Chef Tri Tran attributes success to his family’s support

Chef Tri Tran and various meals on plates

By Suzanne Chin-Loy

Chef Tri Tran has been the culinary genius behind Vietnamese restaurant Pho Ngoc Yen since 2017. The restaurant is a family affair run by Tran’s sisters, Tin Trinh and Yen Tran, and brother-in-law Tan Trinh. The name Pho Ngoc Yen was chosen to honour his older sister, Yen, in line with the Vietnamese tradition of respecting elders.

“It’s our family’s dream,” says Tran. “When I was an apprentice, I cooked a lot of dinners for my family and said we should open a restaurant one day and wear Vietnamese traditional dress.” 

Tran attended culinary school at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. where he completed a three-year apprenticeship. Then, he spent five years at Miestro Restaurant under the guidance of chef Mies Bervoet, the first woman elected to the National Executive of the Canadian Federation of Chefs de Cuisine. 

With an extensive culinary background in Italian, French, Vietnamese, and other cuisines, Tri has won numerous awards. His restaurant has been ranked as the best Vietnamese restaurant in Mississauga, Ont., one of the top places to eat in Canada since 2018, and most recently, it won the Canadian Choice 2024 Award for Best Business in Canada.

After re-locating to Toronto, Tran tried his hand serving Moroccan cuisine at Millies (Toronto), French cuisine at Hogan’s Inn (King City, Ont.) and Italian cuisine at Cresta (Toronto). South of the border, he also received training in modern New York cuisine. 

Tran’s first restaurant, Cai Rang, opened in Mississauga, Ont. and resembled a Vietnamese southern village countryside. The restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner, spans 4,300 sq. ft. and can seat approximately 160 guests. 

Despite COVID, Tri has maintained a loyal following thanks to his mouth-watering Instagram-ready creations. Signature dishes include a mango salad with dried shrimp ($21.75); barbecue chicken with coconut rice ($21.75); Pho Suon Bo (Short Rib Pho), nicknamed “The Grand Slam” among regulars ($27); beef tenderloin carpaccio with a Vietnamese twist ($21.75); and Death by Coconut Cake ($12).  Guests can expect to spend between $30 and $50 for a gastronomic adventure worthy of a Michelin Star.

“People came from Hamilton, Kitchener and Cambridge, Ont. to dine there,” says Tran. “[The restaurant] got so busy that the demand was overwhelming. We didn’t have enough capacity, so we decided to expand.” 

Tran says there are three key ingredients that his team focuses on when it comes to creating a welcoming space for guests. First is ambiance. “When a customer first enters an establishment, the first things they notice are the decor, the atmosphere/music and the welcoming host. We ensure that the decor is pleasing to the eyes and reflects the theme of the season. It’s crucial that we change the decor regularly. We play soft music throughout the restaurant. The host is always stationed at the entrance of the establishment to greet/thank our customers.”

He says the service culture is equally important to the company’s success. “Customers always enjoy exchanging pleasantries with our staff,” he says. “We make ourselves available to the customers by providing time to answer questions and offer suggestions or food recommendations.”

Finally, he says, the quality of the restaurant’s food, freshly prepared daily, “and the process of preparing and cooking is meticulously inspected by our staff with various controls implemented to meet customer’s expectation.”

“We believe that if we focus on these three pillars and execute the plan well, the customer will have an enjoyable dining experience and would spread good words about us to their friends and family,” says Tran.

Keeping up with demand is a well-balancing act and while Tran says it’s “important for us to appease the customer, it’s also important for us to ensure our staff is not stressed and overworked. Unlike many other establishments, Pho Ngoc Yen only opens five days a week “to give our staff more time for themselves and to spend with families and friends outside of work.”  

The Pho Ngoc Yen team includes five owners who run the company. “For each location, we have 15 or more kitchen staff and 15 or more front-of-house staff. Each area is divided into various sections with a team lead to oversee operation for each section.”

Fortunately, says Tran, labour shortages have not been a problem. “We are constantly getting calls for employment. Also, anytime we need a replacement, our staff always recommend or introduce new employees.”

Branching Out 

In August 2023, a second Pho Ngoc Yen location opened in Etobicoke, Ont., inspired by the garden cafés in Can Tho City, Vietnam. Spanning 4,200 sq. ft., the restaurant seats 220, which includes a heated patio. Tran says he has a “wonderful, dynamic team. Some [team members] have been with us for six or seven years,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate.”  

“Our staff is the heart and soul of the company. We understand that we are only as good as our people and as strong as our weakest link. Therefore, it is important for us to create a comfortable work environment for our staff and maintain a high level of morale,” says Tran. “To accomplish this, we ensure our wages are competitive; we provide lunch and dinner free of charge daily; and all the tips are divided among the staff. We also ensure that our staff have adequate time off and once a year, we have staff appreciation week and take them to a cottage or ski trip for team building.”

At Pho Ngoc Yen, customers aren’t accepted for 30 minutes daily so the team can enjoy a proper meal together. “I’ve worked in a lot of places [where] you have to take turns to eat and even have to stand and eat,” says Tran. “I don’t want that for my staff.” 

Soon, Tran will helm Pho Ngoc Yen’s third location. Opening in June, the restaurant will occupy 6,000 sq. ft. on the ground floor of a newly built condo in Toronto’s Entertainment District on the corner of Peter St. and Adelaide St. 

Tran attributes the company’s success to his family’s steadfast determination and unyielding support. “[Family] is what makes us stronger,” he says. [That’s] the lucky thing.”

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.