by Ted B. Kissell (American Way Magazine, July 2012)
Rising culinary star Dee Nguyen gave up a fast-track chef’s career for a more nourishing life mission — caring for his son.
The 60-seat, high-ceilinged, exposed-beam interior of Break of Dawn restaurant teems with diners on a cool Southern California Friday night. Full tables thrum with conversation, including questions for the black-T-shirted staff about what banyule, perilla seed and lap xuong are. “I had to Google half the things on the menu,” one waitress admits with a laugh.
At the service window, chef Dee Nguyen makes sure the mounds of seaweed and scoops of yam–Chinese celery puree are arranged just so. His face, with its high cheekbones and strong jaw, is a mask of concentration behind his hipster glasses. That laser focus won him the nickname of “Diesel” when he was in culinary school, and he sure looks revved up as he pushes out his dishes, from the chunks of goat stewed in a heady lemongrass-curry broth with water caltrop and baby Dutch potatoes to a falling-off-the-bone tender, sumac-spiked braised lamb shank with lima beans and taro grits.
Just another weekend dinner service at a hot new restaurant? Hardly. Break of Dawn isn’t located in one of Los Angeles’ dining-destination neighborhoods, like the San Gabriel Valley or downtown. It’s in a bland, beige shopping center in Laguna Hills, a subdivided suburb that’s sleepy even by Orange County standards.
And Break of Dawn doesn’t normally serve dinner. As the name implies, the 6-year-old restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch. But for 2012, Nguyen, who is 41, decided to jump on the trend of pop-up restaurants, opening up one in his own restaurant for one night each month.
Nguyen is no stranger to high-end dining. Ten years ago, he was a rising star in the kitchens of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, one of the luxury hotel chain’s main breeding grounds for executive chefs.
So, why isn’t he running his own Ritz-Carlton kitchen right now? The answer to that question is both simple and complicated.
His name is Berlin.
The Lake Forest Little League’s Junior Challenger Division Angels are taking batting practice at Foothill Ranch Community Park, and it’s Berlin Nguyen’s turn to bat. His dad pushes Berlin’s wheelchair into the batter’s box.
At 10 years old, Berlin resembles his mom, with a sunny openness to his mien: When he first meets you, he’s all smiles and eye contact as he repeats your name, getting used to the sound. Yet as he taps his stick on the plate and stares at the coach who is throwing batting practice, a hint of the old man’s Diesel look flashes in his brown eyes.
“Let’s go, Berlin!” exhorts another parent. Several of the parents are in the field with the players, helping them keep their focus on the batter. Given the variety of cognitive and physical challenges the kids face — some have Down syndrome, and Berlin is one of two players in a wheelchair — they can be easily distracted.
Berlin bats lefty, gripping his purple aluminum bat with his right hand. (His left hand tends to stay clenched.) The coach tosses the first pitch underhand from about 20 feet away. Berlin takes his cut and makes contact, blooping it just past the pitcher. He misses the next half-dozen or so, then connects again, once more pushing it past the mound. He drops the bat, beaming as his father pushes him down to first.
“He loves baseball,” Dee Nguyen says after practice as he pushes his son back to their ramp-equipped Toyota Sienna. “I love the Lakers, so I keep trying to get him into watching basketball, but I think it just moves too fast for him.”
Caring for Berlin has been a full-time job since before he was born. But taking care of a child with special needs isn’t the first daunting challenge his parents have overcome.
Dee was born Dung Quoc Nguyen in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1971. As far back as he can remember, his family was trying to get out of the Communist-controlled country and into the U.S. There were failed escape attempts, including one in 1981 after which both Dee and his father were jailed. Dee’s father made it to the U.S. in 1983. After a year in a Hong Kong refugee camp and six months in the Philippines, Dee and his mother joined Dee’s father in Long Beach, Calif., in 1985.
Both Dee’s mother and father operated their own nail and hair salons, saving up for Dee’s college education, while Dee Americanized his first name, earned excellent grades and took Advanced Placement classes, with an eye on medical school. “My parents, especially my mom, guided my head in that direction,” he says.
Dee started at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), in 1993. Linh Hua was also planning on becoming a doctor; she started at UCR the same year. Dee was best friends with Linh’s brother Ba Linh; when Ba Linh Hua was stricken with lupus that year and then died at age 21, Dee and Linh became very close.
“When he passed away, [Dee] was my rock,” Linh says. They soon became more than friends and eventually began planning to spend their lives together. Linh shifted gears from medical school to pharmacy school and was accepted to the University of San Francisco.
Dee had been studying biology and psychology in preparation for dental school, but “I wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t for me.”
And he had been cooking at home throughout high school and college. So, with Linh headed to the Bay Area, he applied and was accepted to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. “I was a kid in a candy store,” he says. “It was like a calling, right away.”
He and Linh knew they wanted to be close to their parents as they began their own family. While Linh lined up a pharmacy job, Dee identified the one restaurant in Orange County where he wanted to work: The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, under executive chef Christian Rassinoux. “He was the king,” Dee says. “I remember seeing him, and it was like, ‘I wanna work for that boy.’ ”
Dee also made a strong impression on Rassinoux. “He’s just an excellent chef, very talented,” recalls Rassinoux, who now serves as executive chef of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. “His fusion cooking between his Asian roots and Western techniques was very innovative.”
