The ICE Alum Bringing Asian Brunch to Bainbridge Island
Thai Nguyen followed in his parents' footsteps, opening modern Vietnamese restaurant Ba Sa with his sister.
Thai Nguyen (Culinary, ‘17) was in middle school in 2005 when his parents, immigrants from Vietnam, opened Pho T&N in Poulsbo, Washington. He’d watched them cook his whole life, from selling handmade banh mi and butchering pigs in the refugee camp in Thailand where he was born to running their own restaurant in the United States. But it wasn’t until Thai started helping his parents in the kitchen as a teenager that he decided to pursue a culinary career.
Now, he’s continuing the family tradition by opening a restaurant with his sister, Trinh.
“I really didn’t like cooking at first, but the more I worked in the kitchen and the more I was around it, I realized it was probably the right career path for me,” says Thai. He started a culinary program at a community college in Seattle before he transferred to the Institute of Culinary Education to earn his diploma.
“ICE taught me the basics for everything food-related, like how to organize your station with mise en place or how to know when the meat is done,” Thai says. “Learning all the cooking and baking fundamentals really helped me reach a more professional level than what I was used to when I worked at my parents’ restaurant.”
Thai externed at fine-dining force Restaurant Daniel in New York City before he returned to Washington. When he arrived home, Thai and Trinh took over the family restaurant from their retiring parents while planning their next spot.
“My sister and I always wanted to open a new restaurant,” Thai explains. “We’d been looking for a space but didn’t know where we wanted to go. We had a lot of customers at Pho T&N from Bainbridge Island coming and telling us to open there, but we wanted to do a pop-up first to see how it would go.”
The siblings networked around Seattle and met chef Brendan McGill, who kindly let them borrow his celebrated Pacific Northwest restaurant Hitchcock for the pop-ups. The events were wildly successful, confirming that Bainbridge Island would make a great home for the Nguyen’s spot.
In early September, Thai and Trinh opened Ba Sa, a Vietnamese restaurant that honors traditional dishes, employs French cooking techniques and highlights regional ingredients. Its name is a nod to the type of catfish used in a braised, bone-in dish that graces the menu. Served in a clay pot, the plate has special significance for the Nguyens.
“It holds a lot of meaning in our family because that is what we grew up eating throughout our whole childhood,” Thai says. “That was one of the dishes I had a lot of fun creating and experimenting with.”
At the restaurant, Thai is the chef and runs the back of the house, while Trinh controls the front of the house. Thai leans on his sister for her knowledge of traditional dishes, though, since she spent more time learning the recipes from their mother.
The menu is split between classic Vietnamese dishes and those that were inspired by Thai’s travels to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore, served in an airy, minimalist space that’s filled with natural light. An open kitchen gives diners a peek into the making of their meals, as they enjoy food at blonde, wooden tables. The focal point of the decor is a black, white and peach-colored mural of a catfish by local artist Dozfy.
So far, Thai and Trinh have had their hands full, with customers constantly in Ba Sa’s 54 seats. “We’ve been getting really good feedback from guests, and it’s been really busy and hectic. We can’t complain about that,” says Thai.
Since brunch is a popular meal on Bainbridge Island, the Nguyens recently decided to launch a daytime weekend menu of their own. “We thought we would do our own take since a lot of restaurants do the basic brunch of eggs, bacon and biscuits,” Thai says. “We wanted to put an Asian flair on brunch. We had a lot of fun developing the menu by combining Asian flavors and contemporary American cuisine.”
Now, Bainbridge Island locals and visitors can dine at Ba Sa for brunch on weekends, lunch on weekdays and dinner every evening except Tuesday. The siblings are also planning to host some pop-ups in the coming months, from a dessert-focused event to a Lunar New Year celebration. Eventually, Thai and Trinh would like to open a restaurant in Seattle, but they’re focusing on Ba Sa and welcoming the Bainbridge Island community for the time being.
“It’s a great location for our restaurant,” Thai says. “We’re really happy with how things are turning out.”
Study global cuisine and restaurant management at ICE's West Coast campus.