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Even if you don’t know Thach (pronounced Tah) Tran’s name, you likely already know his cooking. After a year at Sushi Den, five years at ChoLon, and a brief stint at Stella’s on 16th, the Johnson & Wales graduate took on the executive chef role at Ace Eat Serve this past summer.
Tran is a perfect fit for the Uptown restaurant: He grew up in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, near the famous open-aired Chợ Lớn market. Until immigrating to the United States at age nine, he spent afternoons after school with his grandmother, whom he calls “his first chef,” at her noodle restaurant in the market. Even at a young age, the overflowing displays of ingredients and open-aired cooking was riveting. “My favorite thing to do after school was walking into the market, looking at ingredients, discovering new things, and, with whatever money I had, I would buy a noodle bowl,” he says. Over the years, he established relationships with the vendors and they taught him about unfamiliar ingredients.
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Even after the family moved to Denver, Tran’s grandmother cobbled together what Asian ingredients she could find and cooked meals each night. Years later, while working at ChoLon, Tran and chef-owner Lon Symensma would mine his past for the flavors and dishes of his childhood. That taste of home still shapes his cooking.
You might spot Tran cruising the aisles of Pacific Mercantile on Wednesdays when the fresh fish arrives or at Pacific Ocean with two baskets in hand: one for Ace and one for himself. This is a chef with an intense curiosity about Asian cuisines who moves fluidly between Chinese and Southeast Asian ingredients and techniques. And at home, where Tran often makes sushi for dinner, he’s been exploring Japanese food in depth. For someone so focused, it might come as a surprise that he likes to cook to the bubbly-gummy sounds of Ace of Base and ‘90s pop. “Until Chasing Waterfalls comes on,” he says, “and then we change the station.”
Six months into his position at Ace, Tran’s influence is beginning to show. The Spice Market beef ramen bowl, a mash-up between pho and a Taiwanese noodle bowl (and Tran’s winning dish from the 2016 Denver Ramen Challenge), hit Ace’s tables a couple of weeks ago. Tran’s first full menu overhaul will roll out in early February. Just don’t expect to find the green curry bowl with yakisoba, seared tilefish, and roasted grapes—a dish that earned him a “chopstick drop” from the judges on a 2017 episode of Chopped—to land on that menu.
Read on for three more things you likely don’t know about Tran.
On the lure of hand-pulled noodles… I was watching an old Kung Fu movie and there was a guy making noodles in the moonlight. It was all technique, stretching and pulling. And I thought there’s no way that’s a real thing. When I was 16, I started watching videos and testing (and failing) at home. When I was 19, I started working for Jet Entertainment Group and chef Jose Guerrero. He happened to come back from Hong Kong with a recipe; he gave it to me and said ‘See what you can do.’ That led to hours of YouTube videos and playing around. When I finally got it, I think it was 2009, I was in my dorm room at Johnson & Wales and my friend recorded a video of me. It was terrible and the technique was bad but it worked. I keep practicing but it’s hard when you don’t do it everyday. My ultimate dream is to hang out in one of the noodle restaurants and have one of the guys show me.
On nicknames… In fourth grade, everyone had a hard saying my name. I didn’t speak English and people made fun of me. My friend, Elliot, who was helping me through classes and serving as a guide, said ‘I’m going to call you Danny.’ I went with Danny for a long time. When I started working for chef Jose Guerrero, he said I’m going to call you by your real name and it’s been Thach every since. It’s also quicker in the kitchen than Danny.
On guilty-pleasure snacks… I would have to say seafood dynamite—it’s basically hot mayonnaise and random seafood and I don’t know why I like it but it’s so good.