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“Ask a Chef” is part of an on-going series in which 5280 poses a single question to a local culinary luminary.
Banker-turned-chef, Mary Nguyen, is the owner of two successful Denver restaurants (Parallel Seventeen and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro), but she’s not slowing down anytime soon. Her newest venture, Olive & Finch Eatery, Bakery & Market, opens next month. Unlike her other spots, this eatery will not serve Asian-inspired fare. Rather, Olive & Finch will offer healthy food on the go—salads, fresh-pressed juices, and hand-crafted sandwiches. And—no stranger to dietary restrictions herself—Nguyen will offer plenty of gluten-free and allergy-friendly options. In honor of the upcoming opening, Nguyen took us back to her early cooking days.
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5280: What is the first dish you learned how to cook?
Mary Nguyen: When I was growing up, my parents worked a lot, so I was one of those kids who made TV dinners and ramen and Totino’s frozen pizzas—those dollar pizzas that I still really like but don’t eat anymore. But I suppose that’s not cooking, right? That’s reheating.
The first dish I ever learned how to really cook was pho. My mother taught me. It was her style— she’s from Hue, the central part of Vietnam, so it’s a little different from the southern or northern types. It’s a family recipe, so that was the recipe I learned. Every family has a different recipe for pho. Your family might have its own recipe for meatloaf or pot roast. It’s the same for Asian cuisine. It’s been passed down for generations—maybe changed and tweaked, but the base is always the same.
[My mother] uses more spices—a lot of different kinds of spices—whether it’s licorice bark or a lot of black pepper and cloves. And she also uses different kinds of vegetables to sweeten or steep in the broth. It’s something I make at home, for sure, and whenever I’m at her house, but at P17 we do northern style and at Street Kitchen we do southern style. I do use her onion chile marmalade recipe at both of the restaurants. It’s a really great condiment that you add to your pho.
I remember just sitting with my mom, and she’s very specific about items and how she cooks it and how you make sure there’s no sediment and it’s not cloudy. And it takes a long time. It takes upwards of six hours to make really good pho. So we were really bonding for six hours while we were cooking. We talked about different stories and experiences. So the memories aren’t necessarily food-related. They’re more about spending quality time with my mother and learning something that’s been passed down in my family.