by Cheryl Baehr
Tree House (3177 South Grand Boulevard; 314-696-2100) owner and executive chef Bay Tran grew up with the feeling that she had food in her blood. Granted, her mom and dad were restaurateurs (they own the Mekong restaurant and the Upstairs Lounge), but she felt it went deeper than that. It wasn't until adulthood that her parents revealed the family's impressive culinary heritage that dates back two generations to colonial Vietnam.
"I left Vietnam with my family when I was eighteen months old," Tran says. "I didn't know anything about my family's food background. I don't know if that is a cultural thing, or if it's too painful for people to talk about. It was only a few years ago that I found out my grandfather was the chef at the French Embassy in Vietnam." Tran's inquiries into her heritage revealed a rich culinary history. In addition to the embassy job, her grandfather's family operated a successful restaurant in Vietnam. Perhaps her biggest surprise was finding out that her maternal grandmother was vegetarian.
Tran, however, always knew she wanted to work in restaurants. Growing up around her parents' businesses, she loved the dynamic feel of the industry. She decided to hone her skills on the operations side of things first, going to business school while teaching herself culinary skills. She got out of the industry for several years, working in real estate up until she purchased the building in which Tree House is now located. "I bought it knowing I wanted to open a restaurant," Tran explains. "So I went to culinary school."
Now, Tran is honoring her family's heritage with her self-described "global comfort food" from Tree House's storefront on South Grand -- planting her restaurant roots just a few doors down from where she found out about her culinary ones.
Tran took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant scene, her love of fermented foods and her dream meal.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? That I am indebted to two people whom I've never had the pleasure of knowing: my paternal grandfather, a classical French chef; and my maternal grandmother, a lifelong vegetarian.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Time to myself with Goshen Coffee -- I'm currently drinking their Bonafide -- to get organized and brainstorm ideas. This is when I am the most creative/productive.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? To be able to work all day and all night, without rest.
What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? Obviously, I love that vegetables have moved to the center of the plate, and fine establishments across St. Louis are offering sophisticated vegetarian and vegan dishes. I'm also enjoying the rise in popularity of fermented foods and drinks. We are working with plenty of fermented foods at Tree House: kim chi, tempeh, miso, yogurt, gochujang and kombucha, for example.
Who is your St. Louis food crush? I've known Sam Hilmer and Joanna Duley at Claverach Farm for a while. They are making some beautiful food over there. Also Noboru Kidera [Nobu's]. For our most recent, sold-out New Year's Eve dinner, we created a Japanese-inspired, four-course vegan menu with the help of Aaron DeMent, Nobu's apprentice.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? I'm biased, but our new chef de cuisine, Tudor Alex Seserman. He's worked closely with two local James Beard-nominated chefs and will help take Tree House to another level.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Nutritional yeast: unexpectedly nutty and cheesy. Uniquely complex.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Blooming.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Iceberg lettuce. There are so many better options.
What is your after-work hangout? The Night Owl, our new bar/special event/private event space on the second floor above Tree House. It's intimate, but very comfortable and on a corner which offers great window views of the South Grand streetscape. I also play records there on Sunday evenings with other members of our staff. It's a great way to socialize, unwind and recharge after a busy week!
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? I love a good cheese board and red wine -- fresh-baked bread with lots of peppery, fruity extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, artisanal cheeses, olives, nuts, pickles and homemade fruit compote. I'm currently sipping 3 Degrees Pinot Noir, which is produced by Oregon's largest biodynamic winery, Maysara. The winemakers are three sisters who are the youngest female winemaking team in the country.
What would be your last meal on earth? A chilled bottle of crisp, dry Champagne, a bowl of my Aunt Co's pho dac biet and banh xeo with extra greens and fresh herbs. For dessert, perfectly ripe fresh mango and mandarin orange to cleanse the palate. Vietnamese food will always be my first love.