Chef and Tell with Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17

Mary Nguyen.jpg
Mary Nguyen, executive chef/owner of Parallel 17
"Food is the one thing that I grew up knowing would bring family and friends together, soothe wounds and mend hearts as well as improve any party or celebration," says Mary Nguyen, chef-owner of the Vietnamese-French bistro Parallel 17. "I entered this profession because it's the way I express my creativity and concern for others: I cook to make people happy."

But for Nguyen, making that passion come to fruition hasn't been easy. She was born in Vietnam, and she, her siblings, nieces, nephews and parents escaped during the fall of Saigon with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They made their way to Colorado, where Nguyen went to high school in Denver and college at the University of Colorado at Boulder before being recruited to the lucrative world of finance. "It was hardly the trajectory to becoming a budding chef," jokes Nguyen.

Still, she spent much of her free time hosting dinner parties -- drawing on her heritage and favorite family meals to create Asian-inspired menus for her friends. Those dinners marked a major turning point in her career: "I realized my love for cooking and abandoned life in the financial realm," she admits. She opened Blue Fire, a local catering company, which she followed with time at the Beehive and then an apprenticeship at Hapa in Cherry Creek, a pass-through that turned into a three-year stint, eventually leading to the executive chef position. Inspired by her Vietnamese roots and love of Vietnamese food, Nguyen opened Parallel 17 in 2005.

She talks about her emotional career change from successful financier to struggling cook in the following interview, as well as her controversial stance on butter (it's overrated, she says), her dislike for chicken breast and scrambled eggs, and her incredible respect for Teri Rippeto, chef/owner of Potager -- and a person she has yet to meet.

Six words to describe your food: Balanced, colorful, flavorful, healthy, simple and clean.

Ten (or twelve) words to describe you: Serious, self-critical, opinionated, caring, honest, fair, open-minded, lucky, loyal and generous.

Culinary inspirations: What am I not inspired by? I get my culinary inspirations the same way everyone else gets inspired -- by anything and everything. And different dishes are inspired by different things. I think you can get inspiration from anything if you're open to it and looking for it. I was inspired to open Parallel 17 while I was traveling throughout Vietnam and experiencing all the varying dishes and seeing the extensive French influence in food throughout the country in a landscape that was so tropical, beautiful, raw and surreal. Parallel Seventeen's concept was solidified when I came back to Denver, dined at the many Vietnamese restaurants along Federal and realized that although the food was good, none showcased the French culinary influence in Vietnamese cooking. Most, in fact, focused more on the Chinese influence, and none did it in an atmosphere that represented the beauty of Vietnam.

Proudest moment as a chef: What makes me proudest as a chef is hearing from guests that they've had a great dining experience. It's not about any awards or who's the best of this or the best at that. It's about feeding people's souls and making people a little happier than when they first walked through the door. That makes me feel like I've accomplished my goals, and I strive for that every night.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more restaurants -- independent restaurants, ethnic restaurants, holes-in-the-wall -- just more restaurants in general. But I think that before that can happen, Denver needs to grow in population by another couple of million. We're a young city, but it'll happen.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer new culinary student graduates with the ego and mentality that they're going to win Top Chef and that celebrity status is all you should be aiming for.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Community of talented chefs who support and encourage each other. Denver is a great dining city, and once we grow in critical mass, all of the talented chefs that we currently have are going to be able to open more restaurants, which means that we'll be able to compete with cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Ratio of corporate chain restaurants to independently owned restaurants.

Favorite cookbooks: I think that changes as you evolve. I prefer cookbooks that go through every ingredient and tool used and that have pictures and step-by-step guides -- books that really go into the history and the culture of the food. Right now I'm reading (and love) Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Send me to homes around the world so I can learn real authentic home cooking from every country and culture imaginable.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Tiet canh. It's a traditional Vietnamese dish that's served only during special occasions and normally only prepared by men, although my dad secretly taught me how to make the dish a couple of years ago. It's made from raw duck blood, cooked with duck gizzards and sprinkled with crushed peanuts and chopped herbs. When you actually eat it, it's kind of like a Vietnamese pizza, because the blood is chilled (so it can coagulate), so it resembles tomato sauce -- and you eat it on top of popped rice paper.

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