When Vuong Nguyen came to Tulsa to interview for a chef’s position at Gathering Place, he walked away with a job as general manager of culinary services for the expansive urban park. For Nguyen, this new gig meant moving from the back of the house to a position overseeing all culinary operations. The team at Gathering Place is preparing for their September open, at which point Nguyen will manage three brick-and-mortar restaurants, along with food trucks, vendors, and anything else food-related at the Riverside park.
Building community spaces is in Nguyen’s blood. His parents and grandparents were some of the first Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Oklahoma City, after leaving Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. His grandparents helped establish the Asian District and organized a Vietnamese congregation at The Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Nguyen takes seriously the responsibility to honor the traditions and sacrifices of preceding generations, and he has spent most of his professional life with his culinary feet in two worlds: classic, fine dining cuisine he learned from two of Oklahoma City’s best chefs, Alain Buthion and Kurt Fleischfresser, and the Asian cuisine he grew up with.
Nguyen spoke to The Tulsa Voice about his move to Tulsa, his new responsibilities, and the transition from chef to general manager.
Greg Horton: When you got the general manager job instead of the executive chef position, did you have any idea of what your list of duties might be, what the job entailed?
Vuong Nguyen: No. Not at all, but they were great about it. They told me, "We’ll show you all you need to know to do this job, and we’re pretty sure you’ll figure it out." Now, a couple months later, I really am starting to fully understand the position. They had to remind me occasionally that I’m part of operations now, so that required me to stop thinking in terms of a kitchen mindset. The boss actually told me to think of myself as running Bonjour (one of his OKC concepts) without the kitchen, and something clicked; I got it.
Horton: You’ve been in kitchens since 2008. Was it a difficult transition for you to move from back of house to operations?
Nguyen: I still love cooking, and I do as much as I can—at home, a friend’s house, wherever—and not being able to cook for customers everyday has been different. You know, those moments when a regular comes in to your place and you get to say, "Hey, here’s something new I’m working on. What do you think? How does it taste?" I really do miss that part of the job.
Horton: Are you going to be involved at all in menu preparation?
Nguyen: That’s the job of the executive chef. We’ll taste everything and have some input, and he can take that into consideration, but menu planning is the executive chef’s responsibility.
Horton: In terms of the scope of your job, how many food outlets are you overseeing?
Nguyen: Four, really, but three are brick and mortar: Vista, which is kind of fine dining, and then the patio, which has a Shake Shack kind of vibe, and the café. We’ll also have food trucks and carts on site. The park is big, and so is the job. Soccer, basketball courts, a BMX and skate track—which I’m excited about—and activities along the river. We have to be able to feed 20,000 people a day that come through here. That’s our estimate, anyway. I’ve been provided with a great team to help get the job done, though, and I’m excited about working with them.
Horton: You’re excited about the skate track?
Nguyen: Yes! I grew up skateboarding. I can still do a few tricks.
Horton: What was the main challenge for you when you started the new job?
Nguyen: Myself, really. I had to change my mindset of being the chef, the person everyone goes to for an answer. I was starting from scratch, learning a new job. At Bonjour, it was all me; I built it and owned it, so my understanding of the job was pretty seamless. When you come into a project that you didn’t start, it takes time to learn the overall philosophy, where they’re coming from, and how they want to present the park.
Horton: What did Bonjour teach you that you were able to bring to this new position?
Nguyen: How to organize tasks and see things differently, not just from the perspective of a chef, but looking at costs, labor, overhead—not just how a dish is going to look or taste.
Horton: What’s been the best part of this new position so far?
Nguyen: Meeting new people has been phenomenal. The team they brought on has so much skill and knowledge, so I’m working with the best of the best in their areas. Also, the park is beautiful, and it’s going to be an awesome place for kids to play. I’m excited about it opening and being this place where people can eat and play and get together.