Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.
Who he is:
Thai Van prides himself on being an "entertainer" and does so with enthusiasm and ease. I witnessed this firsthand during my meeting with him -- it was his day off from his job as a server at one of the busiest and most praised restaurants in Houston, Kata Robata, yet he still seemed to be working -- talking to customers, recommending dishes and even busing tables.
Van started working with the Azuma group while attending the University of Houston in 2005, ultimately graduating with dual degrees in Health and Nutrition Education in 2010. After that, he found a job within the healthcare industry by day and continued to work at the Azuma on Kirby by night. The restaurant industry wasn't new to him, as he worked at upscale Chinese and sushi restaurants while living in Louisiana. But something was different this time. He found himself looking forward to getting off from his day job so he could start his evenings.
After two years of living a double life, Van made the leap and left his job in healthcare to concentrate on the food industry, joining the team at Kata Robata. It's an industry he is extremely passionate about.
Why does he like it?
As most people in the food industry will tell you, the industry has a way of bringing people together. He loves the relationships that form through a mutual love for food, with both his customers and his coworkers. "I enjoy providing customers with a memorable experience or just giving them a break from the everyday, where they can leave the cooking to someone else and the serving to me." Working at Kata Robata, where the cuisine is modern and innovative, also affords him the opportunity to educate customers on diversifying their palates and branching out and trying new and exciting foods.
What inspires him?
Bringing people together through food is what inspires Van, and he loves to cook for friends and family. Working with great chefs such as Chef Hori and Chef Gabe of Kata Robata and networking with others in the industry have inspired him as well. When he's not working, he's out trying new restaurants and going home and trying to re-create the recipes with his own spin.
If not this, then what?
Van has no plans to leave the restaurant or food industry -- he left healthcare to pursue a passion, so he's right where he wants to be.
If not here, then where?
Houston's food scene is still emerging and growing, and Kata Robata especially is at the forefront. He credits this to the staff, from the kitchen to the front of the house to the back of the house. "There's a camaraderie and atmosphere that makes the restaurant great," he says. But if he weren't here, he'd love to be traveling the world, eating, working in restaurants and learning.
Van's ultimate goal is to open his own restaurant. "I'd like to bring something different to the city of Houston," he says. "I have some concepts but nothing concrete quite yet. But I want it to be the next big thing." Until then, he plans on staying with the Azuma Group, where he can continue to gain kitchen and management experience -- and, of course, continue to entertain.
The Eating...Our Words 100: