top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarla Ray

A Moderne Twist On Tradition Turns Would-Be Pharmacist Toward Entrepreneurship

In 2013, amid a dispute with our then-landlord over basic, promised amenities (in this case, a washing machine) and feeling frustrated about our finances, I opened a card in a stack of mail that would change our lives. Inside, my grandmother had written a short note, and included a large check.

To say I was shocked is the understatement of the decade.

It’s no exaggeration that I’ve never seen that kind of money; I grew up unquestionably poor.

I remember being with my parents, sitting inside a bank and looking out a large glass window as they begged a man in a sport jacket with thick 90s glasses for more time to pay back certain debts, and though I don’t remember the words spoken across the desk, I remember the barrage of emotions from my parents that followed- anger, grief, desperation, back to anger, and then sadness. I remember the weekend when all our farm equipment, tools and more were put on display in our quartz-rock driveway, auctioned off to the fathers of my classmates and driven away to their new homes; the combine cab I sat in as a little girl as my dad worked through harvest… the giant yellow John Deere tires where I’d posed for photos on our rented acreage.

Declaring bankruptcy didn’t just mean selling off all our possessions and starting over, it meant my parents had to look for work outside of what they’d always known- farming. Both of them grew up on a farm, and my dad had gotten a degree in Agriculture from Iowa State University… a top school for Midwesterners. Why some people can do so well in farming and others lose it all, I’ll never understand, but what I really did not understand at the time is why my grandparents had managed to be the former and did not step in as my parents became the latter (I understand this even less now as a mother myself).

Though it wasn’t my grandparents’ job to bail anyone out, and though our family is not the type to typically air dirty laundry in this way, it did create an unspoken rift that lasted until my grandfather passed in 2013. I say grandfather because, had it been up to my grandmother, I am almost positive the outcome of the bankruptcy proceedings would have been different. Even his obituary noted his farm-related success: [he] appeared on the television show “What’s My Line” … He was a hard-working man and spent most of his life developing and advancing [his feed yard]. Eventually, he did feed cattle in six states and earned notoriety in the Farm Journal Magazine for his success in farming. A New York motion picture company made a short film about the feed yard operation which aired as a preview to movies in theaters. Visitors from around the world toured the operation to learn about cattle feeding and farming.

I digress.

It’s my belief that my grandmother started writing checks toward the end of his life as a way to repair the damage of the confusing paradox we witnessed as a family found in bankruptcy. She was a strategic woman, making sure the total amount gifted did not put anyone into a compromising tax situation; instead, it was enough to give us all a fresh start, and perhaps a different outcome than the one her daughter and son-in-law had faced while raising children. To this day, I’m not sure I’d be a property owner without the boost of her gift, dropped randomly in my mailbox one day, and I 100% would not have had the opportunity to witness the transformation of Orlando’s Mills 50 as a resident of the neighborhood.

Brandon and I used that check to bolster a down payment on our first home, a 1925 cute-as-a-button bungalow one block off of Mills, the epitome of up-and-coming at the time. The Fresh Market was just about to open around the corner; the Guesthouse was still the Peacock Lounge; Pig Floyds was just a concept; you get the idea. The moniker Mills 50 had just been coined a few years earlier- previously known commonly as the ViMi District, one thing that hadn’t changed was the heavy Asian influence on the neighborhood, started decades earlier when an influx of Vietnamese refugees put down roots in the community.

Though Orlando wasn’t the first stop for Michael Nguyen’s parents after they immigrated from Vietnam, it’s where he considers home base; and Mills 50 is woven into the first-generation American’s history.

“I remember vividly it being like Little Saigon, it has so much meaning to me and my family, that’s where we go grocery shopping, a lot of my parents’ friends are owners of a lot of the small businesses on the strips, the little Oriental Market, some of the small restaurants, it’s a very close knit community,” Nguyen said. “So being able to be this new generation of business owners, redeveloping the area, is really cool and exciting.”

Nguyen just celebrated a year in business at his stunningly-designed, upscale bar and restaurant, The Moderne. Sitting at the corner of Colonial and Shine, it represents the intersection of tradition and trajectory in Orlando’s Asian food scene.

“I just love Mills, the cultural richness of that area,” Nguyen said. “I really wanted to reflect that in Moderne, and I feel like doing an Asian-style-fusion concept is a really great way of tying in all those classic authentic flavors in a new, modern way.”

With literal lines out the door and a wait list of three or more hours upon opening, The Moderne appeared to be an overnight success… but Nguyen told me the concept was nearly scrapped midway through planning, all due to COVID. He and his family had signed the lease for the property just weeks before the world shut down, placing unprecedented restrictions on bars and restaurants.

