Nancy Nguyen might be a familiar face if you’ve spent some time at the bar at Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge. She’s been a member of the team at the Seaport spot for more than six years (first as a bartender and now as Bar Manager) but her industry roots go even deeper; both her mother and father (and sister and brother!) have worked in restaurants, and she’s been in the biz herself since the age of 17, proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Here, she takes a break from slinging drinks to share what she keeps stocked in her minibar at home, her favorite beverage to pair with dinner and why she’s a tequila girl.
Where do you work now? What’s your position? Where else have you worked in the last five years?
I bartended at Empire for four years until I transitioned into my current role as Bar Manager. Before working with the Empire team, I was a bartender at Fuji in Quincy.
How did you get involved in restaurants? What draws you to this line of work?
I grew up in a family revolving around hospitality. The restaurant industry just runs in my blood. In the 1970s, when my parents first came to America during the Vietnam war, my father worked as a teppanyaki chef in the first Benihana in Boston. My mother was a waitress at one of the oldest still-standing Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown (Dong Khanh). My brother has been a chef since he was in his teens and now owns his second breakfast cafe in Abington. I’ve worked with my sister as a waitress since I was 17 at Fuji and now we work together at Empire. I’ve always followed my father’s footsteps as a child. He’s owned many restaurants in Pittsfield and North Adams, Massachusetts, as well as in Huntington Beach, California. I’ve been there helping him through all his locations since I was 17.
What’s your favorite drink to make (or wine or beer to pour)? Least favorite?
Well, when it’s busy I love making vodka sodas! But on a serious note, I love making cocktails on the fly. When a guest comes in and doesn’t know what he or she wants but tells me their spirit of choice, I then like to get creative and make something off the menu. Seeing people’s reaction after trying a new drink is fun; it’s like being on a cocktail contest show.
How do you feel about the “mixology” movement – does that term appeal to you, not appeal to you? What do you think it means to be involved in the bartender culture, if you agree that there is one?
The mixology movement term doesn’t really appeal to me. I feel like this term places certain people on a pedestal, while others are made to feel as if they can’t earn the title as a mixologist if they don’t come up with an extremely creative cocktail. I believe that bartenders, servers, chefs, managers, etc. all share the same culture, which is hospitality. In the end it takes a whole team to run a great restaurant.
On your days off, what kind of places do you frequent? A lot of industry folk are happier with a Miller High Life and a Fernet than composed cocktails or craft beer. You?
On my days off I enjoy checking out the hot new places around the city, especially places that have certain foods, cocktails and ambiance that other cities typically have. For example, I’ve recently visited Citrus & Salt and they are known for their alcoholic Dole Pineapple whip, which is unusual and reminds me of Hawaii. I usually enjoy a nice glass of Prosecco during dinner. I’ll order a craft cocktail if I’m going to a certain place that’s known for it.
What do you always keep stocked at home? Are there different things you like to drink or to make for special occasions?
I have a minibar at home and it is always fully stocked with vodka, tequila, sake, and cognac. I also have a few bottles of Prosecco in the fridge when it comes to any celebrations. My fiancée’s go-to drink is Pinot Noir and Cabernet, so of course I have this stocked as well. I usually host an annual Christmas party at my place where I like to showcase the special cocktails that I craft at Empire for my friends and family. For example, this year I made a Bottle Rocket for guests to share and everyone loved it! Bottle Rockets are a trademark specialty shared cocktail that we offer at most of our Big Night Entertainment Group venues. Essentially, it’s a whole bottle of your choice of champagne dumped over ice, fresh fruit, and cordials all served in a scorpion bowl with dry ice.
Are you excited about one spirit in particular? Is there something really overrated or underrated, in your opinion?
I’m a tequila girl and believe it’s underrated. I feel like a lot of people hate tequila because of the smell and the hangovers associated with it. But there’s a lot of health benefits to tequila versus other spirits (low calorie, mostly natural, it’s a stimulant, etc)….which I’m hoping are all true and not a myth!
What’s something you wish the average guest knew about your job—not service-wise, but related to the craft of bartending?
Everyone should know that this job consists of a lot of hard work and it’s not all fun and games. There’s a lot of effort placed into this career. From staying up late to crafting beautiful cocktails and the extensive training behind the scenes.