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July 16, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 16, 2004

All in the family All in the family (July 16, 2004)

Tamarine's Tammy Huynh and Anne Le serve up contemporary Vietnamese cuisine

by Cross Missakian

Much about Tamarine restaurant -- from its cozy booths to the small plates meant to be shared -- suggests closeness and family. This is appropriate. For co-proprietor and executive chef Tammy Huynh, food and family go hand in hand.

Huynh learned to cook while helping her mother run the family's first Vietnamese restaurant, Vung Tau, in San Jose. Huynh opened a second Vung Tau in Milpitas in 1996; her sister opened a third a few years later, and in 2002, Huynh opened Tamarine in Palo Alto with her niece, Anne Le.

Now, in between running two restaurants, Huynh finds time to impart her love of food and cooking to her three sons.

But working so closely with family isn't always easy.

"There were some rough times in the beginning, figuring out what roles each would play," Huynh said of working with her niece. "Working with family is tough, because expressing problems with the business can hurt the personal relationship."

"Everything we touched was broken," said Le, who like Huynh was born in Vietnam. "The question was, who should take on each unexpected thing that came up? We were sort of overwhelmed."

Huynh and Le have worked things out pretty well, it seems. Tamarine's contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, its elegant design and the eagerness with which the women share their restaurant and the culture that inspired it have earned rave reviews.

On Sunday, Huynh and Le will continue another tradition that has brought them kudos. Twice a year, Tamarine hosts a silent auction featuring Vietnamese art that has been on display at the restaurant during the preceding six months. The proceeds, estimated by Le to range from $5,000 to $12,000, will benefit VN Help, an organization dedicated to assisting children and promoting cultural exchanges between Vietnam and the United States.

Cooking wasn't always the family business. Huynh's mother, who ran a seafood export business in Vietnam, didn't even know how to cook before coming to the United States in 1976 and finding work in a Vietnamese restaurant.

Huynh also became a chef later in life. She studied biochemistry at UC Davis, then earned a doctorate in pharmacy from the University of the Pacific. In 1996, Huynh scaled back an eight-year career as a pharmacist, and ultimately gave up that job to become a chef and restaurateur.

The transition was not easy.

"I was constantly on the go. I was running on adrenaline for a year." Huynh said. She quickly realized that running a restaurant required more than good cooking.

"I had to learn business, personnel management, quality control."

But Huynh met the challenge, and enjoyed it enough to open a second Vietnamese restaurant, Tam, in Milpitas which she just sold last year.

The restaurant business is also a second career for Le. After graduating from Santa Clara University, she worked in high-tech marketing for a few years before approaching her aunt about opening a new restaurant. Her marketing background has been integral to Tamarine's success.

"You've got to have a great product, and make people aware of your great product," Le said.

Their openness to new challenges can be seen in Tamarine's menu, which is developed by both Huynh and Le and takes a more contemporary and experimental slant than the traditional Vietnamese cuisine served at Vung Tau.

Huynh has created such unique signature dishes as a coconut and lemongrass soup served with crab wontons, and a chili and lime aubergine. The bar, too, shows an experimental flair -- patrons can try specialty cocktails featuring Asian fruit and exotic tropical flavors.

Before she finished college and began helping her mother in the restaurant, Huynh ate mostly "junk food." But the process of becoming a chef has also made her more conscious of a healthy lifestyle.

"Now, I exercise every day, and I encourage my sons to eat healthy," she said, adding there are no soft drinks or processed foods in their Barron Park home.

Huynh said that being a chef is more work than being a pharmacist, but also more rewarding.

"There is more pressure in a restaurant, but the pharmacy doesn't give you as much joy -- it's full of people who have just received bad news or are expecting it. When things go well and you get a thumbs-up in the kitchen, that makes you happy." Despite the joy she derives from cooking, Huynh doesn't think she'll do it professionally for the rest of her life.

In college, Huynh wanted to be a teacher, but feared that might not be lucrative enough to help her mother and her family. She would like to someday go back to school for a credential and then teach math or science.

The interest that her sons, who are 15, 13 and 11 years old, have shown in cooking has led Huynh, a single mother, to contemplate a mother-son cooking television show. She would also like to follow the example of her mother, who worked tirelessly to raise money for orphanages and churches and bring foods and other goods to the needy in Vietnam.

In the immediate future, though, Huynh is content to spread goodwill through cooking.

"Food is a way to get people together. Food can make people happy," she said.

What: Tamarine's semi-annual silent-art auction. The auction will showcase works by contemporary Vietnamese artists. The benefit will include live jazz, wine, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Reservations are required. Proceeds will benefit VN Help.

Featured artists include Le Doc, an impressionist known for his use of contrasting colors; Do Xuan Doan, who specializes in impressionist landscape art; and Truong Dinh Hao, whose strong abstract style tells the story of life through the image of a buffalo.

Where: Tamarine, 546 University Ave. in Palo Alto

When: Sunday at 2 p.m.
Info: For information or reservations, please call (650) 325-8500 or visit www.tamarinerestaurant.com


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