“The project was very much always going, and we were always looking at inspiration in terms of design, what we would do for the food program, cocktail program, everything,” Nguyen said. “But when bars were shut down for those periods of months, we actually pivoted, and Moderne was supposed to turn into a hot pot restaurant. A complete 180. Not a lot of people know this because this was just a few months during COVID, but we worked on a completely new project, scrapped The Moderne… the logo, the name, everything- design, renderings…. Then when later bars reopened and it looked like they weren’t going to be closing again in the future, we did a pivot again and went back to Moderne where we left off.”

Pivoting isn’t anything new for Nguyen, who didn’t set out to be a restauranteur despite his family having such success in that space; in fact, it was a temporary gig helping his parents run their Japanese sushi and grill concept, Maki Hibachi, which has two locations in Orlando (including one in, you guessed it, Mills 50) that took him away from a path toward becoming a pharmacist.

“I was going to school to study pharmacy, working as a pharmacy technician at the time, when my parents opened Maki Hibachi, and it started off as just a part time thing, helping out on the weekends,” Nguyen said. “Long story short, the general manager ended up getting fired, so I filled in that role for a little bit. My dad was trying to find other candidates to fill the spot, but then eventually he was just like, you're pretty good at this. If you want to keep doing it, and work together, we'll keep opening stores, father and son, we can do that.”

If it sounds like every father’s dream scenario, consider the cultural factors at play here. Michael jokes that his parents would rather have seen him become a neurosurgeon, but pharmacist was at least in the medical realm. And even though he was raised by entrepreneurs, the work of running a restaurant didn’t come naturally to Nguyen.

“It definitely didn’t happen right away. I was pretty bad when I first started,” Nguyen said. “I initially started off as a server and I did so poorly that they took me off the floor and moved me to be a hibachi chef…. And then when I had to step up to GM, I had no prior restaurant experience besides that job.”

To make the scenario even more high-stakes, Nguyen was still in school, about to apply for pharmacy programs.

“I was managing the store and then also taking organic chemistry and microbiology, and doing all the labs, and then also being a pharmacy technician, counting out the pills and making the creams, all this crazy stuff,” Nguyen said.

His casual recollection of what was no doubt an extremely stressful balance to strike is evidence of the work ethic he was exposed to growing up.

“Especially as a kid, I never pictured myself being a businessman or business owner, just because of the way my dad was geared. Seeing the long hours, how hard he was working, his life was very much work, work, work, work, work, and that intimidated me. I didn’t necessarily want a life like that for myself,” Nguyen said. “And I don’t think he wanted that for his kids, either.”

“I think when you become a business owner, you realize how tough and difficult it is, and you realize that it’s not for everybody.”

He sees all the pressure with a fresh perspective now when reflecting on his parents’ perseverance.

“Super hard workers. Their work ethic is levels apart from anything I could do,” Nguyen said. “They are so dialed in, all the time, 24-7. It’s pretty admirable but very intimidating to see that and say, damn, is this the standard I should hold myself to? Because I know that’s how they look at me.”

Despite the high standards and societal expectations, Nguyen says he received full support from his family and friends when he made the decision to stop the pursuit of a pharmacy degree and go full steam in the service industry.

“At the time, I was 20 years old. I was just a college student, I had very little skin in the game,” Nguyen said. “It was easier for me to pivot. It’s not like I was raising a family or in a career that I went to college for, and then did a complete 180 to pursue something new.”

“Because I was young and I didn't have many obligations, it was easy to make the transition. But it's still scary going from one field to another like that.”

Being a young manager isn’t easy, and the transition from peer to boss can be even more difficult to navigate; I’ve seen this firsthand with my husband and some of our closest friends who have climbed the ranks in their various professions. For Nguyen, the stakes were even higher, as a lot of the people he would come to manage were either his high school classmates or his elders. Though he’s in charge, he says he looks up to his staff at The Moderne.

“These people that I am working with at Moderne are such inspirations. You know, they love their craft. They're so passionate about what they're doing. They genuinely just love giving people a good time, making people great drinks and great food, that’s their calling, that’s what they’re passionate about. So just seeing that, experiencing all that, it’s almost intimidating to be their leader or their role model and try to live up to this, because it’s not like I was born into this… this is something that kind of fell into my lap and I just made the most of it,” Nguyen said. “So trying to be the leader of these people is sometimes stressful because, you know, how do I live up to that? It almost gives me imposter syndrome, but on the same coin, it’s also very motivating.”

“I have these people on my team, and they’re great, and they believe in me, and they put their trust in me, and I don’t want to let them down. It propels and motivates me to keep doing better, not just for me and myself, for my family, but for my team as well.”

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and high are the expectations for an establishment that comes in as hot as Moderne. I remember wanting to visit in the first few weeks and having no shot- some people even weaseled in just to take Instagram pictures, not able to get an actual table.

“None of us were expecting that, at all… I didn’t even do any marketing,” Nguyen said. “We did a grand opening and lines queued up… expectations were very much high, and especially if you’re waiting three hours for food, you’re like, this better blow my freaking mind.”

