An interview with restaurateur Ele Tran

Ele Tran at The Little Duck Diner. Photo by Geoff Johnson

People often tell Ele Tran that they eat at one of her restaurants every day of the week. That could technically be true as of this fall, when she and her partner Sean open their seventh restaurant, Flock to the Wok, in the Whitaker Street space formerly occupied by Hangfire.  

Born in Vietnam, Ele and her family moved to the United States when she was a baby—first to California, then New York, then Florida. Along the way she met Sean, originally from Laos, and together they found their way to Savannah, where, since 2001, they’ve built a mini restaurant empire: Fire Street Food, Chive Sea Bar & Lounge, Flying Monk Noodle Bar, Current Kitchen & Cocktails, the Vault Kitchen + Market, and Little Duck Diner. Each spot is inspired by the food Ele and Sean grew up with, and based on the same work ethic they learned from their parents. “I’m usually at one of the restaurants running around as a host or a busser, and Sean is always cooking in one of the kitchens,” says Ele. “Our staff calls and tells us which spot is busiest—our life is on call.”

On Vietnamese food:

I love pork egg rolls—we serve them at the Flying Monk. They’re made with bean thread, ground pork, wild mushrooms and more. Everything is marinated and wrapped in an egg roll wrapper, then served with our special “nuoc mam,” which is Vietnamese for dipping sauce.

On Laotian food:

I could eat sticky rice every day. That’s the base of Laotian food, and we serve it at the Vault. I also love green papaya salad. It’s served with lemon and hot chili peppers and is so hot it will make you cry, but it’s addictive.

On cooking at home:

I make breakfast. Our kids are 12, 13 and 14 so there’s a lot of eggs, sausage and bacon. Sean likes to make grilled fish and roasted mushroom salad, which he learned to cook from his grandmother and mother. My mom also comes over and makes Vietnamese food for us—usually bánh xèo and lots of soups.

On word-of-mouth business:

We’re very grateful for all of our local customers. Tourists often ask locals where to go and I hear them saying, ‘If you want breakfast, go to Little Duck Diner. If you want good noodles, go to Flying Monk.’ We’re making good food, but we’re also making memories. When you look at Instagram, you really see that—all the occasions and good times that we’re a part of.

On Flock to the Wok:

We want to bring healthy, from-scratch Chinese food to the downtown area. We’ll have things on the menu like sesame chicken, fresh green beans and soup dumplings. When we go to New York, that’s all we ever eat. Flock to the Wok will be good food that the whole family can enjoy. And downstairs we’ll have the Peacock Lounge—a fun and hip bar with appetizers.

On what’s next:

There will definitely be an eighth restaurant. We want to keep going. I think at the end of the day, we’d like to be developers, maybe have a hotel with a restaurant underneath. I’d love that—when the time comes, of course!

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