Chef Tin’s House: Little Sister opens in Manhattan Beach
When Little Sister opened in downtown Manhattan Beach two months ago, the ambitious 55-seat restaurant seemed to arrive naturally as part of the South Bay’s increasingly elevated culinary scene.
Across the street, MB Post and its sister restaurant FWD recently helped put the city on Southern California’s fine dining road map. A block away, Strand House and Circa had likewise raised local expectations.
But Little Sister represented something more than a trend. The restaurant has its roots in the tumultuous history of Southeast Asia and the resulting forced migration of millions of people throughout the region. It also represented the epic story of a single family.
By the time Chef Tin Vuong’s parents arrived in the United States in the mid 1970s, his entire family had already become a diaspora unto itself. His grandparents were forced to flee Communist China, and then Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, the family, again fleeing communist rule, was dispersed throughout Southeast Asia – part of the mass migration of so-called “boat people” who fled for their lives with little but the clothes on their backs.
“They didn’t have time to make decisions,” Tin said in a recent interview. “It was the fall of Saigon, so they had to bounce pretty fast.”
Some fled to neighboring Cambodia, never to be seen again. Others ended up in Singapore and Taiwan, while his parents, separated, made their way first to Malaysia, then to Hawaii, and eventually to mainland United States. His grandmother carried the family’s most valuable possessions, a little gold and a few diamonds, in her mouth.
The family eventually managed to reassemble in California, in the San Gabriel Valley, where Tin was born. More than 20 family members lived at his grandparent’s home. Tin, his siblings, and his parents lived for a time in the garage.
“My grandfather kept the family together,” Tin said. “He’s no bullshit. He’s pretty straightforward.”
The family hit the ground running. Tin’s mother attended dental school at USC and eventually became an orthodontist. His father quickly became adept at business, specializing in real estate. Everybody worked, often more than one job.
They were not alone in the San Gabriel Valley. Thousands of families who’d likewise fled Southeast Asia had arrived there, and restaurants serving many native cuisines popped up throughout the area. Late every night, when Tin’s family finally finished their working days, they would come together for meals.
“My family never cooked at home,” Tin recalled. “Hardly ever. We lived by Monterey Park. Everything is accessible, and it’s cheaper going out to eat. Everybody always worked, and worked late, so we ate dinner around 11 p.m. most nights.”
This shared food, as much as anything, represented home.
And though Little Sister – with its higher-end pricing, chef-driven touches, and sharply designed modern ambience – is far flung from Southeast Asia and even the San Gabriel Valley, many of the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are the same as what Tin’s family ate every night three decades ago as they tried to make a home in the U.S. Such dishes as Vietnamese coconut chicken curry, beef randang, Saigon lemongrass beef and Singapore curry noodles are among the traditional dishes at Little Sister. Little touches like the tiny bowls of pickled mustard greens are items even many Vietnamese have never had away from their grandparent’s table. Many of the herbs come from his home garden – or from his grandfather’s garden.
“This is what I ate growing up,” Tin said. “That is why this food is pretty personal. It is a part of who I am.”
Food not math
Chef Tin’s own culinary beginnings were not derived from passion so much as an aversion to advanced mathematics and a desire to defer student loans.
Tin attended UCLA and obtained a degree in Economics. He was a diligent if not thoroughly inspired student, but he felt it necessary to obtain a solid college education.
“Had to keep the parents happy,” he said.
Upon graduation, the notion of entering directly into the business world did not appeal to him. He and two college buddies entered culinary school, though Tin possessed no great aspiration to be a chef.
“My friends, all three of us, we said, ‘Let’s just have fun,’” Tin said. “All we did is study and work in college; we never did anything fun, like travel. So we were like, ‘Let’s go back to school, for fun, you know?”
They enrolled at the California Academy of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. “I mean, how hard can this be?” Tin remembered thinking at the time. “Organic Chem is more challenging.”
Sure enough, cooking came easily to him. “Culinary school was a breeze, to be honest,” he said. “After taking all those math classes?”
