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Hai Hai's Nguyen Found a New Calling—Stand-up Cooking

Sue Zelickson introduces the "star" of the evening, Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai as Perspectives' new Kids Cafe chef, Paschell Wilson, looks on. Wilson, along with Chef Jeremiah Lanes, helped with the prep and clean-up.

Christina Nguyen admitted she was a bit nervous when she clicked the headset on and went live at the Perspectives’ Cooking with the Stars series Monday (July 22) night in the Kids Café kitchen in St. Louis Park. But no need because she had them at Hello Cormeal Sandwich, the literal translation of her first restaurant’s name, Hola Arepa. 

Nguyen was the fourth of six female chefs in the popular cooking series that raised $40,000 in 40 seconds at the Perspectives family center’s annual fundraiser last year. Founder of the Kids Café at Perspectives, Sue Zelickson, has already booked the line-up of chefs for next year’s fundraiser.

The other member of the winning team behind Hola Arepa and Hai Hai, Birk Grudem, was relegated to kitchen duty, since his bartending/drink curating skills weren’t needed at the alcohol-free café.

Zelickson introduced Nguyen, talking about her Vietnamese heritage, and asking how she got to Minneapolis. 

“I took the long trip over from St. Paul—to start a new life,” she said to laughter.  It was only in the last year or so she was able to convince her parents to make the trip back to Vietnam to witness for themselves how much the country had changed since they fled during the Vietnamese war. She and Grudem have traveled that area extensively. Her trip to Vietnam, as well as Bali and other countries in the region, were the inspiration for Hai Hai, which was named one of the 18 Best New Restaurants in America by Eater in 2017 and Outstanding Restaurant by the Charlie Awards in 2019. Nguyen was a finalist for the 2019 James Beard Award, Best Chef — Midwest. 

Nguyen began by explaining the dishes and the ingredients lined up on the counter, some of which were new to the guests. “Vietnamese food has tons of (fresh) herbs in it,” she said, pointing out a few of the more exotic ones. “Whoever is having a bad day gets to be the lemongrass smasher. Hit it like it owes you money.” Turmeric handlers were advised to wear gloves so the deep yellow color didn’t stain their fingers or nails. “I’m not paying for manicures,” she warned.

 Once prepped, attendees were organized into four groups, all given a task involving a lot of chopping. 

After the banana leaves were plucked, rolled and cut for the Vietnamese Banana Blossom Salad and the chicken thighs’ marinade was assembled and slathered on them and the lime leaves were added to the sautéed green beans, the group sat to enjoy the end result. 

“You all did an amazing job,” Nguyen said. “It tasted like the restaurant’s.”

A Q&A followed. “What’s the hardest part of working in a restaurant?” someone asked. 

“Hmmm,” she mused. “There’s so many hard things about working in a restaurant.” But as most restaurateurs might answer, she conceded: staffing.

When asked if they had plans for a third restaurant, Nguyen turned to her husband and said, “If we can ever find time to workout and have hobbies, we might think about opening another restaurant.”

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