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And as the interior was being readied, Sharpe made preparations of his own. The accomplished chef had eaten his first Vietnamese food only a year earlier. “When Khoa asked if I was interested, I told him yes, as long as he understood that I had no idea what I was doing,” Sharpe says.
His crash course included plenty of meals with Nguyen at Vietnamese joints, many in the Eden Center in Falls Church, Va., and some as far afield as Richmond, Va., and New York. But the ultimate training came during a three-day visit that the two men made to the home of Nguyen’s parents in Williamsburg, Va.
Nguyen’s mother, along with assorted aunts and family friends, gathered for an epic stretch of cooking and eating that indoctrinated the young chef in the foods of their homeland. The two describe the mini boot camp as a glutton’s dream: Cooking started in the morning, with a break for a hearty lunch, followed by more cooking and a long dinner, followed by desserts, card games and plenty of bourbon.
Pho-making wasn’t the only skill that Sharpe picked up. “I learned Vietnamese black jack, which has like a thousand rules, and I’m pretty sure they were all cheating,” he says. “There may have been drunken palm-reading.”
Since opening, the restaurant staffers has found their Capitol Hill neighbors welcoming. They are addicted to coffee from Peregrine, the cafe near Eastern Market, and the baristas there return the patronage. The Ba Bay crew has adapted to the Hill’s clientele, which Sharpe calls “wildly eclectic.” The lunch crowd includes plenty of Hill staffers; at dinner, the young families and older couples come in early.
Plans for the future, Nguyen says, include creating an enticing Restaurant Week menu and, perhaps most importantly, finally getting a sign out front to alert passers-by to the dining experience that awaits inside.
The new sign will incorporate the restaurant’s logo, a daunting meat cleaver inside a circle. Nguyen says, with an impish smile, that among older Vietnamese, pictures of knives are considered bad luck.
He clearly doesn’t share his elders’ superstition. Despite its name, this isn’t his grandmother’s restaurant.