In the restaurant industry for over 25 years, BT is well known in the Tampa Bay area. But her story is one worth telling again and again. BT Nguyen grew up in South Vietnam, where her love of cooking started in her family’s kitchen. In 1975 when BT was 13, Communist North Vietnam took control of South Vietnam. Once Saigon fell, BT and her sister, along with tens of thousands of other refugees, fled the country and started a long 30-day journey that eventually ended in the United States. On her own since 15, and after putting herself through college, BT was determined to be successful and make a name for herself.
BT’s Vietnamese roots serve as inspiration for the menu at Restaurant BT. And with Vietnam as part of France’s colonial empire in Southeast Asia, French cuisine had a profound influence on Vietnamese cooking. BT’s French-Vietnamese style with global influences is apparent in dishes like Bo Tai Chanh (Beef tenderloin tartare, ginger, garlic, chili, shallots, opal basil, cilantro, peanuts, heart of palm micro greens, passion fruit jus) and COQ AU VIN (organic “Poulet Rouge” chicken, bacon, shiitake mushroom, Vidalia onion, Ruskin tomato, red Burgundy).
With Restaurant BT expanding with multiple BT To Go locations, this pioneer has a lot to look forward to. We recently sat down with BT to talk about her journey and how she continues to build on her tremendous success.
Q: Can you describe the evolution of your restaurants? How did you arrive at Restaurant BT?
A: I started in fashion design and finished in with a business degree, so I never intended to be in the restaurant business. In 1988, I lent a friend some money to open a Vietnamese restaurant called Exodus Café. When it eventually closed I opened a little place called Café BT on Gandy Blvd in 1996. It was very humble. I designed it myself and did the cooking. Café BT took off slowly but surely. I’ve always believed in delivering ingredients and staying true to the Vietnamese-French concept. One of my silent missions was to let people know that there is more to Vietnamese food and that there is such a rich, deep history of the cuisine. There is some voice inside me telling me to do something different.
Q: How do you best define your cuisine at Restaurant BT?
A: The cuisine has a very rich culture. It’s a combination of French and Vietnamese with a lot of global touches. They should be able to find something that they can eat on the menu, and if they can’t, we can make it for them.
Q: When you walk into Restaurant BT, you can’t help but notice the wall of spices. What was your inspiration to showcase these spices?
A: I’ve always loved the aroma of spice. I use so many different spices from all over the world. My menu evolves globally, and I think that the spices are a silent answer. And instead of pictures or paintings, I thought they were very beautiful and very natural. When people ask about a certain spice and they’ve never smelled it before, they can go up there and experience them. I love sharing that experience with clients.
Q: What are your favorite 5 ingredients to work with?
A: Lemongrass is my most favorite ingredient. I love it because it can be savory or sweet, it can be tea or a soup, and it can be dessert or a main ingredient that you can infuse with meat and seafood. I also love using garlic, ginger, olive oil and clarified butter.
Q: Do you change your menu often?
A: It is hard to change the menu often, but I do change it maybe once or twice a year. And the reason is that there are dishes on the menu that have been around for over 20 years. People will hate me if I take certain items off so I have to be careful. We do feature a lot of specials and that’s something new that we can offer to our clients. Gives me a chance to be creative and maximize the ingredients we have available.
Q: How do your travels influence your menu?
A: They influence the menu very much. For example, year before last I had the opportunity to spend 4 to 5 weeks in Copenhagen and I fell in love with the city, their philosophy and their food. In Sweden they eat a lot of cured salmon and a lot of openfaced sandwiches. That inspired me to come back, give a lot of thought into curing salmon and serve it over baguette with our own ingredients. So the menu is a collection of many different places where I’ve been.
Q: With your love of travel, what keeps you in Tampa?
A: Number one, I have a family here. I have kids so it is hard to uproot and move to another city. I’ve had many opportunities to move to Los Angels, San Francisco, New York, etc. I look at the pros and cons and decided that I have more control of my life in Tampa. I love Tampa…both of my kids were born here. When I get frustrated, I travel. Traveling satisfies my need to be in the big cities. The big cities are great but there is a balance. With greatness comes sacrifice. Big cities are hard, expensive, tough and stressful to get around. We have it really easy here. We are able to live in a good neighborhood and everything is just easier.
Q: You mentioned your children. Are they following in your footsteps?
A: Haha! My daughter, she’s been fired five times working for me. I don’t think she will ever follow in my footsteps because she saw how hard it was and the sacrifices I had to make. She wants to be a writer. So perhaps she will write about food.
Q: Is there one individual chef that has inspired you or made you who you are today?
A: Tough question for me because I started out so uniquely…it was not by choice. I learned from good and bad experiences. So I don’t have a mentor per se. So I search a lot for inspiration and I have the opportunity to travel and learn. Everywhere I go, I make friends with chefs and volunteer myself to work in restaurants. I become friends with the people and learn about them and am ultimately inspired by what they do.
Q: We admire your love and support of the environment. Can you tell us a little bit about why this is important to you?
A: First of all, ingredients are very important to me. I use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and have a longstanding relationship with top local growers and distributors. It’s funny to me that farm-to-table is a new, trendy concept to people…I’ve been doing it since starting. It’s how I grew up–I don’t know any other way.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your BT To Go concept?
A: I’ve had so many customers requesting lunch items, but our kitchen is devoted to our dinner items at night. I want to be able to accommodate those who want “to go” items or just have a quick bite. This got me thinking about how I can design a restaurant that is casual with delicious food that is healthy and economical as well. I wanted a place where you can relax or take-out. This resulted in BT To Go. Our first location opened a few blocks from here last November. We opened another one on Henderson called BT to Go and Bistro.
Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant around town?
A: I like to be conscious about our community. So I only spend money with the local and independent businesses. Marty Blitz at Mis en Place and Chris Ponte at Café Ponte – they are great people and very talented chefs. Ferrell Alvarez from Rooster & the Till is amazing. IL Ritorno…I think David Benstock is one of the most talented chefs taking Italian food to the next level. I think he’s on the top along with Ferrell. I love Z Grille, especially with Chef Zack’s new menu. I went to Brick & Mortar for the first time in St. Pete recently. I spent some time at the end of the evening with chef Jason Ruhe and his wife Hope Montgomery. I was very impressed with the food and people. You can feel the soul. That’s what I love about all of these places.
Q: What is your most memorable meal?
A: Number one is when I got off the boat after 30 days and 10 days without food. At 1:00 in the morning…. I remember so vividly. I can taste it still: white bread, mayonnaise and a slice of bologna. I thought it was the best thing I ever put in my mouth. And I could never repeat that ever again.
But back to reality, my second most memorable meal was in a place in a little fishing village called Getaria in San Sebastian, Spain. This family owned restaurant, El Kano, specializes in seafood. The seafood they serve is so pure and clean and so delicious. They use simple ingredients and let the fish speak for itself, let the lobster, let the olive oil speak for itself…That day I had tears. I choked up.