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Kitchen: A Non-Profit Restaurant Dishing up No-Nonsense Comfort Food

The kitchen is the heart of a home. This is the philosophy behind Kitchen, a new not-for-profit restaurant in District 2 that aims to nurture a community with delicious, healthy food. 

Nine months ago, Beto Nguyen wasn’t sure she would be in Vietnam at the close of 2020, let alone be opening a restaurant here. At the time, she was living in Paris and traveling around the world acting in the stage show “Saigon.” The COVID-19 pandemic struck while she was in Australia, and a last-minute flight brought the actress back to the city where she was born and raised.

Cooking and acting are more connected for Beto than one would guess. The play “Saigon” was set in a Vietnamese restaurant, and she first took to the kitchen in response to a movie she was watching at age four wherein a starving Charlie Chaplin observed a neighbor making food before being reduced to eating a shoe. Beto grew up watching her mother cook, and when she moved to France, she began paying more attention to the craft because, as she says, “I was looking for the real flavor of my childhood, so I had to cook for myself.” As she traveled to different countries to perform, she always shopped at local markets, and thus developed a keen familiarity with the different spices and ingredients Kitchen relies on for its wide-ranging menu that balances western and Asian dishes.

Upon returning to Vietnam, Beto met Granger Whitelaw, a Saigon-based businessman. He keeps to a strict diet due to a previous heart surgery and she cooked him healthy meals that revealed to him what a talented chef she is. When he was scouting locations for his new business offices, the large ground floor of a building near his Thao Dien home immediately conjured visions of a full kitchen for Beto to work in, alongside friends and family. “I didn’t even have a moment to reflect,” Beto says with a laugh when describing how fast the decision was made. 

The pair didn’t want Kitchen to be a standard dining experience, rather they aim for it to evoke the feeling of gathering at a friend’s home. Thus, an expansive kitchen surrounded by a counter with high chairs greets guests after they pass through a shaded, mist-dappled patio. Every detail, from the generous number of electrical outlets for device charging, to the color of the light fixtures, to the angle of the walk-in fridge’s ceiling was meticulously designed. Small details like the open ingredient pantry one would find in their parents’ kitchen and the refrigerator magnets help establish a homey atmosphere.

Nothing exemplifies the ethos of Kitchen more than the black-and-white photographs of Beto and Granger’s children that hang on the wall, as well as a dedicated space for snapshots of the children of the pair’s friends and regular guests. The line between customer and friend is blurred at Kitchen, as epitomized by their eagerness to take special requests, including an instance involving a friend of Granger’s who had recently returned to Saigon and was staying in quarantine. He craved a specific pork loin dish from home and asked if Kitchen would be able to make it. Despite never having made it before, and admitting that pork is one of the most difficult meats to cook, Beto gave it a go anyway, producing a perfect take on the dish that helped the friend get through isolation. 

Beto applied this intrepid approach to bagels as well. When Granger said no self-respecting breakfast spot can have a menu lacking the popular bread, she responded, “what’s a bagel?” Yet, after a night spent watching YouTube tutorials and a few test runs, she now creates what Saigoneer confirms would pass a native New Yorker’s discerning taste test. The bagels and their many spreads and accompaniments are some of the most popular items on a regular menu that features eggs, pancakes, homemade pastas, salads, and sandwiches. 

More uniquely, in addition to the regular menu, Kitchen features special four-course lunches and dinners that change twice a week. Beto works with her team to concoct each meal, determining what dessert, appetizer and salad will best compliment the main protein and adhere to the Japanese philosophy that a person should eat at least 30 different ingredients every day. But before they create the dishes, they must go on their daily trips to the many markets and grocery stores in the area. Instead of working with a food supplier, they hand-select every single item, ensuring the quality and appearance of every single vegetable, cut of meat, and piece of fruit. They’ve learned which particular venue offers the best produce, protein and fruits and refuse to settle for single-stop shopping for the sake of convenience: shrimp should be jumping in the market, pork should have been butchered that day, while only the best Australian and American beef will do.

Kitchen’s commitment to quality over cost is best exemplified by Beto’s crab cakes. Her staff has experience at some of the top restaurants in the city, but were shocked when they watched her make them for the first time. They explained that most restaurants use only 20% crab meat, and the rest is various fillers to save money. In contrast, her’s are 70% crab, with the extra ingredients needed only for texture, cohesion and spice. 

Despite the extra costs and labor required to select and ensure only the best ingredients are used, Kitchen’s prices are exceedingly reasonable. Beto and Granger have been successful in their other endeavors, which means they don’t view the restaurant as a means to make money for themselves. Once the team is paid and the supply costs are covered, all profits are donated to charitable children’s organizations in Vietnam. In September, they bought books for local children in need, in October they gifted US$2,000 to a Saigon orphanage, and in November they gave funds to another in Central Vietnam that a regular customer supports.

In the way that a family kitchen is more than a place to simply cook food, but a room to talk, laugh, share, and work, Kitchen is more than a place to get a bite to eat. Beto and her team frequently host cooking classes that focus on the wide array of dishes, techniques and ingredients they are passionate about. They also open the space for chefs to collaborate and create special menus using the top-of-the-line imported equipment, as well as host private parties and cater various events around the city. 

A restaurant that serves delicious, innovative and healthy food and satisfies one’s bagel craving would warrant a visit in its own right. But what really makes Kitchen special is the warm-hearted atmosphere and dedication to building and giving back to the community. It more than lives up to the couple’s aim to simply create “a great place for friends and neighbors.”

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Kitchen|NO. 70, 66 Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, HCMC

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