By Cheryl Ross
Two years ago, on the opening day of Taste of Chicago, Kim Nguyen and her family arrived at their Uptown restaurant to discover a fire had destroyed the apartments above it, bringing floors, furniture, and fixtures crashing down into the kitchen and dining room. The calamity ruined the restaurant and $20,000 worth of food they had stayed up until 1:30 AM preparing for the Taste. The family quickly boarded up the windows and drove to their second, smaller cafe, where they cooked up more food for the festival. When it was over, the Nguyens wondered what they should do with Pasteur, their flagship restaurant, which they named after a Saigon street where merchants once hawked pho (beef noodle soup) on almost every corner. In ten years, they had transformed the eatery from a soup shop into a popular southern Vietnamese restaurant.
Kim says Tuan and Dan Nguyen, brothers and co-owners of Pasteur, had no interest in reopening the cute establishment with the "Time to Eat" sign perched atop the storefront. They were sick of the 18-hour workdays and had begun concentrating on separate business ventures in Vietnam. Tuan was often overseas promoting John Denver concerts and marketing Mobil Oil. Dan, Kim's husband, was selling water-purification systems. Kim was also a partner in the family's restaurants, but without the brothers' interest she began to doubt whether she could keep it going by herself.
In 1985, 18-year-old Kim was traveling through Chicago with Tuan, who was working as a concert promoter, and Khanh Ha, a rock singer. Tuan was burned out on touring and had been talking about settling down. Two days after he and Khanh Ha spotted a restaurant at Sheridan and Lawrence they bought the joint and renamed it. Kim, who had lived with Tuan's family as a child and was practically his sister, thought he was crazy to buy the place, even though he came from money and had attended restaurant management school. "It's like putting on a show," Tuan reassured her, and asked her to waitress for him. Kim obliged, even though she planned to attend college soon in Minnesota.
About six months later, Khanh Ha decided to leave the business--it was interfering with her singing career. Would Kim, who was still waitressing, like to buy her out? No, Kim still wanted to go to college. But that never came to be. Instead, Kim and Tuan's families told her they thought it best that she marry Dan, who by now had become a partner in Pasteur after handing over his successful Houston hair salon to a sister-in-law. Kim and Dan had been good friends all their lives. Their mothers felt that the marriage would cement the two families' age-old friendship, and it would keep Pasteur in the family. Finding it hard to say no, Kim and Dan soon walked down the aisle. As a gift to the newlyweds, Dan's mother bought them the other half of the restaurant.
Over the years, Kim helped manage Pasteur and had two children, but she still felt like a child herself. She had known independence--as a teenager she had lived with a sister in Santa Clara, California, where she graduated from high school and did some hand modeling. But as a wife and mother many of her own desires had been replaced by those of her family.
Nevertheless, Kim had come to love Pasteur and its regular customers. She wanted something to give to her children later in life, if they chose to accept it. She had made her decision. "The restaurant was going to be the business for me."
Kim's close association with the Nguyens began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Kim's parents sent her and a younger sister to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they met up with their old family friends. They traveled together to America where they first lived in Michigan, then Virginia (Kim's parents remained in Laos for several years before finally moving to Minnesota). Eight-year-old Kim was mesmerized by her new "mother" Dinh Le, the matriarch of the Nguyen family, who was a shrewd businesswoman as well as a devoted wife and mother. Dinh Le's parents owned a timber company and jewelry store in Vietnam, and she had sold jade and diamonds and run timber up and down a river as a teenager. She became Kim's hero and role model.
After the fire, Kim confided to Dinh Le her plans to open a restaurant bigger and grander than the old 1,500-square-foot Pasteur. Kim expected support from the old risk taker. Instead, Dinh Le asked Kim why she didn't consider buying a restaurant or a small building. The old place had a certain charm--baby orange trees in the windowsills, huge windows, a mock traffic light in the dining room--but it wasn't elegant by any means. Kim felt she, Tuan, and Dan hadn't kept Pasteur up-to-date with current restaurant trends, assuming it would always be successful. The fire showed Kim that nothing is guaranteed to last forever, and she had started to study the restaurant market. Ambience is key, Kim told Dinh Le. Dinh Le was not convinced.
But Kim was. One day, after having looked at five properties, she stumbled upon an empty 10,000-square-foot building at 5525 N. Broadway in Edgewater, on a strip with auto-body shops, beauty salons, and a martial-arts studio. "It was pale, faded, almost like an ivory yellow, stucco building. It had little cubbyhole windows. That was it; the rest was all stucco right down to the ground. And it had one little door, and I thought, 'What an interesting building,"' she says. "I called up the realtor and told him I'd take it. He said, 'But you haven't seen the whole place!' The thing was, I knew it was for me. I brought in my mother [Dinh Le], she looked at it, and she said, 'Kim, this looks like a maze!"'
