Restaurateur inspires cultural connections
When Uyen Nguyen was studying at Haas with a focus on entrepreneurship and venture capital, a career in the restaurant industry never occurred to her. But after she and her husband opened Nue, a Seattle restaurant that aims to expose patrons to culinary experiences from around the world, Nguyen saw her Haas credentials as the insurance policy that gave her the courage to pursue a passion for creating connections through authentic culinary experiences.
When it comes to evaluating new opportunities, Nguyen says, “I’m kind of fearless. At the end of the day, with my Haas degree,
I know I can always go get another job.”
Opening Nue in 2015 was one leap of faith in a series for Nguyen. At age 11, she came as a refugee to California from Vietnam. She earned a degree in pharmacology at UC Santa Barbara and an MS in biomedical sciences from UC San Diego before enrolling at Haas. Her MBA in hand, Nguyen went to work first as an investment officer for CalPERS, then as the director of investment for Mekong Capital, a private equity firm focusing on mid-growth consumer businesses in Vietnam.
After moving to Seattle, Nguyen worked at Amazon and met her husband, Chef Patron Chris Cvetkovich. The idea for Nue arose during their extended honeymoon through Europe. “There’s a Romanian dish called mititei that we loved,” she says. “We knew we couldn’t create a restaurant to just serve mititei, but it gave us the idea to create a restaurant to introduce people to different foods and their stories.”
Nguyen believes food can break down barriers between cultures and create communities of understanding. “There’s a South African dish called bunny chow that is basically chicken masala. Why is there an Indian dish in South Africa? Because Indians went there to work on the railroads.” Those are the kinds of overlooked stories, says Nguyen, that can help people understand other cultures better. She says it’s a common sight at Nue’s communal tables to see strangers sharing their food. “Real conversation and real relationships can happen over a meal.”
The desire to create connections and help achieve larger societal good is something Nguyen credits Haas for reinforcing. In the past year she’s become a founding board member for Emerge Washington, which seeks to increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office. She is also a founding board member of PIVOT, which engages and empowers Vietnamese Americans for a just and diverse America. Nguyen sees her entrepreneurial background as helpful in this regard. “I wouldn’t have the bandwidth to do this if I was working for someone else,” she says.
With her confidence and Students Always attitude, Nguyen is ready for any adventure. “Nue is not going to be my last project,” she says, “Lots of people choose one career and stick with it, but I’m a lifelong learner.” —Nancy Davis Kho
Photo: John Lok/AP Images for Berkeley Haas