Vongerichten — Nguyen sees Snō as a restaurant that intentionally resists being pigeonholed into one genre. He says to anticipate a small plates-focused menu that is dim sum-influenced, though he is quick to note that dim sum is just another name for tapas. Diners can also expect steaks, sustainable seafood, fresh noodles, a rotating dumpling program and craft cocktails.
Snō will be located in the former two-story VP Square storefront on Juniata Street, just off the bustling South Grand business district. Though he and Osborne-Nguyen do not yet have an exact opening date, Nguyen hopes to be serving guests sometime this summer. In the meantime, the pair are thrilled to be back in his hometown and cannot wait to share their talents with the people of St. Louis.
"I've eaten at 80 percent of the big name restaurants in Los Angeles, and my wife and I say that St. Louis has some of the best-tasting food we've ever had, nationwide," Nguyen says. "People here know good food, and they are wise with how they want to spend their dollars. The restaurants here can compete with restaurants anywhere in New York or L.A.; they are nationally great restaurants, and I think the city needs to be put on a pedestal. We wouldn't have come back if St. Louis wasn't a great food city."
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