The building was actually a combination of two two-flats, Kim says, with an exterior that made it look like a single unit. She took a total of $30,000 from her son's and her own savings account and made a deposit on it. Then she set about getting a loan.
All the banks she called knew of Pasteur and its good reputation, but told her they didn't provide loans to restaurants. Kim's family warned her to get her deposit back or she would lose it, but she was determined to buy the building.
"I was desperate," Kim says. "I was looking for investors. I approached numerous people. Then the family found out that I did not take the money out and they were really, really, really upset. But I knew what I had, I knew I wanted this."
Kim had planned to put a 3,700-square-foot banquet room in the back of the building, but crossed it off of the blueprints because of the loan rejections. Finally, a year after she had put down the deposit, New Asia Bank approved her for a $350,000 loan, though even they were skeptical. "I was the only one who saw this space finished," she says. By now, Dinh Le could see how serious Kim was about the restaurant. She was also concerned her two grandchildren would suffer if Kim's dream failed. In a show of support, she gave her daughter-in-law more money.
The new restaurant had been under renovation for four months when Kim closed the family's small cafe in January of this year. Dan had returned from Vietnam in the latter part of 1995 to help run the cafe and was now free to lend a hand to the new project. But much of the work would fall on Kim. At the time she had no idea how much that would be.
It started with her architect, Kim says. "He just drew a bunch of square boxes for me." So Kim and her contractor threw out his plans and came up with their own designs. Then the contractor told her they were only putting up drywall, no paint. "They said, 'Your architect never said anything about paint.' So I came in here and I was almost crying, because I did not have the funds. I did not have anything left."
Faced with this, Kim sold a lot of her jewelry. She put on gloves and overalls and picked up the paintbrushes herself. She painted for three months until she covered the entire interior. "I chose colors that make you hungry. In my eyes, the yellow on the far back wall, it reminds me of a ripe mango. . . . The green is avocado," she says. "I didn't have the money to make a beautiful bar, so I painted it gold. This is like the color of the emperor's gown in Vietnam."
Kim wanted the main dining room to remind people of a courtyard, so to cover the floor she bought orange clay tiles, similar to those in the courtyard of her childhood home in Laos. "I built it with the thought that you would leave one home and enter another," she says. She bought ceiling fans, discount lanterns, and large palm plants. She picked out slender French windows for the dining room and lounge. She hung four four-by-eight-foot impressionistic paintings of Vietnam, painted by a friend for a relatively inexpensive price, on a dining room wall. Kim bought much of the furniture at auctions, resale shops, and the Park Hyatt demolition sale. Dan bought restaurant equipment, which he refurbished himself, at auctions. Tuan, who had returned in December to take care of Kim's house while she and her husband got the restaurant up and running, helped Dan and a student from Vietnam move the equipment into the restaurant. But Kim spared no expense when it came to buying 150 rattan chairs: they cost $200 apiece. "I wanted comfort, style," she says. "I didn't want people tossing and turning."
She created the entire menu, an offering of southern, northern, and central Vietnamese cuisine. Nothing is more than $13.50, except for the red snapper and Dungeness crab, which range from $19 to $25 depending on market price.
Over the course of the project, five-foot-five Kim had dropped from 110 to 95 pounds. But all the stress and hard work paid off. In May, she opened the new Pasteur. When I first saw it I couldn't believe that such a dazzling place was in my neighborhood--it looks like it could be on Rush Street. Kim says people told her she was crazy to locate the business here. "They said, 'That area is so dark. How will you attract people?"' she recalls. Kim countered that people would come because of the plentiful free parking. She seems to be right. On a recent Saturday, a friend and I checked out the place and it was packed. We waited 20 minutes in the lounge. It's been so successful that she plans to build her banquet hall sometime this fall.
Kim runs the front of the house--restaurant lingo for the dining room and lounge--and occasionally runs into the back to cook. "When my food is beginning to back up, then I run through this," she says, pointing to a large coatroom in the hallway. "I come out in jeans and a T-shirt and I'm in the back of the house. And I come through the closet here one more time and my dress [the ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress worn by all the restaurant's female employees] is put on again."
Tuan, who is living with Kim, Dan, and their children in Uptown, is Pasteur's host. Dan manages the kitchen. And 70-year-old Dinh Le, visiting from her home in Virginia, has cooked up egg rolls as well as some business deals of her own, occasionally selling diamonds to diners. Speaking of customers, the old ones are coming back. Many say they've noted a change in Kim.
Says the serious businesswoman with a smile, "They have told me that I have grown." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kim Nguyen photo by Robert Drea.