Chef Kevin Tien, 31, has many accolades under his belt. A two-time James Beard Awards semi-finalist, Tien has also been a semi-finalist for Eater’s Young Guns. In 2017, Himitsu—Tien’s miniscule but mighty neighborhood restaurant in Petworth—was named Eater DC’s editor’s choice for restaurant of the year.
Since then, Tien has competed on Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet and is now opening a new restaurant on Capitol Hill.
Prior to all this, Tien was working on an oil rig in the middle of an ocean.
[Side note: it doesn’t take more than five minutes of hanging out with the young chef to know that he’s filled with unique stories and an infectiously fun attitude.]
“My mom got me the [oil rig] job at her company,” Tien laughs. “I couldn’t say no to my mom!”
Anyone who has dined at Himitsu is probably grateful for the moment when Tien’s now fiancé—Emily—accepted a job in D.C., prompting Tien to call his supervisor from the rig and put in immediate notice.
Upon arriving in the District, he quickly worked his way up the ranks of the D.C. restaurant scene, including heavy hitters like Pineapple and Pearls and Oyamel on his resume. He often attributes his success to mentors like José Andrés.
“It was day three of working at Oyamel and [Jose] walks in. He comes right up to me, knows my name and starts chatting.” Tien shakes his head in awe.
“I was this out of town line cook that someone else hired. He didn’t have to do that. But he always reads everyone’s resumes. He knows all the people. At that point I knew if I owned a restaurant I would want one like his.”
Tien carries this same trait of dedication to his staff into his own endeavors. From being Inspired by Andres’ staff trips—“He paid for all of us to go to Six Flags. If someone didn’t have a ride, he provided buses. And he paid for everyone’s food.”—to nurturing his staff’s goals, Tien prides himself on creating a good support system.
“People were very surprised,” Tien says of Himitsu’s early days. “It’s Japanese-inspired but nothing is very traditionally Japanese. There’s no sushi rolls or other traditional concepts. It’s very out of the box. I like to surprise people with who I am as a chef. The best part is having people discover these aspects about me.”
With that, he reaches for a bag of McDonalds chicken nuggets (surprise!).
“I’m waiting for the day McDonalds makes me a brand ambassador. I eat there every day.” Tien chuckles at the look on my face. “It reminds me of growing up. It was always affordable for me and my family but also fun. I respect that. And I’m obsessed,” he shrugs, taking a bite out of his burger. His expression reminds me of the kid who got McDonalds at lunch while everyone else frowned at their lukewarm cafeteria ziti.
While Chef Tien happily munches on chicken nuggets, our conversation turns to his newest venture: Emilie’s. Set to open sometime in 2019, the new Capitol Hill restaurant will have a daily-changing menu composed of small plates served cart-style with some larger family style entrees. Most outlets have described this approach as “dim sum style”. Tien disagrees with this depiction.
“There can be cart-style service without being dim sum,” he emphasizes. “Because I’m Asian, people assume cart-style means dim sum. It’s one of those ingrained micro-aggressions that people don’t realize.”
Tien’s vast culinary background often goes unnoticed in light of his Asian-inspired work at Himitsu. “I’ve worked in fine dining. I’ve done New American cuisine. I’ve worked in Mexican restaurants. [At Emilie’s] I want to be able to showcase everything along those lines.”
While upcoming Emilie’s cart-style service is not Asian, it is inspired by Tien’s childhood experiences.
“We’d always do this big Saturday night dinner,” he describes. “My grandma cooked the whole day and we would play in the backyard, get eggs from chickens, and go to the grocery store. I was always peeking into the kitchen to see if I could help…can I make the dumplings? Can I stir the pot? Can I pick the herbs?”
A wistful look appears on his face.
“It’s how I grew up eating.We’d have small plates with a big family style sharing dish to finish off. People were reaching across the table. Nothing was formal. These are the memories I have. So, I want to create these memories for someone else.”
For Tien, Emilie’s is a representation of more memories than that of family meals.
“I didn’t have a real father figure in my life growing up. I had a single mom who worked hard days and nights. Sometimes she could afford a babysitter but most of the time I would wake up early, cook breakfast for me and my sister, drop her at the school bus and then run to catch mine. When we got home, I’d make dinner.” This was all while Tien was in the third grade.
Soon after, his family moved to California where they met a close friend of his uncle’s named Joey Fleur.
“He was always there to take care of me and my sister. He encouraged me to sign up for school activities. He took us camping. We had lots of Sunday dinners together. He always made things more fun and more relatable.”
There’s a pause before Tien continues.
“He passed away from cancer two and a half years ago. It was tough to hear because he didn’t even tell anyone in our family until a month before because he didn’t want us to worry.” Tien’s emotions are vivid in his expression.
“He spent all this time taking care of us right until the end.”
Emilie’s, a prominent name among the women in the Fleur family, stands largely as Tien’s tribute to Uncle Joey.
A much larger undertaking than Himitsu, Emilie’s will seat about 100 people and has plans to eventually provide a lunch experience as well. “I love the idea of a moving raw bar with rotating oysters, fish, and crudos. Maybe a cart of banchans and pickles. And fresh bread roving around the room…who’s going to say no to bread with different butters, dips, and spreads?” Not me.
“Right now, just imagining all it could be is the fun part,” Tien excitedly states.
While Emilie’s is a partnership with Jinya Ramen’s Sam Shoja, Tien has complete autonomy over the project. “Sam has been a close friend for a while. He knew this style of service was something I was always interested in. He puts all the systems in place and gives me the freedom.”
With a Bachelor’s degree in Finance, a Master’s degree in Statistical Analysis from LSU (surprise!), and an insatiable appetite for improvement—”I’m the kind of person that hates everything they do”—it’s doubtful that Tien will steer Emilie’s in any direction other than one of success. And, most importantly, surprise.
828 Upshur St. NW, Washington, DC 20011
Open Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-10pm; Friday/Saturday from 5pm-11pm