Changing course

An interview with Lan Tran Cao, 53, restaurant owner, New York City

By Anne Fisher

(Fortune Magazine) -- Born in Hanoi and raised in Saigon, Lan Tran Cao started cooking for her family of 13 when she was only 12. She took lessons in haute cuisine from French chefs through her teens, then opened two successful Vietnamese restaurants in Sydney while still an undergraduate.

But her other love -computers - beckoned, and Cao went on to spend three decades in various corporate IT jobs, ending up as chief technology officer at Deutsche Bank (Charts). With her daughter grown, however, Cao decided to dive back into the restaurant world, opening Viet Café in downtown Manhattan in late 2004.

"I love technology and I may go back to it someday," she says. "But I saw a chance to take a little risk." She financed the venture with her own savings plus a 30% equity investment from a partner and now - she's the boss and the chef - spends her days whipping up traditional Vietnamese dishes like roast lacquered duck and lemongrass chicken rolls.

With 15 full-time employees and five or six part-timers, she finds the biggest shock has been getting used to managing "back of the house" employees - meaning kitchen staff like dishwashers - instead of corporate types. "They have a different approach to work," says Cao. "For example, they may just not show up, and they don't tell you they're not going to show up, so there you are, short-handed.

A few times I've had to fill in myself. "In the front of the house, meanwhile, most of the wait staff really want to be in show biz (one staffer did get a part on a soap opera last year), so "it's very different from managing people at Deutsche Bank, where their job was their life!"

As for the two questions most New Yorkers ask about Viet Café: Yes, it's profitable, and yes, they deliver.  Top of page