Technically, Qui Tran is the founder of Nudo House (11423 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-274-8046)
and the face of his mother's restaurant, Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Brentwood; 314-645-2835)
, but he's best known throughout the St. Louis food-and-beverage community as its biggest cheerleader. However, Tran admits he was not always so enthusiastic.
"I hated it!" Tran laughs when he reflects on what it was like growing up in the restaurant business. "I never went on spring break, never went to parties or sleepovers. We were always working. I remember my parents bought me a BMX bike when I was twelve or thirteen, and I was so excited to go out and just ride it, but they told me that I had to ride up and down Delmar and pass out fliers for the restaurant."
That restaurant, Mai Lee, has become a St. Louis institution since Tran's mother founded it in 1985. But though it's achieved the kind of success restaurateurs dream of, it was not always easy. All through Tran's childhood, his mom worked from morning into the night, building a business around traditional Vietnamese cooking — a style of cuisine that was then unfamiliar to the city's diners.
Her gamble paid off, but even so, Tran was not ready to follow in her footsteps. Instead, he graduated from high school and attended Saint Louis University to study business but did not finish his degree, opting to jump directly into the workforce. He landed at a financial consulting firm in the Central West End and felt like he was cruising along in his career until one day, he was hit with a reality check.
"I had this vendor come in and try to sell me a 40-year loan," Tran recalls. "I thought, 'I'm supposed to be helping people get out of debt. What if I sell this to them and they go bankrupt and I'm the person who ruined their lives?' I couldn't do it. I saw the bubble was going to happen, and I had to get out."
In the back of his mind, Tran knew he would end up in the restaurant business, and after leaving the financial company, he went straight to work for his mom, helping her transform Mai Lee into the juggernaut it is today. In the process, he developed a passion for food that was sparked by the growing St. Louis restaurant scene. As he dined out around town, he noticed the then-new kids on the block — Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe, Gerard Craft of Niche — and was inspired by their willingness to try something new.
Tran could have rested on Mai Lee's laurels, but that would not be his style. Instead, he pushed himself to expand his skillset, opening Nudo House to national acclaim in July 2017. Together with business partner Marie-Anne Velasco
, Tran traveled the country, studying under ramen master Shigetoshi Nakamura to transform a business idea into one of the country's best ramen shops.
Even after the success he's achieved, Tran still looks back on his decision to get into the restaurant business as a crazy idea, and admits he does question his own sanity.
"I've always appreciated anyone who is crazy enough to be in the business and have to give them mad love and respect because it's hard," Trans says. "It's long hours; you are always away from your family. You have to admire those other people who are as stupid as I am."
Tran took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant community, his Walmart-focused backup plan and the person responsible for all his good ideas.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
My wife comes up with all of my great ideas. If she wouldn't have taken me to a ramen place, I wouldn’t have opened Nudo. We went to a place in Chicago ages ago and I was like, "Why is no one in St. Louis doing this?" She looked at me and said, "Why don’t you do it?" Also, the "Pho Dip" and soft-serve ice cream are her ideas. I don’t have any ideas of my own. I am just a dumb restaurant dude. Haha!
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I wake up, and no matter how tired I am, I smile at myself in the mirror. I do this so that it will remind me to go smile at someone else and say hi to a complete stranger. You never know; it could change their life. This guy I smile at might have been pissed at some Asian person who cut them off. I always smile at people and strike up conversations with strangers.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I wish I could teleport myself, because that way I could be everywhere at any time. I get calls from one restaurant while I'm at the other saying "such and such is here," and I feel bad that I can't be there to say hello. If I could teleport, I could say hi to everyone and tell them I appreciate them coming in and spending money with me.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The food community coming together is the biggest thing. There is so much fundraising being done, and the food community is always ready to come together for a greater cause. I love that about St. Louis. Even though we can’t afford to do some of them, we still do them because some restaurant friend asked me to. I will get on the next plane to help with that event. That’s what I love about St. Louis.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
More Latin food. We have Frittanga, Plantain Girl and Mango. Those are the only places I know of — and they are doing a fantastic job. I like them all, but I would like to see even more. Like, we don’t have a Cuban restaurant. What's that about?
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box. I want to hug her every time I see her because her food is so outstanding.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Matt Daughaday at Reeds American Table. I think he is really coming into his own and is going to start making some noise. He’s always been one of my favorites, but he’s been in the game for a while now and is becoming seasoned. His food is so well thought out. He understands food. Watch out. He is going to start doing more and people will know who he is.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
MSG. People think it’s artificial but it’s not. It's a natural substance: sugar and salt. It's just enough salt to alleviate your cravings and just enough sweet to make you smile.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Nothing. Maybe a Walmart greeter.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Nothing. I allow everything because I want to try everything. The cool thing is that now you see things like shrimp paste or fermented fish sauce in everyone's kitchens because we have blended styles of food. We allow everything because we want to be able to try everything and mix and match.
What is your after-work hangout?
A cigar with friends or at home with my wife and dog Snow Pea.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
For drinks, it's Champagne. For food, it's dessert. I wasn’t a dessert person until I met my wife. Now, I will eat three courses of dessert by myself and not feel bad about it.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Mom’s caramelized pork ribs with pickled mustard greens and chile peppers on the side.
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