Chef Thai Dang was wrapping up a public cooking demonstration in the culinary studio at Macy’s on State Street. He’d been in constant motion for an hour, constructing a garlic noodle salad while sharing his culinary knowledge and biography with a standing room-only audience. Without slowing down or missing a beat, he talked about his immigration to the United States from Vietnam with his parents and nine siblings; about the colonial French and Chinese influences on Vietnamese cuisine; about the history of oyster sauce and Sriracha; and about HaiSous, his now one-year-old, highly acclaimed restaurant in Pilsen. With only a few minutes left, he took one last question from the audience: “What does the name of your restaurant mean?”
“Two pennies,” answered the chef. For the first time all afternoon he fell silent, making eye contact with his wife and business partner—Danielle Dang—who stood at the back of the room. After a few long seconds he added, “That’s how much money we had to open HaiSous with.” He hesitated and laughed. “It’s a good story.”
The story goes like this. In 2012, Thai Dang became part-owner and executive chef of Embeya, a high-end Southeast Asian restaurant in the West Loop. Danielle Pizzutillo (at that time his girlfriend; the couple married in 2015) was a renowned mixologist, and she took charge of the beverage program. Together, they led Embeya to considerable success.
In 2014, unexpectedly, things crumbled when the majority owner, Attila Gyulai, fired Danielle after she expressed concern about how he was handling business. The following year, Gyulai fired Thai, and it soon became clear that Danielle’s earlier concerns about the business were well-founded. Gyulai and his wife and business partner Komal Patel, according to federal prosecutors, misappropriated funds and, according to the criminal complaint in February of this year, engaged in “a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses.”
Patel and Gyulai closed Embeya in 2016 and fled the country, leaving Thai with an estimated one-and-a-half-million dollars in damages.
The Dangs were stunned, but they mobilized to open their own restaurant in Pilsen, only to encounter the trail of destruction Gyulai and Patel left behind. According to the Dangs, their restaurant partners failed to pay multiple city fines, bailed on the Embeya lease and defaulted on a large business loan. There seemed no end to the obstacles the Dangs encountered as they attempted to secure the funding and licenses to open HaiSous.
Two weeks after the Macy’s cooking demonstration, I met Thai and Danielle an hour before the restaurant opened for dinner. HaiSous is one of the best-looking restaurants in Chicago, with exposed brick, big windows, gleaming open kitchen and bamboo accents. When I arrived, Danielle was finishing a meeting with the waitstaff while Thai oversaw the hanging of new artwork on the walls. Danielle swept through the room, producing a glass of water for me and we sat down together at a table in the dining room. I had the sense that sitting down wasn’t something this hardworking couple often allowed themselves.
“It was a time of desperation. We couldn’t sit around. We had to open,” says Thai about that tenuous period of legal and financial hardship. After years of success in the culinary world, they had each cultivated a ferocious work ethic. Now they would have to push themselves further than they’d ever imagined. “We wore multiple hats,” says Thai. Danielle served as architect, designer, foreman and project manager. Together they acquired the permits they needed, assembled a staff (some of whom they’d worked with at Embeya), and developed a menu. On June 21, 2017, HaiSous opened, followed four months later by Cà Phê Dá, the attached café. What was the highlight of the past year, I ask? Danielle replies, “The chance to try again, to rebuild our lives.”
Metaphors about rebuilding, structure and foundation come up a lot with the Dangs, perhaps because of Danielle’s background as an architect. If Embeya was built on a foundation of deception and lies, HaiSous is built on a foundation of mutual respect and integrity. The Dangs have created a collaborative work culture that includes profit sharing and high hourly wages for staff, and they have remarkably little turnover, a rarity in the restaurant world. The menu at HaiSous lists the name and position of each staff member. That listing may be a small thing, but it reflects the regard that management has for employees.
On a subsequent visit, I spoke with Leticia Rodarte, the pastry chef for HaiSous and Cà Phê Dá. Rodarte produces innovative, swoon-inducing treats including Bánh Trái Vi, lychee Danish, a buttery cream-cheese pastry soaked in lychee syrup and filled with whole lychee fruit. Rodarte came to HaiSous last August when a friend told her they were hiring waitstaff. She didn’t particularly want to wait tables, though she was in bad need of a job. When Danielle learned of Rodarte’s background as a graduate of the French Pastry School she asked her, “Do you want to be on the floor or in the kitchen?”
“It was the most amazing kitchen I’d ever seen,” says Rodarte. Instead of taking the waitressing job, she accepted a position as prep cook, and when the café opened and pastry production began, she assisted the pastry chef. Now Rodarte is the pastry chef, training her own assistant. “They look after you,” she says of Thai and Danielle. “They ask how you are doing, how they can help, they ask if you are happy.” It’s a sound strategy, she says. “If I’m happy—the pastries come out beautiful!”
Danielle attributes their cooperative approach in part to the injustice they experienced. “We got screwed and we are continuously having to deal with that. It’s going to be a long time before we really get ourselves out of it. That’s all terrible, but something great came out of it. Now I know that the point of this is different. The point of this is to create a positive culture. The point of this is to inspire our staff to love their jobs, to push themselves, and for us to be fair. It’s not about being millionaires and opening multiple restaurants. We’re not trying to be grand restaurateurs. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
“Because of what we’ve gone through,” adds Thai, “we want to create something more meaningful, something that has heart.”
