Food & Drink

Food Artist Tommy Nguyen of The Pearl

Although Chef Tommy Nguyen has been cooking at his mother’s side since he was a kid, he started working in restaurants so he could support his passion for music.


At the age of 14, he took a job at a Chinese restaurant in his hometown of American Fork so that he could cover expenses to be a member of a marching band drumline. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to studying jazz and performing with local bands — he plays drums, guitar, bass and “pretends to sing” — Nguyen has an established reputation as being one of the most hard working and humble chefs in the state. And much like an improvisational jazz riff, Nguyen’s culinary style meshes unexpected elements within the framework of traditional motifs.      

While The Pearl just celebrated its one-year anniversary in June of 2023, Chef Tommy Nguyen has been feeding happy Utah diners for almost two decades. 

“Growing up in a Vietnamese family, some of my best memories are associated with food,” says Nguyen of the concept of The Pearl. “I’m celebrating my mom’s traditional Vietnamese cooking along with using the techniques and plating I’ve learned from being a chef in fine dining.”      

Tommy Nguyen of The Pearl. Photo by John Taylor

Nguyen relates that his path to being an award-winning chef — most recently Nguyen was recognized in Salt Lake Magazine’s 2023 “Best Restaurant” top 12 list — has been a bit of a circuitous journey.  Following his early stint at the Chinese restaurant, Nguyen dropped out of high school and moved to Salt Lake to be part of the city’s music scene, taking a job at a Denny’s to cover expenses. He didn’t decide to become a chef, however, until a friend introduced him to Chef Charlie Perry, who brought on Nguyen as an intern. During an intensive two months at the now-shuttered Inn on the Creek in Midway, Nguyen learned about French culinary technique and fine dining. 

“This was all new to me,” he says of the eye-opening experience of working with Chef Perry. Both of Nguyen’s parents were refugees from Vietnam, and Tommy recalls that, “We grew up very poor, and really didn’t go out to eat in restaurants. My mom cooked for us every night.” 

Newly minted knife skills in hand, in 2004 Nguyen took a job as a busser at top-rated sushi restaurant Takashi, with the goal of eventually working his way up to being on the sushi line. He ended up being at Takashi for fifteen years. He credits those years under the mentorship of Takashi Gibo for teaching him respect for ingredients and especially skills working with fish, which, as Nguyen says, “is really difficult to learn to do well unless you are doing it all day, every day.” 

Years later, when the Gibos were planning to open Post Office Place next door, “I begged Takashi to be chef at their new spot,” says Nguyen.

The 2018 debut of the bar celebrating Peruvian-Japanese cuisine called “nikkei,” a word used to describe immigrants of Japanese origin in Peru, brought an infusion of creativity to downtown SLC dining. 

“Takashi grew up in Peru. But I didn’t know anything about nikkei cuisine so he flew me to L.A., Las Vegas, and a couple of other cities so I could try their fusion,” says Nguyen of developing the opening menu.  

Fish sauce wings from The Pearl.

Inspired by the wide-ranging repertoire of chefs like David Chang, Roy Choi and Ed Lee, Nguyen’s culinary career has continued to build upon his experimental mélange of cultures and techniques. Says one of The Pearl’s co-owners, Mike Askerlund, “Tommy was our first pick when considering a chef/business partner for The Pearl, and I was ecstatic when he agreed to join us in the journey. Tommy is a phenomenal artist — both with music and food — and brought all his creative drive to the table when creating The Pearl. You can see Tommy in every facet of the bar. There’s really no one out there like him.” 

Coming full circle, Tommy’s mom, Kim Nguyen, helped him out in The Pearl’s kitchen the first two weeks of opening to adapt several of her recipes — along with other popular Vietnamese street foods — scaled for restaurant service and tweaked with his signature gorgeous presentation.

 Continues Askerlund, “Many of the recipes used in our kitchen, Tommy has spent a lifetime perfecting, alongside his mother.” 

In testament to the talents of both generations of Nguyens, there’s often a line out the door for Sunday night pho, which starts at 7pm, and when they sell out of the kitchen’s 70 bowl capacity (which they usually do), that’s it. 

“Seeing people react to my food just makes me really happy,” Nguyen says of being a chef. “The best thing someone — especially if they’re Vietnamese — can say to me is, ‘This reminds me of home.’”


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