As clichéd as might sound, Linh Trieu admitted, Sept. 11 prompted her to reassess her life’s direction. Specifically, she said, the terrorist attacks made her realize she no longer wanted to work as a web designer for Bloomberg in Manhattan, where she had spent the past four years.
“I always wanted to cook,” the 39-year-old said during a recent interview at Wednesday’s Table, the Southold café she co-owns with sister Lena Tanzi. “So at that point I was like, you know what? I’m gonna do it. Screw it. Life’s too short.”
Around a year later, the Queens native quit her job and enrolled at the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education, graduating in 2003. Trieu said the school, in lower Manhattan, is geared toward students who are making career changes.
“In the culinary world, a lot of people start when they’re 16 or younger and work their way up,” said Trieu, who was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and is an alumna of the elite Bronx High School of Science and New York University. “To make up for all that time, I just wanted a basic vocabulary. At culinary school, that’s what they give you.”
While at ICE, Trieu completed a six-month internship at Jean-Georges, the Michelin-starred French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She worked as a prep cook, “doing whatever they would let me,” she recalled with a laugh.
Having the chance to intern at one of the world’s most prestigious restaurants while still in culinary school might sound like an improbable stroke of luck. The benefit of hindsight, however, has made Trieu wonder if she should have worked somewhere else.
“It was almost too big of a place,” she said. “You kind of get lost and you don’t get as much to do.”
Trieu, who is Chinese by ethnicity, said being a woman in a male-dominated industry also presented challenges.
“You definitely felt like you had to prove yourself,” she said. “You always have this constant need to prove that you can do it, that you don’t need certain people’s help.”
On the other hand, she reflected, her time at Jean-Georges led to her next job.
A chef there told Trieu that an Austrian restaurant in Tribeca called Danube was looking for help, and she was hired as a garde manger, or pantry chef. A year later, she became a line cook at the midtown seafood restaurant Oceana.
“I learned a lot from my chef there,” she said. “Just about working with a sense of urgency, working neat, working clean — just being really particular and detailed.”
It was a great experience, Trieu said, but one that ultimately left her feeling burnt out.
“I was exhausted,” she recalled. “I was working 60 to 80 hours depending on the week, getting paid nothing and living in an apartment in Astoria I was too embarrassed to even show my mother.”
So Trieu became a freelance caterer, which afforded her the freedom to create her own schedule and get a behind-the-scenes look at alternative wedding venues like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“You get to see a lot of places you’d never get to see the inside of,” she said.
Four years later, Trieu shifted gears to become a personal chef for a wealthy Upper East Side family, a position she held for two years. In 2008, she was hired as a research and development chef for the prepared foods division of FreshDirect, an online grocer based in Long Island City. Eventually, she became the company’s test kitchen manager.
During her time there, Trieu developed recipes that were straightforward enough to be reproduced by FreshDirect as ready-to-assemble meals. The position played to her strengths in math and science, she said, because “it was very meticulous. It was a whole different way of thinking about cooking; a lot more measuring. It was from conception to production.”
By 2012, however, Trieu was itching to be her own boss again. She and her sister Lena Tanzi — who had spent the past 17 years at Goldman Sachs and was also eager to make a career change — began seriously discussing opening their own restaurant. It would take another year for them to decide on a location, but their vision was clear from the outset.
“The concept of business since day one has been to provide reasonably priced food without compromising on quality and ingredients,” said Tanzi, who is 43 and lives in Manhasset with her husband and three children. “But we didn’t want it to be very formal. We wanted it to be family-friendly with a casual environment.”
Around a year later, Trieu was visiting Tanzi at her second home in Peconic when she realized the North Fork was the ideal location — and an area she could call home.
“We’d come out on the weekends and it was so calm,” she said. “We’d be dreading going back to the concrete jungle.
“After a while, I just got really tired of … I enjoyed my job [at FreshDirect], but I was tired,” she continued. “I was busting my ass. And I don’t mind working hard; I’m a bit of a workaholic. But then it was like, ‘Why am I working so hard for somebody else for nothing?’ ”
In 2013, the sisters signed a lease with Southold’s Feather Hill complex for the space formerly occupied by the Piping Plover Café. In December of that year, Wednesday’s Table celebrated its grand opening.
The café’s name is a tribute to the women’s late father, who worked six days a week at a Chinese restaurant and public parking lot to support his wife and six daughters.
Wednesdays were “the only time we really saw him,” said Trieu, who added that her father enjoyed spending his day off cooking for his family. “He worked like crazy.”
With her fine-dining background, Trieu could easily have opened a sit-down restaurant, but the sisters decided a café — one that would, naturally, be closed Wednesdays — was the right approach.
“We wanted something manageable,” Trieu said. “In my head I was like, ‘I got this. I can do X, Y and Z.’ I think my biggest fear was just of not being able to be as creative as I thought I should be.”
Her apprehension was allayed when she realized she could put her mark on Wednesday’s Table’s menu, which incorporates many dishes she enjoys. These include chicken banh mi made with her mother’s secret lemongrass marinade, Greek gyros, braised short ribs and falafel.
“In the city you can get a gyro at any pizza place and it was killing me that you couldn’t find one out here,” Trieu said.
The café offers more traditional comfort food, too, like grilled cheese on hearty slices of white or whole-wheat bread, fries, hot dogs and burgers and toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Breakfast sandwiches, soups, salads and a variety of coffees and teas round out the menu.
“We grew up in a food family, so we just enjoy eating,” said Tanzi, who handles the restaurant’s finances. “When we came up with the concept of the menu a lot of it came from, ‘Well, what do we want to eat when we’re out here?’ ”
Trieu, who moved to Peconic to helm the year-round establishment, has been pleasantly surprised by the community’s reaction to her food.
“My banh mi is my biggest seller, hands down,” she said. “I’m constantly asked to do more Vietnamese or ethnic stuff.”
Hadley Wiggins-Marin, a self-professed “demanding customer” who owns the Peconic shop North Found & Co. and dines frequently at Wednesday’s Table, said she has yet to be disappointed.
“I live half the week in Manhattan with all of these cuisines at my disposal and I save my lunch times out for when I return to Southold,” she said. “No exaggeration. Linh has made so many other dining experiences at other establishments such a disappointment. I’m spoiled rotten by the quality of her food.”
Although Trieu’s workaholic tendencies haven’t eased in the three years since she moved to the North Fork — she still averages 60 to 70 hours a week at the café — her life’s direction is no longer in question.
“I’m tired, but no matter how tired I am it’s a totally different feeling when you’re working for yourself,” she said. “It’s gratifying. It really is.”
This story was originally published in the winter 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press.