MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Sometimes an incredible chef doesn’t come from great schooling or intense training, sometimes the talent comes from the heart and soul.

Chef Christina Nguyen went from food truck owner to being hailed as one of the best chefs in the state of Minnesota.

“I wasn’t like I’m gonna open these restaurants and someday create award-winning food. I just like people to gather, and I like to feed people,” said Nguyen.

They do gather, now at her 200-seat Northeast Minneapolis restaurant, Hai Hai.

“Hai Hai is something I’ve been working on in my mind for years and years,” chef Christina Nguyen said.

Nguyen was born in the Twin Cities, but the flavors she presents at Hai Hai are far from traditionally Minnesota. Take the banana blossom plant turned into a funky salad.

(credit: CBS)

“There’s shrimp, pickled onions, nước chấm, which is fish sauce vinaigrette,” she said. “I just love playing around with the flavors, textures, colors of that food.”

Inspired by the flavors from her travels to her parent’s native Vietnam, Nguyen rolled the dice. Instead of opening another Hola Arepa — the restaurant based on her and her husband Birk Grudem’s food truck — she followed her heart, ignoring the voices that would say, “Is this going to be too out there, too fish saucy, too funky, too wild?”

A menu with spring rolls, and lettuce wraps, but with flavor she encountered in street food from Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. There were fresh herbs, and different textures, like this custard-like water fern cake.

They transformed a Northeast Minneapolis building with a decorated past as a strip club, turning the so-nicknamed “Deuce Deuce” into Hai Hai, which is Vietnamese for “two two.” It’s been a smashing success.

(credit: CBS)

Food and Wine called it the “Bright and Brilliant Restaurant that Minneapolis Needed.” Esquire named it one of the 20 best new restaurants in America, and named Christina the rising star chef of 2018. She’s been a semifinalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Midwest Award twice, and a finalist in 2019.

“We just wanted to make good food and it’s cool that people think it’s worthy of praise,” she said.

Clever flavors on the plate and also in the bar. Grudem runs that, going through the cost and labor of  freshly squeezing sugar cane to create a sweetener for a beautiful cocktail called the “Next Up.”

And Nguyen is proving that great chefs don’t have to run fancy, expensive restaurants, so long as they cook with heart and soul. That’s how you live the “Hai” life.

“I’m happy we took a chance on it. People really like it,” she said.

(credit: CBS)

Hai Hai
2121 University Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
612-223-8640

Open Tuesday – Thursday: 3pm – 11pm
Friday : 3pm – Midnight
Saturday : 10am – Midnight
Sunday : 10am – 11pm
Brunch: Saturday & Sunday: 10am – 3pm
https://www.haihaimpls.com

Jason DeRusha

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