The Couple Behind Hanoi House Talk Vietnam, Chef John Nguyen And Brunch

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Located in the East Village, you’ll find Hanoi House. A darling Vietnamese restaurant with exquisite food; everything from decor to dishes is worth the visit. Owners Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell opened the restaurant in January of 2017, and it’s already become a neighborhood favorite in the busy area.

Chef John Nguyen is the mastermind behind the menu, where you’ll see appetizers like Banh Khot Nhim Bien (Little Uni Pancakes) and Goi Du Du (Papaya & Crispy Pig Ear) as well as main dishes such as Chao Hao (Clams & Congee) and Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef). The restaurant is also open for brunch and definitely worth a visit.

Downtown had a chance to ask Leveen and Lowell a few questions about the restaurant, why Vietnamese cuisine and working with your significant other.

Photo: Courtesy of Sara Leveen & Ben Lowell

When did your interest in food and restaurants begin?

Ben Lowell: I don’t remember ever NOT being into food. I always cooked with my mom and was the kid at all my friends’ dinner tables that would ask for seconds. When they were eating string cheese, I loved feta, when they were crushing gummy bears, I couldn’t get enough dark chocolate. I was a big eater and willing to try anything. When Sara and I traveled the world in 2013, however, is when my perspective on food evolved. I realized that with very little in the way of tools or technology you could still make incredible food with love and attention. That helped me to appreciate both ends of the NY restaurant spectrum from the amazing cheap eats to the gorgeous tasting menus available and everything in between.

Sara Leveen: Always! My mom had us cooking as soon as we could read a recipe and our dad would take us all over NYC to mom&pop pop restaurants for authentic flavors of the world. I recall eating white borscht and blintzes for brunch at Christine’s Polish Diner as a kid. Mom was a small-town girl from New England who did everything by hand, made her owns jams and pickles and cakes from scratch. So my sisters and I developed penchants for both cooking and dining out from go.

 

How did you get into the restaurant industry?

BL: a friend of mine got me a job at Crabby Dan’s; a seafood restaurant with a retail seafood market. I learned how to receive a product, break down and butcher whole fish, prep and cook. The market allowed me to interact with people in a way most kitchen jobs don’t allow helping me realize how much I like the face to face part of the industry.  After working that job for a few years, I realized it’s the industry I wanted to be in and went to the HRIM program at the University of Delaware in hopes of making a career out of it.

SL: I had worked in Italian restaurants growing up but didn’t consider it my career path until the summer after my Junior year of college. My sister convinced me to take an internship with her company in food and beverage management and I was immediately hooked. The internship provided the unique challenge of managing employees with decades of experience, having only been in the business for a few years myself. Once I learned how to manage, support and motivate restaurant employees, I knew I had found my calling!

 

How did the two of you meet?

SL: I was the project manager for Makoto, a new Starr restaurant opening in Miami, and Ben was one of the servers. I noticed him on Day 1; he was the know-it-all New Yorker who had all the answers about Japanese food.

 

Why Vietnamese? I read that you traveled there – but how did that end up in opening a restaurant of your own with Vietnamese cuisine?

BL: We just felt a certain way in Hanoi. After traveling to 17 countries and over 50 cities together, it was the place that really stuck with us. When we returned to New York, we found ourselves craving a place to relive the dining experiences that we had there.

Photo: Nick Solares

 

What has been the hardest part of opening your own place?

SL: We’re so connected to Hanoi House; it’s as though it relies on us to exist. There is a lot of pressure that comes along with that. Our goal in our second year of business is to transfer more responsibilities to our employees…to teach and empower them to run the business the way we would and in some cases, even better.

 

Working with your significant other can be challenging at times. What thoughts did the two of you do before going into business together?

Both: It was never “should we do this together?”, but rather “when are we going to do this?”. We spent every moment of eight months together and returned with no doubt in our mind that we would have a place together. It was never debated.

 

What are your best tips to couples thinking about doing the same?

Both: Carve out time to be a couple first and business partners second. You need one hour a day to maintain a sense of coupledom and keep your personal lives on track.

 

Hanoi House looks incredible! How did you go about decorating?

Both: We visited Hanoi a few weeks after signing our lease and gathered inspiration from shop houses, coffee shops, and open-air restaurants. Most of the furniture and finishes were ultimately sourced from antique shops in upstate NY and New England. It’s all about how the pieces made us feel and whether they could contribute to the transformation of this space into a home.

Photo: Nick Solares

 

How did you meet Chef John Nguyen?

BL: Craigslist! He was living in China but was visiting family in California when he saw our ad. He prepared a tasting for us and we knew on the 3rd dish that he was the one.

 

What are some of your favorite things on the menu?

SL: Bun Cha and Pho with oxtail.
BL: Beef Tongue Sandwich and Papaya & Crispy Pig Ear Salad.

 

How often do you introduce new items to the menu?

SL: We change the menu every month or two, or as product availability dictates. Chef John runs specials several times per week which keeps it interesting for our regular guests.

 

How did serving brunch come about? And how has it been received?

BL: Pho is often eaten early in the day in Vietnam so it was natural to open for brunch. Plus, we’ve all had that hungover craving for a hot bowl of noodle soup! It has been received very well. Guests young and old, families or friends…all love spring rolls and noodle soup any time of day.

Photo: Sydney Yorkshire

 

When not at the restaurant, what do the two of you enjoy doing?

BL: I enjoy starting my day with a trip to the gym, then having a big lunch to fuel up for dinner service.
SL: I enjoy coffee and eggs over my laptop, working at my own pace into the afternoon.
Both: Winding down with a great local beer or cocktail and a delicious cheeseburger. See it’s all about food with us!

 

What are some of your other favorite places in Downtown NYC for food and drinks?

Both: The Wayland, Uncle Boons, Rubirosa, PDT, Han Dynasty, Fiaschetteria Pistoia, Chinese Tuxedo. SO many!