Marie-Anne Velasco is Nudo House's resident linguist.
These days, Marie-Anne Velasco is busy with Nudo House (11423 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-274-8046), the much buzzed-about ramen restaurant she just opened with business partner Qui Tran. However, to the acclaimed chef it seems like just yesterday she was climbing the corporate ladder in the world of international finance.
"I was working at a bank after graduating from school with degrees in linguistics and international finance, but I decided one day that I was going to take some time off and travel through Asia," Velasco recalls. "Then I realized, 'You know what? I don't think I'm going to come back.'"
For Velasco, the switch from finance to culinary school wasn't as big of a departure as it might seem. The Montreal native describes the house she grew up in as the gathering spot for her family. It was rare that someone wasn't over at her house cooking, and large parties with food laid out on tables were regular occurrences. "I don't know of any other way to grow up," Velasco says. "There was always an aunt or a grandma coming over saying, 'Eat this' or 'Can you make that one thing again?' It's just how it always was."
While Velasco worked in restaurants throughout school, she never considered the industry as a career. Instead, she devoted her studies to linguistics and international finance. However, cooking was never far from her mind, her go-to when she needed to decompress. "The whole time I was in school I would have friends over during finals so I could cook for them while we studied," Velasco recalls. "It's always been my way to relax."
After getting her high-profile banking job, Velasco found herself unfulfilled. She gravitated to the kitchen as a way to express herself creatively. Eventually, she recognized it was more than just a hobby; it was her calling.
Upon returning to Montreal, Velasco enrolled in culinary school and, after completing the program, worked at top restaurants everywhere from London to San Francisco to New York to the Dominican Republic. She made a name for herself in the culinary competition circuit and returned to Montreal where she trained as a sushi chef.
Her sushi skills brought her to St. Louis, where she worked for the Ritz-Carlton before leaving for a chef de cuisine position at the Chase Park Plaza. From there, Velasco was recruited to teach at a local culinary school, where she relished the opportunity to share her knowledge with aspiring students.
Around the time she started teaching, Velasco began frequenting Mai Lee, deeming its pho the best she'd had outside of Montreal. As she became a regular, she got to know Qui Tran, son of its founders. The two became friends, often talking about ideas for restaurants.
Velasco and Tran kept in touch even after she moved to Chicago, though Tran had a plan for reeling her back to town. "He called me about six months after I was all moved in and said, 'Hey, do you still want to open a shop?'" Velasco recalls. "I rolled my eyes and told him I'd just moved, but Qui has a way of making you want do things like uproot your whole family and jump into this sort of thing."
After agreeing to partner with Tran on a ramen restaurant, the pair spent five years developing the concept, traveling from New York to Los Angeles researching different techniques and noodles. In L.A., they were connected with esteemed ramen master Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura, who agreed to come to St. Louis and serve as their mentor. "We couldn't believe we got to spend time with him," Velasco says. "He gave us all his secrets."
Nakamura also made an observation that proves prescient when considering how popular Nudo House already is. "He told us that he had no doubt we were going to make it," Velasco says. If the throngs of satisfied patrons are any indication, his prediction is coming true.
Velasco took a break from Nudo House to share her thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, where you'll find her after a long day at work, and why she's proof that not all Canadians like the cold.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I'm a Canadian who is allergic to the cold.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Kisses and cuddles from my two little boys.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Reading minds. Maniacal laugh.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Easy to get to, higher-end drive-thru food.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box. She's so cool.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Hana Chung of Byrd & Barrel. I wish her much success. She's a cook's cook.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Living on a farm, growing my own food and having lots more babies.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
What is your after-work hangout?
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Champagne and pizza.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Montreal late-night Chinese food and poutine.
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