After starting there in 1999, Dee rose quickly through the ranks at the Ritz. In 2004, he reached the rank of executive sous chef — Rassinoux’s right-hand man. The next logical step would have been for him to run his own hotel.
But by then, Dee and Linh, who had married in 2000, knew that their family situation was pointing them down a different path.
When Linh became pregnant and the couple found out they were going to have a boy, they agreed to name him Berlin, after Linh’s late brother.
Halfway through the pregnancy, in 2001, their doctor diagnosed Berlin with Eagle-Barrett syndrome. “They told us our baby’s chances of living were very slim,” Dee says.
Berlin was born in December of that year with almost no abdominal muscles, a bladder that didn’t function, and without an anus. The latter issues were corrected with surgery, but Berlin would need to be manually cathetered every two hours for the rest of his life.
The first year and a half, Berlin had continual problems with sepsis, nearly dying once, and he endured six surgeries. The Nguyens still marveled at their “miracle baby.”
“Mentally, I kid you not, he was bright,” Dee explains. “At 9 months, he started to talk. ‘Mama, Daddy, food’ … sometimes we just watch old video of him before the accident. Every time we watch, we just cry.”
The “accident,” as Dee calls it, happened during a surgery when Berlin was 18 months old, an abdominoplasty to tighten his slack abdominal muscles. But his breathing tube became blocked, and his brain was deprived of oxygen for some 15 minutes. He was revived, but then he stopped breathing again for five minutes.
“He was pretty much dead twice,” Dee says. Doctors were able to get him breathing again, but he slipped into a coma. He emerged from that, but he began having seizures. For the most part, medication can control them.
After this ordeal, not only were Berlin’s physical challenges exacerbated, but the damage to his brain was severe.
“Sometimes they diagnose him at the same age level as every other kid, but the problem is, he can’t give it back to you,” Dee says. “He understands his family; the teacher learned to understand him, his expressions and what he wants. But normal people, it’s hard for them to understand him.”
And yet he still connects with pretty much everyone he meets. “He’s got a big heart,” Dee says. “He brings life into people: He just smiles, and it’s very contagious.”
After the accident, Linh took a year off work to take care of Berlin; even after that, she couldn’t go back to working full time. Dee, meanwhile, was pushing ahead, working 15-hour days on the fast track to an executive chef post with the Ritz — but he wasn’t happy.
“I realized I was missing out on caring for Berlin,” he says. “Most of that fell on Linh and Grandma. I was like, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ I felt like a bad dad and a bad husband. I said, ‘It’s time to rethink things.’ ”
Dee began working on a concept for his own small restaurant, but he worried about the time demands. Then in 2006, when he saw the space tucked around the back of the shopping center not far from their home, it struck him that it was the perfect location for a breakfast place. And if he were on a breakfast/lunch schedule, he’d be home every afternoon to help care for Berlin.
So Dee resigned from the Ritz-Carlton, and in August 2006, Break of Dawn was born.
At first, an upscale breakfast/brunch was a tough sell in the suburbs. “It was crazy,” Dee says. “You’re going from the Ritz, where our breakfast dishes were $25. And I’m here begging people to eat a plate for $8.50. And they’re saying, ‘Where’s my Rooty Tooty $2.99 breakfast special?’ ”
But Dee kept experimenting, pushing the boundaries of his clientele’s expectations. Perennial favorites on the current menu include the crème brûlée French toast (with a crisp, sweet crust encasing delicate, custardy chocolate); an anise-infused “Vietnamese-style” meatloaf served with two perfect sunny-side-up eggs and an espresso gravy; and pulled pork topped with a pair of tempura poached eggs.
“I love that egg,” declares Gretchen Kurz, contributing editor and dining critic for Orange Coast magazine and longtime local editor for the Zagat Survey. “His menu spans the gamut from adventurous to completely comfort, feel-good food.” Even the tame stuff, she says, showcases his skills and imagination. “The cinnamon roll, the pancakes — he elevates them so they come alive.” She’s not alone in her admiration: OC Weekly declared Break of Dawn to be the best restaurant in the county in 2010.
But Dee admits that he does feel that, creatively, he’s a bit of a victim of his own success: “Now, if I take anything off the menu, people will complain.”
When Linh’s aunt and uncle moved to California from the East Coast and came to live with the Nguyens, Dee came up with the pop-up idea. After the first service, Linh saw the effect on her husband of breaking the fetters on his culinary expression.
“It was like a 20-hour day for him,” Linh says with a smile, “and he came home looking so happy, like a kid.”
Both the February and March services went well, but then Dee announced that a June service would be the last pop-up for the foreseeable future. Linh’s aunt and uncle had to move back east; without those extra hands, it will be too difficult for Dee and Linh to incorporate the demands of the dinner service into their regular work and caring-for-Berlin schedules.
“I’m disappointed,” Dee allows, “but I stopped [doing dinner] for a reason. At the end of the day, if my son calls, Daddy’s gonna come.”