He interned at several restaurants. With his calm demeanor, no-nonsense work ethic and college education, was invariably promoted through the ranks and offered permanent jobs.
“There are a lot of chefs I learned from,” he said. “Even ones that I hated – you probably don’t ever want to be like that.”
After graduation, he went to work at the St. Regis Hotel and Resort in Monarch Beach, where he again quickly worked his way up the ladder, finally becoming the executive sous chef in charge of eight chefs, four restaurants, and a larger catering operation.
Scott Young, a childhood friend who’d also gone into the food industry – in management and later wine curation, rather than as a chef — recalled visiting Tin around the time of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inauguration as governor of California. Tin was overseeing a dinner for 1,500 people on a golf course.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Young said. “He definitely cut his teeth on large events.”
After five years at St. Regis, Tin moved on to Sapphire, a well-regarded large restaurant operation in Laguna Beach headed by Chef Azmin Ghahreman. Tin then served as Director of Culinary Operations and oversaw all culinary needs for the restaurant, its adjacent gourmet shop, offsite caterings and five private culinary schools.
He and Young, who also worked as general manager at Sapphire for a year, later worked together at a handful of small catered dinners at mansions in Laguna Beach. These dinners allowed Tin to focus more intensely on every last detail of the food – unlike the large operations where he’d been working – thus foreshadowing Little Sister. Tin and his sous chef, Michael Segerstrom (who would later become chef de cuisine at Little Sister), handled the food. Young brought the wine.
“We did like five or six course dinners,” Young said. “These huge houses on the bluffs, serving intimate dinners. It was kind of like what he wanted to do here.”
In 2012, Jed Sanford did an unusual thing in Hermosa Beach. He closed an enormously successful bar and restaurant, Union Cattle Company, that catered more or less to a party scene, and replaced it with Abigaile, an adventurous restaurant and brewery. Initially, he recruited star chef Max DiMare. But DiMare, a talented and free spirited chef who made his mark at Wood Tavern in Oakland, left to travel not long after the restaurant opened.
A headhunter found Tin. Sanford knew immediately he wanted the young chef for Abigaile. He couldn’t quite tell if the feeling was mutual.
“I wasn’t completely convinced Tin really wanted to do it,” Sanford said. “He’s a very reserved guy. I didn’t really understand until later that he doesn’t take on a commitment unless he really means it – it’s rare to find someone that way. I really couldn’t ask for more. I think it turned out the way it was supposed to turn out.”
“I just saw in him someone I could relate to – we are both pretty passionate about creating things. I saw a lot of talent, and I think he hadn’t gotten a chance to express himself with some freedom.”
They also both shared an aversion to taking the safe, expected path. This would reflect itself at Abigaile – which if Sanford had played it safe would still be Union Cattle – and finally at Little Sister.
Abigaile was a success.
The restaurant, which combined with upstairs Ocean Bar includes 260 seats, managed to pull off a difficult trick. The kitchen provided more mainstream mainstays, such as steaks, burgers and happy hour specials, while also providing more adventurous culinary offerings, such as duck comfit, roasted bone marrow, and Moroccan lamb kibbeh.
But Tin had a dream common to many chefs. He wanted a smaller restaurant, one where he could cook the food he wanted to without needing to address the concern of filling a larger place by appealing to a broader audience. He wanted to take more risks, and present a menu consisting of the food he liked.
One day earlier this year, Sanford said he’d found such a place.
“I always wanted to do a 50-seater,” Tin said. “And this came up, and Jed was like, ‘Hey, you remember that 50-seater you wanted? You got it.”
Chef Tin is not given to hesitation.
Little Sister, formerly home to Hamptons and before that the Sun and Moon Café on Manhattan Avenue, was built in a little more than a month. Tin didn’t write a menu until 10 days before the doors opened. He already knew what he wanted; it was in his head.
He’s also given to over thinking or worry. But even Tin realized that opening across the street from MB Post represented a double-edged sword. Chef David LeFevre had become the highest profile local chef in recent history, for good reason. LeFevre is brilliant and inventive and both of his restaurants (FWD is his own 30-seat passion project) served to raise local expectations.