Consistency in quality of the food and beverage is key, but so is consistency in service. Nguyen feels lucky that unlike the restaurant industry as a whole, Moderne hasn’t seen a lot of turnover, allowing the kitchen and bar staff to really perfect each item on the menu.

“You've you got to replicate that dish hundreds of times during a dinner rush, and it's got to taste the same every single time,” Nguyen said.

Some of those items were cooked up by Michael himself; he and the head sushi chef at Maki collaborated to create the signature dishes at The Moderne, including my personal favorite- the KFC (Korean Fried Chicken… run, don’t walk to try it!).

“I didn’t intend to. I’m very much the business guy. I enjoy cooking as a hobby, but I wouldn’t categorize myself as a top-level professional chef. Maybe an advanced home cook, if anything,” Nguyen said.

Regardless of the credentials in the kitchen, Michael has his sights set on some of the highest recognition in the restaurant industry for Moderne; he’s hoping to join the growing number of Orlando businesses that have been Michelin-recognized. The most recent guide was just announced, and The Moderne was not featured… but he’s not giving up hope.

“I think what we're going to approach that Michelin-caliber this year, probably very soon. So that's the goal… with the kitchen, and the front of house, just further fine-tuning our craft to eventually become nationally recognized,” Nguyen said.

“You have no way of getting them in the door, it’s just that they show up. But if they show up, I want to be ready. I want to blow their minds.”

With those aspirations, there are no off-days. You have to bring you’re A-Game every.single.time. And as Orlando’s food scene gets more crowded, you not only have to be consistent- you have to stand out.

“With social media, my explore page is all restaurants, all restaurants,” Nguyen said. “There’s always something new going on. There’s a new restaurant here, new this, new that, new and shiny. Everybody’s so fixated on that, and it’s really hard to stay relevant and keep pushing the envelope and not get buried by the sea of new concepts.”

So what would he hope the Michelin judges order if they stop by The Moderne?

So. Many. Things.

“For some of our sashimi-style appetizers, I would do the tuna truffle, the tuna kobashi… then we’ll work into some of our hot small plate options,” Nguyen said. “I hate recommending the KFC just because everybody orders it, but it’s just so good at the same time, so I’d want them to experience that crunch, you know?”

“Then the gyozas we have, we have this shrimp and crab gyoza… we make them fresh in-house, hand folded, served with a truffle beef stew, a yuzu aioli, pickled cherry tomatoes, and black sesame and herbs. It’s just got this beautiful blend of being light, refreshing, the perfect level of acidity and saltiness, it’s so good, so tender. That would be it for apps.”

For the main course, he’d recommend his personal favorite, the duck- or the braised pork, a nod to a classic Vietnamese dish he grew up eating with a Venezuelan twist, courtesy his head chef.

If the judges are somehow still hungry, he’s got the perfect sweet ending: the yuzu panna cotta.

“It’s infused with Sichuan peppercorns, so it’s got this little tingling element for your tongue… it’s banging,” Nguyen said.

The creativity of the menu means Nguyen never gets bored eating at his restaurant, and each night the team in the kitchen creates a ‘family meal’- freestyling an off-menu dish for the staff.

“They make some crazy good stuff… I’m constantly in a state of eating. It’s hard to stay on top of fitness,” he laughed.

In addition to getting Michelin in the door, he’s hoping to help his parents close the door on the working part of their lives. His mom has technically retired, but his father is still at it.

“Seeing them relax a little bit and being a little more hands-off is very fulfilling for me,” Nguyen said. “When you’re young, you just don’t have perspective, and you're ignorant to a lot of things. But the more I grew up and made my transition into the adult world, everything that my parents were doing, whether I agreed with it or not, came from a good purpose. They just wanted the best for their family.”

“Coming from a whole different country, with whole different cultures and cultural norms, coming to America, and starting over, I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.”

It’s something innate in us- that crosses cultural boundaries, countries and continents- the desire for future generations to have it better than we did. I believe this is what led my grandmother to do what she did for us, when she couldn’t for her children. My witnessing a bankruptcy auction is not so different from Michael’s witnessing of the hard work his parents put in to creating a legacy in a new country; both shaped our childhood and thrust us on a path to pursue the hard work in hopes of creating our own success, and maybe make it a little easier on those coming behind us.

“This lifestyle’s not meant for everybody,” Nguyen said. “there are going to be some difficult days where you feel like you’re drowning, and that doesn’t go away for weeks, even months, sometimes even years. But if it’s something you really want to pursue and you think you have what it takes, once you set your goal and set your plan, the next thing to do is just trust the process.”

“If you believe in something, and you're doing your absolute best to pursue that, the fruits of your labor will eventually bear themselves to you. Whether that's six months, a year, or two years, five years… everybody's story is different. If it's really what you want, don't give up. Pursue it relentlessly until you get there.”

9 views0 comments


bottom of page