By Jan Mercker
For Vi Nguyen, chef and co-owner of Kovi Kitchen, opening a second location in Leesburg is a dream come true—and a homecoming.
Nguyen was a baby when his family fled Vietnam in the 1970s. The Nguyens settled in Leesburg, and his mother Xuan Nguyen opened a series of restaurants in Northern Virginia, including Leesburg’s beloved Xuan Saigon. Xuan has since sold her restaurant and retired but can still be found in the kitchen at Kovi, helping the fourth of her five children in his new venture.
Fifteen years ago, Vi Nguyen left a successful career in finance to attend culinary school at l’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD, getting his feet wet in the DMV’s fine dining scene under noted chef Fabio Trabocchi before entering the exploding fast casual sector. Nguyen helped get the regional TaKorean chain off the ground before combining his Vietnamese roots with his love of other Asian cuisines to create the Kovi concept with business partner Dean Boeving.
Nguyen sat down withLoudoun Nowto talk about his family, his love of food and why fast casual is the wave of the future.
Loudoun Now: You grew up in Leesburg, and you’ve done a lot between then and now. How does it feel to be coming back to your hometown and opening a restaurant?
Vi Nguyen:It’s amazing. The love that we’re receiving from people that I haven’t seen in 20 years, five years, three years, high school friends—they’re flabbergasted that I’m coming back but also that we’re offering something so new and different to Leesburg. That’s the feedback that we’re taking and running with. We want to serve masses. … My passion is people. What we want to do is bring people together, but also it’s about the food: How can we create something that’s sustainable and good and serve it with a smile that makes people want to come back?
LN: Tell me more about the concept and the evolution.
VN:I started this game plan about six years ago when I was with another outfit. I helped TaKorean go from food truck to brick and mortar, and I realized that was my calling. … I was opening restaurants for other people, and I said “why don’t I take a dive and do it myself?” … I met my business partner Dean a long time ago. I told him about my concept and he was like, “Let’s do it together.” … We bought a food truck and three months later signed a lease for a restaurant [in Arlington] because the food truck was so successful. Six months later, we signed a [letter of intent] and started build-out here [in Leesburg]. We’ve only been operational a year. June 30 was our anniversary for our [first] restaurant.
LN: Where did the Asian street food concept come from? Where do you get your inspiration?
VN:I’m a huge taco fan. I’ve always been a taco fan. I started following some other chefs who were going from fine dining to mobile units and fast casual, and I knew that it was the time now. After working with TaKorean and learning more about Korean style food, I was like “how can I feed the masses in a fast-casual restaurant?” … That’s my box and that’s where I think my growth potential is. … My passion is to be able to hire a team, train them and have them be able to execute a product that we can serve at a high level. … With our family being Vietnamese, my mom owning multiple restaurants and being in that box, I wanted to create something different. Why does it have to be Vietnamese fast casual or Korean fast casual or Hawaiian fast casual? Why can’t I just say Kovi Asian Street Food Kitchen where I can serve Filipino chicken satay or octopus tacos? Street food is street food wherever you go, and that’s where my passion is.
LN: You grew up in a restaurant family. Tell me about that.
VN:When my family came here—we fled from Vietnam and came to Leesburg, Virginia—my mom’s dream was to open a restaurant in Leesburg. At 7 and 8 years old when school was out, myself and my younger brother would leave Leesburg at 4:30 in the morning to go to Arlington to serve breakfast by 6. I was making coffee and eggs when I was 7 years old at a little cafe in Roslyn underneath an office building. … When she opened Xuan Saigon, she needed my help. I actually enrolled in culinary school at the age of 30 and left a successful career [in the mortgage industry] and dove into that…
I wanted to do something different, so we created the Kovi concept. My entire family has had their hands in it doing something. And I think that’s why we want to keep a family feel so kids can come with their parents. l love it when parents come in and say, “My kids are so picky, but they love your tacos, they love your kimchi fries, they love your quesadillas.” It’s all the little things that make it so rewarding for us.
LN: Do you feel like you owe a lot to your mom?
VN:She’s my hero. I owe everything to her. She’s changed my life in so many different ways. Our relationship is the best it’s ever been. She came in and did dishes for eight hours for me the other day—at 70 years old. We call our kimchi Mama’s Kimchi. She’s helping us out at the restaurant because she misses it.
I always appreciated what she was doing to get us ahead—her working three jobs, 18 hours a day for 20 years. I also saw how difficult it is to maintain a restaurant without having a high school degree or college degree. I saw the effort that she was putting in. That’s why I wanted to go to culinary school. Working hard is great but working smart is a lot better. That’s why the credentials for me were very important to learn everything I could.
LN: What did you get out of your time in fine dining?
VN:I got out of fine dining how to run a successful kitchen with a team that you build. I got the evolution of understanding really, truly from opening to closing a restaurant, building it out and working with investors and different personalities. The best thing that I got out of fine dining was the fact that you’re cooking at such a high level and the pressure is so intense, but I also know that I didn’t want to be limited to that to the point where I was just another chef trying to make a name for himself. It’s never been about that. It’s always been about the growth of Kovi.
LN: It seems like [Kovi] is being well received. What are the hits so far?
VN:Our wings, our poke bowls, the kimchi fries … Our tacos are our best seller—it’s a staple. But people come and try our tacos and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I could eat here every day.” There’s a guy who’s been here every day since we’ve opened. We’ve gotten some really positive feedback.
Kovi Kitchen is located at 1015 Edwards Ferry Road NE in Leesburg’s Battlefield Center. For more information, go to kovikitchen.com.