Many of the dishes at HaiSous originated in Thai’s family. “I created menu items that have a story,” he says. Goidu du, shaved papaya salad—one of the most popular items at HaiSous—is influenced by a dish one of his sisters prepared for him on special occasions when he was a child. Bò Nuong Toi, grilled ribeye, employs his mother’s trick of using the Swiss-created Maggi sauce in the marinade. Mì Chay, a Chinese-influenced egg noodle dish topped with pickled Fresno pepper, is based on his mother’s standby party dish. “She would make big pans of it,” he says.
Thai prides himself on presentation, especially on interactivity: the way in which a dish invites the customer to engage with it. The egg noodle dish is served piled high along with two spoons and instructions to mash down and mix up the ingredients. The grilled ribeye comes with a wedge of lime and a container of salt, black pepper, chilis and kaffir lime leaf. “You squeeze the lime juice in there and it makes a sauce that you dip the ribeye in.”
“We built the restaurant around the cuisine,” adds Danielle. The kitchen is open for guests to see, enhancing interactivity and connection between diners and the food. The open kitchen also highlights the unique Lo Dat, charcoal-fired clay pots, the same type his mother used back in Vietnam, which were custom made to reproduce the flavor of Thai’s favorite childhood grilled seafood and meats. The bamboo tables in the dining room were made by Thai’s aunts and uncles.
The beverage program, too, is built around the cuisine. Danielle’s path to the culinary world has been less straightforward than Thai’s, who graduated from the now-closed L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, where as a student he dreamed of opening his own restaurant. From there he progressed through excellent kitchens, including a stint at L2o with chef Laurent Gras, the opportunity which drew him to Chicago in 2009 from Washington, D. C. Thai and Danielle met in D. C., where she worked as an architect, and she came with him to Chicago, assuming she’d find work in a firm. This turned out to be hard, even with thirteen years of experience in the field. She was too experienced for entry-level jobs and lacked the required certification in Illinois to be a senior architect. The economy had not recovered from 2008, building was slow, and the kind of mid-level position she sought was eliminated at many firms.
She found a job as a bartender at the Elysian Hotel, assuming it would be temporary. But the more she learned about cocktails, the more interested she became. She took the work seriously and began to study the bar’s high-end spirits. “I went through every single bottle, every single day. I picked it up, I read it, and I figured out how to use it in a cocktail.” After six months, she says it was like a “chip had been planted.” Danielle began to understand the ingredients of a cocktail the same way she understood the materials of a building. As beverage director at Embeya, she received rave reviews.
“Danielle has a special gift for always pushing through, always wanting to understand and learn. Whatever she does, she does one-hundred percent,” says Thai. “She would always ask me, ‘How did you create this, how did you cut this?’ Those questions helped her.”
“I tried to take everything you did in the kitchen and apply it to beverage,” she says.
Thai and Danielle see HaiSous as a means to challenge themselves, to achieve greater excellence in their craft. Cà Phê Dá serves a different function. The café was inspired by the coffee scene in Hanoi, which the Dangs fell in love with during a trip to Vietnam. From its inception, Cà Phê Dá has been a means to connect directly to their Pilsen home. The couple live just down the street, and they want to make their business accessible to their neighbors. The café menu, which Thai describes as more playful than the restaurant menu, features banh mi, chicken wings, Vietnamese pastry, cocktails, local beer and coffee. All menu items are under $12, and Cà Phê Dá opens early (7am) and closes late (midnight). While I spoke with Thai and Danielle, the café was packed with District 12 police officers chatting with neighborhood residents, part of a “Coffee with a Cop” series, a casual, open forum with no agenda other than connection and dialogue. Thai and Danielle donated the coffee for the event, and they mingled with the attendees, including a police officer who grew up in Pilsen. “This kind of thing is my biggest joy,” says Thai.
Thai and Danielle are wrapping up a triumphant first year. HaiSous has earned glowing reviews, both locally and nationally, secured a position on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list and was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as semifinalist for best new restaurant. They admit, though, that they must remind themselves to acknowledge their accomplishments.
“When you’re always striving to be the best, with your nose to the grindstone, you can get bogged down,” says Danielle. They both say the restaurant still feels new, still evolving, still in the process of becoming what they want it to be. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” says Thai.
They have plenty to be bitter about, too, yet there’s not a trace of bitterness about them. The Dangs are living in the moment and looking to the future, but much of what makes HaiSous special and distinctive has been shaped by the challenges of their recent past. The couple openly acknowledge the hardship that the Embeya scandal has wrought upon them without dwelling on it. We didn’t discuss the successful settlement that Thai was awarded—and never paid—in his lawsuit against Gyulai, or Gyulai’s federal indictment this past February for fraud. On the subject, they tend to be philosophical and reflective. “Hopefully,” says Danielle, “we’ve learned enough from our mistakes.”
“What you need to understand,” says Thai, “is that what we got in this trade-off is one-hundred percent freedom. We have no one breathing down our necks, no corporation or restaurant group that owns us. We have no limitations. We can close whenever we want, open whenever we want. If something doesn’t work we can change it right away, we can implement new things when we want.” His voice grew more animated and emphatic. “That’s the beauty of what we’ve created, that’s the outcome of the sacrifices we’ve made and everything we went through. What all that has given us is freedom.”
It’s almost time to open, a staff member sweeping the floor, others setting tables, the kitchen swirling with activity. “Sometimes I can’t fathom how we established this,” says Danielle.
“We took our two pennies,” says Thai, “and rubbed them together.”