Kristin Nguyen has always been passionate about cooking — just ask her family.
“Every family party, I cooked, and I never did the same dishes twice,” Nguyen said. “I’d call people up, say, ‘Come over for dinner,’ and they’d drop everything and come.”
Family members were her first fans, but now Nguyen is cooking for all of Southern California at her popular Garlic and Chives, an Asian fusion restaurant in Garden Grove’s Little Saigon.
“I get the biggest joy out of knowing that people love my food,” she said.
As the oldest of eight children, Nguyen grew up cooking for her family at home.
She spent the first seven years of her life in Vietnam and fled the country with her family just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. They spent several months in Guam and Camp Pendleton, in San Diego County, with other Vietnamese refugees, eventually settling in Garden Grove, now home to one of the biggest Vietnamese American populations in the country.
While food was always her love, she studied finance in college because, as she explained, her culture viewed it as the route to success. But she kept cooking on the side for her family, parties and her children’s school fundraising events.
Eventually people started taking notice and asked her to cook for their events, so she started a small private catering company.
“I just loved cooking and people started ordering stuff from me,” she said.
Nguyen wanted to learn more, so she enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of California. One of the most important things she learned was how to make good sauce.
“That’s why all my sauces take 15, 16 hours,” she said.
In addition to her training in California, Nguyen also studied culinary arts across Asia — in Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam — any time she traveled.
“Wherever I traveled, I took all the professional cooking classes,” she said. “Then I traveled to many places just to eat. Like a foodie! I traveled just to eat.”
The former stay-at-home mom hadn’t planned on opening a restaurant — she didn’t even want to consider it until her daughter went off to college — but her family kept encouraging her.
“My husband is the one who pushed me,” Nguyen said, “He said, ‘You’re so talented. You should open one.’ ”
So when a property on Westminster Avenue in Little Saigon became available, she put in an offer. The location appealed to her, with its ample parking and proximity to the popular 85°C Bakery, but she didn’t think she’d get it.
A month later, the restaurant was hers.
Nguyen spent the next six months developing her menu. She regularly experimented with new dishes and invited her family over to try her creations.
In December 2014, Garlic and Chives opened to immediate success and acclaim, including landing a spot on Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s 101 best restaurants list. Customers — who include all ethnicities but are still mostly Asian — now often wait up to an hour to get a table at dinnertime.
Nguyen said Garlic and Chives is setting a “new trend” for up-scale, tapas-style meals in Little Saigon, an area that has previously been defined by quick-serve pho and noodle shops.
While Nguyen’s culinary style is rooted in her Vietnamese heritage, her cooking draws upon the American and Asian techniques and flavors from her training.
Popular dishes include salmon belly spring rolls, shaking beef, crunchy chicken wings, garlic noodles with grilled tiger prawns, pomelo salad and garlic French fries. Most dishes cost $7 to $12.
One of the benefits of her menu, she explained, is that its appeal spans generations.
“Asians always go out to eat as a family. We always have parties of 20 or 30 people,” Nguyen said. “If we take my parents to the places where my kids want to eat, they don’t like it. But if I take the kids to the places my parents like, then they don’t like it. My food has traditional dishes as well as fusion, so there is something for everybody.”
The Garlic and Chives menu also features an extensive offering of small plates, something Nguyen herself prefers when eating out.
“When I would go out with my friends, I noticed that we always ordered about four or five appetizers and only about two entrees, and then we’d all share,” Nguyen said. “That way we could try a lot of different things.”
For Nguyen, her food is best summed up by her restaurant’s name, Garlic and Chives.
“Every cuisine uses garlic,” she said. “I always said that if I open a restaurant someday, the name has to have garlic in it. Someone recommended garlic and chilies, or garlic and onions, but having two strong ingredients isn’t balanced. So I chose chives because they’re very delicate. I wanted the balance. There’s balance in my food.
“Garlic and Chives is like his and her,” she said. “It’s like the yin and the yang.”
Garlic and Chives is at 9892 Westminster Ave. in Garden Grove. It is open every day until 10 p.m. For more information, call (714) 591-5196.