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Q&A: Chef Mary Nguyen on the Empowerment Project

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Opening a restaurant is never easy. But opening one while running two existing restaurants and being followed by a film crew the entire time? That’s all in a day’s work for Denver restaurateur Mary Nguyen (of P17 and Olive & Finch). While Nguyen was opening Olive & Finch in Uptown in late fall of 2013, Emmy award-winning filmmakers Sarah Moshman and Dana Michelle Cook were in Denver interviewing her for their film, the Empowerment Project. This inspiring documentary highlights the success stories of 17 hard-working women (ranging from mathematicians to pilots) from across the nation, including Nguyen. On Wednesday, May 27, the Empowerment Project will be screened at the University of Denver. We sat down with Nguyen to find out what being a part of the film was like, and why spotlighting female role models is so important.

5280: How did your involvement in this project come about?

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MN: The filmmakers contacted me and told me about their project and wanted to see if they would be able to include me in the documentary. I was really moved by the message of creating positive role models for young girls. I was honored to be considered and that I could even be a part of it.

5280: How would you sum up the film’s message?

MN: Overall I think it’s a great movie in that it represents a diverse group of women, from all different kinds of backgrounds, different ethnicities, different fields. The one thing that was just so powerful was that we all had different stories, but it was the same message, regardless of what kind of background we came from, which I think resonates with every woman.

5280: What was the filming process like?

MN: It was not my first time being on camera, but it was definitely my first time being surrounded by so many different people, all of whom were a part of this really great project. There were five different filmmakers and they had the whole crew. It was great to be among so many women who felt so passionate about what they were working on. The energy was just really infectious. I spent a couple days with them, and it was during the process of opening up Olive & Finch, so I was pretty busy, but it was great for them to see what I do. They were a part of the construction process, and there during the meetings I would have with different contractors. I’m pretty present at my other restaurant, P17, and at the time I had Street Kitchen as well so we were going to different restaurants, we ate at different restaurants, we talked to the staff. This is what I do—in the morning I’m in this restaurant, and in the afternoon I’m in this other restaurant, and then in between we’re dealing with construction issues at a third restaurant, and then we’re back at another restaurant in the evening, and then we have to do a tasting on a different day–so they really saw how busy it could be.

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5280: Have you had a lot of challenges as a woman pursuing your dreams?

MN: I think being a woman, at least for me, in a field that is definitely dominated by men is challenging. But at the same time, I try not to define myself as “I’m a woman, and that’s why I’m having a challenge.” I think that’s the attitude that you kind of have to have when you go to follow your dreams. You’re never the victim. The way I see it, you’re a victim of your own circumstance. So you’re creating that circumstance, if you want to call yourself a victim. If you put your mind to it, you’re passionate about it, and you persevere, then you can make anything happen. And I truly believe that. I’m a career changer and have made a lot of different choices in my life that some would maybe argue were bad decisions but obviously they were decisions and I’ve taken a lot of risks, and I’m better for it every single risk I have taken.

Catch a screening of the Empowerment Project this Wednesday, May 27, at 6 p.m. at the University of Denver Sturm Hall (and make sure to stick around after the film for a discussion led by Nguyen). Register to attend the screening here.

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