Duc Nguyen had already broken down the lemongrass and shredded it. Now, it was time to add it and some diced onion to the oil that had been heating in the frying pan.
“The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhists, so vegetarian dishes kind of come natural to a lot of us,” he said.
With the onions and lemongrass sautéing to develop the flavor, Nguyen grabbed a pan of tofu that he had deep-fried earlier.
Nguyen, a former Yale School of Medicine scientist turned Vietnamese restaurateur, has just opened Duc’s Place (“Duc” is pronounced like “Duke”), at 167 Orange St. across from the federal building.
“This is not breaded,” he said of the golden fried tofu. “It’s just regular white tofu that I slice and then blot them dry before I put them into the deep fryer.”
The restaurant specializes in that favorite Vietnamese street food, the Banh mi — essentially a sandwich that mixes a little French culture in the form of the baguette and native Vietnamese ingredients like pickled carrots and daikon. The little restaurant, located in the former home of Madi & Mia’s, serves seven different versions of banh mi, including a vegetarian version that includes the lemongrass tofu mixture Nguyen was cooking up as the main protein.
On this day Nguyen, 50, was cooking up the tofu to serve it with one of the other main dishes available at Duc’s, the bún, or rice noodle bowl. He added the golden tofu to the fragrant lemongrass and onion mixture. But he didn’t reach for the salt to season the dish. He added two types of soy sauce and gently tossed everything together until the ingredients started to meld and coat the tofu.
“And that’s it,” he said. “A very simple, but very tasty dish.”
Nguyen said during his 13 years as a scientist at Yale he used to have to go all the way to New York to get his Vietnamese fix. Though he’d worked in restaurants and cooked big meals for friends, he’s not a trained chef.
He said he’d always wanted to open a restaurant. He’s a bit of a risk taker, much to the chagrin of his parents. He chose New Haven because he liked the city and had put down roots and made friends. When he’s not working at the restaurant he’s taking photos and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.
“I had the idea for a long time and it was just on the back burner,” he said. “It was the right time in my career. As a scientist, I was in a transitional place. I was almost done with my post-doctoral work…and I thought, ‘I’m still young, I have a lot of energy, why not chase another dream?’”
Nguyen said his family was shocked when he decided to give up the lab for the kitchen. He said his willingness to start over, from zero, is part of his personality. He also said it’s part of what he learned from his family, who came to the U.S. as refugees fleeing the Vietnam War when he was just 9.
“I’m always the one in the family doing something different,” he said with a chuckle. “I was the first one to move out and move directly to New York. I just like trying different things. I love to explore. I’m not afraid to start from scratch.
But one thing he was a little nervous about was being the namesake for his restaurant. That’s why though the name on the window looks like his, he said, the name comes from a song called Duke’s Place.
“I’m really not the kind of person to, like, advertise myself,” he said. “But I really like Duke Ellington’s music, so I thought, ‘Hey, Duke’s Place,’ which is one of my favorite songs.”
With just a month in business under his belt, he said the feedback has been good. He’s already looking ahead at how his business can give back to the community. He donates his leftover bread to the soup kitchen and would like to offer Vietnamese cooking classes. And with New Haven’s growing food truck and cart scene, he’s considering taking Vietnamese street food back to the street.
He said starting the business was scary at first, but he used his research skills to figure out the things that he didn’t know about running a restaurant business and treated it as a way to learn something knew.
“I’m learning, just as I did as a scientist, and developing new things,” he said. “Learning comes natural to me.”
Click on or download the above sound file to hear a full episode about Nguyen’s story on WNHH radio’s “Open for Business” program.