For executive chef Tracy Nguyen, it’s not just about making killer sushi. It’s about living true to her roots and holding her own in the kitchen.
Nguyen is a first generation American, and her parents came to the United States from Vietnam. They immigrated right before the country became communist and were sponsored by a family in Kentucky to make the move. Because her parents went through particular hardships, Nguyen strives to work even harder.
“I feel like in the Asian culture you really do feel this way, [you] know that they made the risk to come over here so that you can have a different kind of future,” Nguyen said. “I do think about that a lot, and I do appreciate being here.”
Every day, she keeps that thankfulness in mind and brings her go-getting attitude to work at Tsunami Sushi in downtown Baton Rouge.
A Thibodeaux native, Nguyen enjoys mixing the culture of her parents and elements of Cajun culture when she creates rolls for Tsunami, where she’s worked for about nine years. She said at Tsunami she has plenty of creative freedom because Asian-Cajun fusion is so hot right now.
Nguyen didn’t set out to become executive chef at Tsunami, and she doesn’t plan to always work in the culinary world. Instead, she studied biological sciences and got her certification for dental assistantship. She eventually plans to get back into the dental world because, as she said, she wants to follow through on her goals.
But for right now, it’s all about sushi.
“Originally, I wasn’t supposed to be in the kitchen,” Nguyen said. She came to Tsunami with the goal of becoming a waitress, but because she had a couple of years of experience at another seafood restaurant, owners wanted her to work behind the scenes. Though she faced some adversity, she persisted.
“I was the only girl in the kitchen, I was probably 19 years old, I felt like I wasn’t very much capable. But I think that’s what [drove] me more, that they gave me such a hard time. Normally in the sushi world, that’s how it kind of is. When you’re training and stuff, like, you’re the runt, so they’re going to be a lot harder on you.”
Nguyen said she’d get comments like, “If you were in Asia, you wouldn’t be able to do this. They don’t let women do this.” They’d even go as far as to smash her sushi rolls and throw them on the floor because she was new.
“I know they were poking fun at me, but at the same time it was like , it’s really difficult when you’re the new kid, and then on top of it having to try to keep up with all these guys giving you a hard time.”
But this experience also toughened Nguyen, and she knew that most new chefs were treated with this sort of disrespect.
“At first I felt like I wanted to always say something…but after a while it was just kind of like, let it roll off. Get better. Show them.”
In 2010, Nguyen took herself even further outside of her comfort zone. A friend she met while working at Tsunami had just opened a restaurant on Block Island and invited her to bring a taste of the sushi she’d been making to tourists off the coast of Rhode Island. She took on the challenge.
“It’s a tourist attraction, a very summery place, you’re surrounded by water, six by seven miles. I don’t think a lot of people know that island exists,” Nguyen said.
In other words, it wasn’t like the Louisiana atmosphere she was used to. But she took on the challenge, and it ended up being a great experience that catapulted her into a high level position at Tsunami.
“I always tell people about how you expect to do one thing, and then it just happens, and you kind of go with it. You never know where you’re gonna go. You never know how it’s going to turn out for you.”
It’s safe to say that, for Tracy Nguyen, it’s turned out pretty well.
“I’ve been blessed here.”