The 60-seat, high-ceilinged, exposed-beam interior of Break of Dawn restaurant teems with diners on a cool Southern California Friday night. Full tables thrum with conversation, including questions for the black-T-shirted staff about what banyule, perilla seed and lap xuong are. “I had to Google half the things on the menu,” one waitress admits with a laugh.
Rising culinary star Dee Nguyen gave up a fast-track chef’s career for a more nourishing life mission — caring for his son.
At the service window, chef Dee Nguyen makes sure the mounds of seaweed and scoops of yam–Chinese celery puree are arranged just so. His face, with its high cheekbones and strong jaw, is a mask of concentration behind his hipster glasses. That laser focus won him the nickname of “Diesel” when he was in culinary school, and he sure looks revved up as he pushes out his dishes, from the chunks of goat stewed in a heady lemongrass-curry broth with water caltrop and baby Dutch potatoes to a falling-off-the-bone tender, sumac-spiked braised lamb shank with lima beans and taro grits.
Just another weekend dinner service at a hot new restaurant? Hardly. Break of Dawn isn’t located in one of Los Angeles’ dining-destination neighborhoods, like the San Gabriel Valley or downtown. It’s in a bland, beige shopping center in Laguna Hills, a subdivided suburb that’s sleepy even by Orange County standards.
And Break of Dawn doesn’t normally serve dinner. As the name implies, the 6-year-old restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch. But for 2012, Nguyen, who is 41, decided to jump on the trend of pop-up restaurants, opening up one in his own restaurant for one night each month.
Nguyen is no stranger to high-end dining. Ten years ago, he was a rising star in the kitchens of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, one of the luxury hotel chain’s main breeding grounds for executive chefs.
So, why isn’t he running his own Ritz-Carlton kitchen right now? The answer to that question is both simple and complicated.
His name is Berlin.
The Lake Forest Little League’s Junior Challenger Division Angels are taking batting practice at Foothill Ranch Community Park, and it’s Berlin Nguyen’s turn to bat. His dad pushes Berlin’s wheelchair into the batter’s box.