Garlic & Chives is well-known for two things: its deep-fried salmon belly dish and one of the longer waits for a table in Little Saigon. But it should also be known for Kristin Nguyen, the chef and mother of two behind the Asian concept that has—in just a year of being open—won several prestigious accolades, including Best Vietnamese Restaurant in OC Weekly's Best Of 2015.
Nguyen's dad was in the South Vietnamese army while her mom ran a convenience store out of their home in Vung Tau in Vietnam. Her family left the country when she was 7, just before the fall of Saigon, fleeing by boat to Guam and ending up at Camp Pendleton with other Vietnamese refugees. The family settled in Garden Grove, and Nguyen graduated from Bolsa Grande High School; she then attended Cal State Fullerton and earned a finance degree. She worked at a few mortgage companies, but left the field to help her parents with a Vietnamese restaurant they opened in Westminster around 1995.
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"I loved working with money, but I wanted to work with food more because I am passionate about cooking and love being creative," Nguyen says.
Being the oldest of eight children, Nguyen's relationship with food started in the family kitchen. "I learned a lot about cooking from my dad," she says. "He's not a real chef but cooked all the time." She fed her passion for learning about food further by borrowing cookbooks from the library and enrolling at the Art Institute (AI) in Santa Ana. But Nguyen admits that she learned the most from going to different countries with her engineer husband, who frequently traveled for work. At every place they'd visit, including Thailand and Hong Kong, Nguyen sought out cooking classes. The language barrier wasn't a problem; she always paid an interpreter to translate for her. "It was the most amazing experience."
She honed her culinary skills by cooking for friends and family. Garlic & Chives' salmon belly dish came about from dinner parties she'd host at her home. "My sister went crazy for it," Nguyen says. "She kept on requesting I make the salmon belly over and over again." The key to that dish, as well as a lot of her dishes, is the sauce. "Sauces are very important; something I learned from AI," she says. "I don't believe in using cornstarch. . . . You want to do a reduction to get that consistency. All of my sauces take a long time—some brew for 15 hours."
Garlic & Chives opened in December 2014, two years earlier than Nguyen had planned; she wanted to wait until her youngest kid graduated from high school, but a prime restaurant spot became vacant. Despite no advertising budget, the place was packed almost immediately, with a lot of the first customers knowing the chef from her 20 years of private catering gigs. Nguyen now works at the restaurant seven days a week, practicing her style of cooking, which she describes as "detailed and intricate." Her days often stretch from 10 a.m. to midnight, but "I still manage to pick up my daughter from school in Fullerton on most days."