NUE Reflections: Rising Dragon

Tuyet-Nhi Le, a small Vietnamese-American woman with big dreams, must navigate financial turmoil, a world of doubt, and a valley of despair as she strives to create NUE, a revolutionary Vietnamese Fine-Dining experience, while saving her struggling restaurant, Chasin’ Tails.

Dear NUE Family,

As we stand at the cusp of a Lunar New Year, I invite you to join me in a reflective pause, looking back at the magic we’ve created together in 2023. 

We always dreamed that it would be our final project to open a fine-dining Vietnamese restaurant. However, the market’s post-pandemic effects provided a crazy opportunity for us to get a great space at a great price. So my dream of NUE began… 

However, AFTER we were locked into the contract for the Founder’s Row space, our company stopped doing well financially. Our expensive rebrand of our Chasin’ Tails Centreville location was met with angry customers, pages of 1-star reviews and empty seats. We had overextended ourselves financially and were desperate for Founders Row to quickly succeed to save the company we built over the past decade. The dire financial situation added loads of stress to every meeting with our partners who are also my closest friends and family. Sparing you the details of tough conversations and lots of tears, the question was whether we should play it safe or go all in on my vision? It became clear that our team and I had arrived at a crossroads…

Eventually, I was officially announced in front of our whole company of 200 people that I was taking over as CEO of our company that my 7 partners and I had built together for the past 10 years. Many of my teammates left due to the stressful situation and I was caught up in a wave of emotions: sad, nervous and excited at the same time. However, I immediately grounded myself back to the reality that our lease gave us only a few more months to open before we were punished by huge losses that we couldn’t afford. 

With the heavy burden of the company in my hands, I wanted to make sure every detail was perfect. However, my vision of NUE far exceeded our budget. To save money, I took many 5-hour drives to New York to find plating, glasses, artwork and decor. Many times, I would arrive back at our Monday mornings executive team meetings just in time, rolling in with my suitcase loaded with NUE pieces inside…
Despite the tough deadlines and the insane challenges of our first ever opening of a fine-dining restaurant, we survived. We operated with our company philosophy of being extra generous offering lots of free food to guests in exchange for the extra practice and their honest feedback. As we began to get our footing down but before we could catch our breath, we entered Mother’s Day weekend with the most reservations that we’ve ever had. As restaurateurs, we knew that creating a bad first impression – especially on Mother’s Day was something that would end our “upscale Vietnamese restaurant” (which already drew skeptics)…

Once again, I did everything that I could to leave an amazing first impression to guests. I stayed up all night for three nights straight to cut and arrange bouquets of flowers into hand made boxes to gift to every mom that celebrated Mother’s Day at NUE and Chasin’ Tails. Our restaurant’s cooler and my apartment fridge was filled to the brim with flowers and seafood so I left my work in my apartment’s common area refrigerator. However, after the third night, a thief stole my hard work… I was absolutely devastated. I remembered thinking to just give up on the flowers for mother’s day… However, my teammates and I pulled together to ensure that every single mom that celebrated Mother’s Day at Founders Row received a bouquet arrangement. Upon reflection, Mother’s Day weekend was one of the most memorable moments where I felt genuine fulfillment for what we accomplished and gratitude for our entire team for fighting with me until the very end.

We were able to ride the wave of success from Mother’s Day into June’s official grand opening with many VIPs in attendance. We had countless amazing people there from world class fashion designers, choreographers, models, dancers, singers, artists, government officials and more.It showed me the true potential of NUE as more than just an upscale Vietnamese restaurant. It was a platform for celebrating Vietnamese leaders, artists and culture. The success of our grand opening set the tone for our next few months.
The next few months were a whirlwind but we were just as busy. We hosted a successful Phomakase event with Vietnamese celebrity chef Nikki Tran which reinforced our belief in celebrating underrepresented but infinitely beautiful voices. We followed up with another successful collaboration with inspiring artist Aida Murad that was a testament to the healing ability of art combined with nourishing food and a supportive community. We followed up these collaborations with a cooking demonstration at Vietnam Society’s Vietnam Week and Tiger Fork DC’s Moon Festival Night Market to support a great cause. 

Eventually, everyone’s hard work began to pay off…

Famed critic Tom Sietsama’s amazing review in The Washington Post highlighted the profound impact of NUE’s culinary narrative. I told him my experience growing up as a Vietnamese-American and my struggles to feel true belonging. I never felt American enough for my peers at school but also not Vietnamese enough for my family at home. My passion for art and hospitality was viewed with skepticism by my parents who told me to avoid the “blue-collar jobs.” Now as CEO of a restaurant that celebrates art, I feel that I’m finally free to explore, embrace and celebrate my Vietnamese side while realizing the American dream. 

After Tom’s review, other media outlets reached out for feature articles and stories. We performed a live cooking demonstration on WUSA TV-9 to explain how we were weaving our Viet-American narrative into our restaurant offerings. I felt proud to highlight how my mom’s traditional recipes inspire our menu and how our ingenious Chef Daniel reimagines them for the modern palate.  We gave viewers a live inside look at how my mom’s signature Bun Bo Hue is creatively transformed through Chef Daniel’s Viet-American lens to create a novel but comforting dish: Bun Bo Hue Spaghetti!
At the end of 2023, we were named “Top 7 Restaurant in Northern Virginia” by Northern Virginia Magazine. Winning this award despite competing against seasoned establishments that have woven their stories over decades was both an honor and a humbling reminder that our journey has only just begun and there’s so much more work left to be done.
For now though, just looking back upon 2023, I’m filled with many emotions. First, I cannot express enough gratitude for the unwavering support and blood, sweat and tears who made this possible—our guests, our team and our community. Together, we’ve transformed an “impossible dream” into reality, faced doubts with courage, and used every challenge as stepping stones. 

Second, is the feeling of nervous excitement for the next year. While our company’s financial situation is much better than it was last year, we have a lot more work to do to climb out of debt. 2024 is the Year of the Dragon which happens to be my zodiac sign (I’m a 1988 dragon!). Based on astrology and my parents, 2024 should be a very difficult year for me. However, as you know I love to prove my parents wrong so the work has already begun!

We’re busy from now to the end of January with Restaurant Week and then preparing for a crazy Lunar New Year celebration in February . Chef Daniel and I have been researching a dragon-inspired crispy whole fish. We’re also crafting 5 alluring dragon-themed cocktails each representing one of the five elements. We plan to unveil them at our Grand Lunar New Year Celebration event in February. 

Stay tuned for more details as the best is yet to come!

With heartfelt gratitude and anticipation,

Tuyet Nhi Le

Tuyet Nhi Le

Visionary of NUE and CEO of Happy Endings Hospitality Group