“The build-out was 40 days,” Tin recalled. “It moved fast. And there was a lot pressure, too – because you are in Manhattan, on Manhattan. And the competitors across the street, they don’t make it too easy, because they own the block already. And if you came out and you weren’t gunning up pretty high, if you weren’t on point, you are going to tank pretty fast.”
“It’s a great location,” Sanford said. “[Chef] David has done a lot of groundwork down there. He’s brought a lot of attention to the South Bay, and both his products are awesome. I have a ton of respect for what they are doing. But I also wouldn’t do something I thought was similar, out of respect…We only have a 50-seater. There’s plenty of room for everybody in the South Bay; I don’t think of it as competition. If you are going to play golf, play with the best.”
Little Sister has been an immediate hit. Most nights, table reservations are sold out. The restaurant has also been critically acclaimed. Tasting Table called Little Sister “one of the most unique and electrifying restaurants the South Bay has seen in a long time.” The LA Business Journal described Tin as “a chef whose star is on the rise, and this is his boldest effort yet.”
Easy Reader and Beach magazine food critic Richard Foss believes Tin, who is 33, has a rare star quality, one that has been recognized in the larger culinary world.
“He is the first star chef since Robert Bell of Chez Melange who came to prominence in this area and has stayed here. David LeFevre, Neal Fraser, Darren Weiss, and the other high-profile chefs in the South Bay all made their names at restaurants out of the area before becoming involved in this community,” Foss said. “It’s a measure of how much the South Bay dining scene has changed that media from outside the area takes him as seriously as we do. There’s no question that he could work anywhere in Los Angeles if he chose to, but he is staying here because he likes this clientele.”
Part of what has made Little Sister a success is the full experience of dining in its intimate space. A cold kitchen, or “garde manger,” is located in public view inside the restaurant’s bar. Chefs deftly put together salads and noodles just a few feet from customers, giving the place a lively, interactive, warmly human feel.
“I wanted people to see what is real,” Tin said. “Just like if you come to my house, everyone is in the kitchen, hanging out, drinking. So this is kind of the idea: you come to my house, and I’m like, ‘Here, try this. I don’t know what I’m making, but try it.’ It could work out, or not, whatever. You can ask, ‘Can we get more cilantro?”
“It’s really personal. This project is really personal to me.”
“Little Sister is appropriate, not only because it’s a play on Abigaile but because it’s where he got to do really the food he was passionate about,” Young said. “It’s his baby.”
Chef de cuisine Michael Segerstrom has been with Chef Tin for eight years.
“Where he goes, I go,” he said. “He’s by far the most fair boss, the most fair person, I’ve ever met…And talent — it’s like true in his veins. I just want to stay by his side learning. I don’t ever expect to get to the level he’s at. It’s something un-teachable.”
Segerstrom first tasted many of the dishes he’s now cooking at Tin’s home in San Gabriel Valley.
“We’d go to his house he’d make Chinese hot pots, clay pot rices, lemon grass beef — the same recipes, he makes at home. We sit in his garage whatever, and eat it. Here, people walk in, and it’s like you are going to his house — if you had a designer and a lot of wine. So there is no other word but honest.”
He’s not trying to make anyone like him or his food – either you like it, or you don’t, as far as he’s concerned. The same goes for the restaurant. There’ll be no happy hour specials. Hip-hop music usually plays through the night.
“I don’t think anyone could have conceived of hip-hop and Southeast Asian and French food,” Segerstrom said. “But it feels comfortable…People lose themselves for an hour and a half. This is the most fun thing to be involved with, and it’s something I’ve never seen before.”
Tin is unconcerned with playing to the broadest audience possible or attaining celebrity.
“I am comfortable with who I am,” he said. “And I don’t need to play into people’s Tin. If I don’t like being somewhere, I won’t be there. I’ll leave. All those good things will happen to you when they happen to you. Don’t seek it. I don’t want people to dictate who I am…I am just happy doing what I want to do.”
“As long as I am true to my family, true to my grandfather and who he is, that is all that matters.”