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Stirring the pot with restaurateur Mary Nguyen

 (Contributing Writer- Denver Business Journal)

Mary Nguyen was born in Denver 38 years ago – but she was conceived in South Vietnam. Her father was a colonel in South Vietnam’s navy.

Soon after the fall of Saigon, the family was flown out to Guam, then California, then Denver — in time for the birth of Mary. Nguyen’s parents took all kinds of jobs to keep the family afloat and to send all four kids to college.

Nguyen went to George Washington High School and then on to CU-Boulder to study economics, international affairs and Spanish. Her future was in finance, or so she thought. 

After a short career as an analyst in public finance and commodities, food began to take over. She quit the money business to learn the restaurant ropes working 4-10 a.m. at Starbucks, 10a.m.-3 p.m. at Hapa Sushi, then 4-10 p.m. at Beehive Restaurant.

Now she owns and operates two Denver restaurants on East 17th Avenue, P17 and Olive & Finch; she also owns Street Kitchen Asian Bistro at Vallagio in Inverness. She’s married, no kids

Bill Husted: You went from finance to food.

Mary Nguyen: I worked hard and I learned a lot, but I always had this passion for food. I would go home late at night and the Internet had just started and I would get on and look at recipes and then on weekends I would have these elaborate dinner parties. It just got to the point where cooking meant more to me than making a lot of money.

BH: How many people do you have working for you in the three restaurants?

MN: About 90.

BH: What’s the toughest thing about that?

MN: In any business I think it’s all the personalities, having the right people in the right positions.

BH: Would you change anything about yourself?

MN: I would like to be more patient. I like to get things done, to get results as soon as possible. I need to be patient with peoples’ skill sets.

BH: Are you OK with firing people?

MN: I am. I work really hard and I hope that everyone around me does. But we are all so much more than what we do. I am sure you do more than just write.

BH: You’d be surprised. After nine years, you recently changed P17 from a Vietnamese restaurant to a European bistro.

MN: I was always enamored with the bistros in Europe. You go into any restaurant and the food is great and it’s affordable. I come back to Denver and dining here has evolved so much and going out and having dinner is so expensive. So what I want to do at P17 is to open a true neighborhood bistro that is modest, affordable and casual.

BH: Do you ever want kids?

MN: It would be nice, but now I have to focus on these kids, my three restaurants.

BH: Do you like East 17th Avenue?

MN: I’ve been here nine years and it has changed so much. So many new restaurants have come in, Steuben’s, Ace, Beast + Bottle, Il Posto. I remember when we were building the restaurant, we were under construction and we came in one morning and there were bullet holes through the front window. Now it’s changed and it’s so diverse.

People say to me, don’t you want to be downtown, in Union Station or the Highlands? I love being on 17th. It’s such a great representation of Denver.

BH: Do you ever visit Vietnam?

MN: Oh yes. My two brothers live and work there. I think it makes me aware of how [different] life is here.In Vietnam you go back and poverty is in your face. I try not to take things for granted.

BH: I have interviewed Asian women who feel that Colorado is very prejudiced against them.

MN: There are definitely stigmas and stereotypes about being Asian. I feel that when I travel to other countries, but I don’t feel that here.

BH: I know you’re involved in one of Denver strangest associations, the Adventurous Eaters Club.

MN: I knew I wanted to be involved with that because even Vietnamese food is fairly adventurous. I remember in the beginning at the restaurant we would make things that people were very apprehensive about. I felt that the club would give me a platform to cook outrageous things for people who would actually eat it.

BH: For instance?

MN: We cooked larvae beignets, caterpillar cake, crickets, intestines, and durian, an Asian fruit that smells so bad it’s banned in buses and subways in Asia – and that says a lot. I wanted to introduce food to people with open minds. I wanted to show them food that’s not about America.

A lot of other countries don’t just eat white breast meat. They eat the chicken feet, the neck, the gizzards. And they eat bugs. To you and me that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but bugs are very high in protein. I’d say half the world eats some form of bugs and larvae.

BH: I’m getting the creeps just talking about this. Is there anything you wouldn’t eat?

MN: That’s a tough one. I try to look at food openly. It may not be normal for me but it’s normal for someone else. So I shouldn’t shun it, I should definitely try it.

BH: Even live monkey brains?

MN: I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to eat something that could make me sick. I’d eat it cooked, though.

BH: Your mother cooked lunch for Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” Was it bizarre?

MN: It was very simple really. Spring rolls, a noodle soup with pig trotters and boiled cow’s blood and blood sausage and intestines.

BH: What’s your biggest extravagance?

MN: Caviar and champagne. I love it. I’d eat it every day of I could.

BH: Where do you and your husband go out to eat?

MN: It’s hard to go out with our schedules, but our go-to place is Sushi Den.

BH: What do you most dislike?

MN: Laziness.

BH: What’s your biggest regret?

MN: I don’t have any.