“If I don’t cook, I don’t feel fulfilled.” –Nicole Pham
Nicole Pham’s career started at age 14, selling homemade cigarettes, candies, and desserts. “I always wanted to have a business,” explained Pham, owner of Lemon Grass restaurants. This early determination, imbued with an unflappable spirit, surely saved her life. It is her continued passion for cooking paired with her steely independence that steer her life now.
Life changed forever when before her 18th birthday Nicole Pham escaped from Vietnam on a boat. She ended up in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for the next year before making her way to California.
Through connections with friends Pham moved to Olympia, albeit with $25 in her pocket. Good fortune showed up in the form of an adoptive family. She went to Capital High School, continued her education at South Puget Sound Community College for an AA in accounting and finished her degree at The Evergreen State College.
While pursuing a career in accounting, Pham also cooked for family, friends and co-workers. A year as an interpreter in Malaysia found her watching, studying and eating plenty of street food and shopping at the markets. She ate it all – marveling at the freshness and varieties of taste. Thai food especially appealed to her. Back in Olympia she did stints working at a couple Asian restaurants – always liking her own food better.
This in and of itself is a success story; however, another life altering change occurred. In 1996, Pham was laid off from her job at the Pabst Brewing Company. As it turned out, and as Pham affirms, that was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Everyone had been encouraging her to open a restaurant. Of course, this is easier said than done. Banks are not eager to loan to an untried restaurateur. The restaurant business demands long hours. But Pham gathered together support from family and friends, fed a lot people her food and forged ahead.
Blessed with a keen eye for business, Pham ended up buying the downtown building BEFORE her first Lemon Grass even opened. Now that’s commitment.
The Olympia restaurant opened May 13, 1998, almost 15 years ago. Since that time the Lemon Grass has expanded the downtown location, opened a Tumwater location in 2010, and added a Lacey restaurant in early 2013. Her brother Dao Pham manages the Lacey restaurant while her brother Hung Pham and wife Tiffany cook and run the Tumwater café. Even her mom is on hand to help as is husband Jim Porter.
Pham is pleased to offer high quality vegetables and meats – all cut that day. “I make all the sauces,” which provides a high level of consistency among the locations. She continuously thinks about the dishes and ways to improve the cooking.
Her life has taught her that your life is created by what begins in your mind. With regard to her recipes, her business and her life, she asks, “What can I do better?”
It is important to note that each plate is prepared upon ordering. It hasn’t been sitting in a warming bin. This kind of individual preparation takes time. The café in Tumwater has 48 seats with only a few steps from the kitchen to the table. This means the wait time is usually minimal. The downtown restaurant is 50% bigger, with approximately 80-85 seats. The newest Lacey restaurant is relatively huge – with over 160 seats. Even at the Hawks Prairie location each dish is prepared when it is ordered. Spring rolls may be ‘fast,’ but diners must understand it takes time – just as it does at home. You might get faster service in Tumwater or downtown, but you won’t get fresher or better food.
When food is painstakingly prepared and packed with fresh tastes, it makes sense to sit down, relax and enjoy it. Sip a cocktail and order an appetizer. Enjoy the lighting, water sounds and overall ambiance. Don’t hurry. It’s all worth the wait. If you are under any time constraints, be sure to make a reservation and go before or after the crowded dining hours.
After my conversation with Pham, I thought how lucky we are in Thurston County to be able to be fed by the talents and dedication of a tenacious woman who shares her passion for cooking with all her patrons. It is a good thing that she was not afraid to pursue her life.
Eat Well – Be Well.
Lemon Grass Restaurant
212 4th Ave W. in downtown Olympia
Lemon Grass Café
5801 Capitol Blvd. SE in Tumwater
Lemon Grass Restaurant and Lounge
8101 Quinault Dr. NE in Lacey