AURORA | The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine hails back to the colonization of Vietnam by the French in 1877 — even in the words were influential.
The word for Vietnamese “phô” is attributed to the French “feu,” which means fire. Chefs often link how the French helped the Vietnamese create “phô” based on the iconic “pot-au-feu,” a French dish of slowly boiled meat and vegetables in broth.
Vietnamese cuisine is hardly the only menu heavily influenced by fusion, which is a mixed bag for Thoa Nguyen.
Asian fusion was never something that made sense to Thoa, save for French-Asian fusion.
“I was against Asian fusion for so long, but with the French and Vietnamese relationship already existing after the colonization of Vietnam, it just made sense,” Thoa said.
The journey to opening Banh and Butter began nearly 20 years ago. The name is, literally, “bread and butter.” “Banh” is the Vietnamese turn on “pain,” French for bread.
Her parents carry a storied career in Vietnamese cooking, having been the owners of New Saigon, in Denver, for more than 35 years, an iconic Vietnamese restaurant.
They sold the restaurant five years ago, however, but they still own the adjacent New Saigon Bakery and Deli on South Federal Boulevard.
At 14, Thoa would help her mother in the kitchen at home with tasks like marinating and skewering shrimp.
“So, that started at a very young age, going into the kitchen,” she said. “Just interacting with my mom” was what drew her there.
Thoa’s family never ate much beyond the traditional Vietnamese fare, if they were eating at home. If they wanted Italian, they would go out for pasta. If they wanted pizza, “we’d just go to Pizza Hut,” she said.
It wasn’t until a night watching chef Giada de Laurentiis make a shrimp scampi on a Food Network show that other global cuisines suddenly became intriguing.
“When I saw that shrimp scampi, I thought, ‘I’ve got to learn how to make this,’” Thoa said.
She learned the recipe, made it for her parents, and they loved it.
Teaching herself that dish sparked curiosity and ambition to learn more, much more.
Given that Thoa’s mom was the dinner cook at home, Thoa would make lunch for her three older sisters and one younger sister, in the vein of gourmet paninis and other sandwiches.
Fast forward a few years, and Thoa is on her way to France to learn the art and chemistry of pastry. Bringing home her training and credentials, her parents opened the New Saigon Bakery and Deli, just for Thoa.
There was just one problem for Thoa. Over time, it was morphing into more of a deli than a bakery.
Given its location along Federal, the need from the clientele was more of a quick grab-and-go for lunch or dinner, rather than a bakery and cafe where people could linger.
What she saw was a traditional Vietnamese banh mi shop, and not her vision.
“I wanted a cafe where people can sit and have a coffee and enjoy pastry,” she said.
That made for a difficult decision. Thoa wanted to focus on French pastry, and she decided she needed to leave New Saigon Bakery and Deli.
There’s the underlying pressure of always wanting to make parents proud, and that pressure is often especially keen among Asian immigrant families. Recognizing that they built the establishment for her after finishing school in France, she feared disappointing her parents.
There was guilt, not only as a result of their investment into her, but she was worried of seeming unappreciative.
The sacrifices her parents made in ensuring a good life for their family weren’t lost on her.
“You feel like you owe them everything,” she said.
The Nguyen family fled Vietnam during the war, while Thoa’s oldest sister was just 2 years old. They found passage on a small vessel suited for 50 people. There were nearly 200 people on the boat, as Thoa remembers being told.
Her family was picked up along the coast of Australia, and since Thoa’s father had a cousin in Colorado, they made their way east and ended up in the Centennial State.
Ultimately, to her relief, the family supported her decision to move on with her career.
Following a brief stint at Whole Foods, Thoa opened Banh and Butter on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora.
The time spent at Whole Foods, while repetitive, did serve as a learning opportunity for the corporate and business side of things, like margins, food waste and other necessities of a successful working kitchen.
When she was working with her parents, they handled all of the business side of things.
“When you’re working for a family business, I just go through the day, we make what we need to make and we get a paycheck at the end of the day,” Thoa said.
Through these rites of passage was born Banh and Butter Bakery Cafe.
The name says it all.
Thoa’s vision of a place where people can sit, have coffee and enjoy pastry is coming to life.
Thoa has taken over the old Third Culture location on Colfax, which was an unsuccessful Mochi Donut spot. That made it the perfect turnkey establishment, outfitted with all of the accouterments needed for a working bakery.
Her neighbors have been helpful as well.
Heimi Haynes owns the building that houses Banh and Butter and the neighboring Baba and Pops pierogi shop.
A couple doors farther down is the People’s Building. That’s an events venue run by Aaron Vega, a well known East Colfax face who tirelessly works to keep the Aurora Cultural Arts District alive.
Both have offered what Thoa says has been priceless feedback, opinions and connections for setting up on Colfax, a worthwhile risk, she said.
“Give East Colfax a chance. I think it has a bad rep and note everyone sees the potential in it,” she said. “There are a lot of artists and small businesses that could use the support and I would like the community to give us a chance.”
Location aside, the draw anywhere she chose to set up had to be what comes out of the oven every day.
Her flaky layered pastries, “laminates” is the industry term, are very loyal to the traditional methods of making those French pastries. In addition to traditional flaky fare, she prefers to stick to traditional formulas for just about everything, not straying too far because there is history within them.
“I love traditional French pastry. I like to make sure that a cream puff looks like a cream puff,” she said.
“I try to be a little modern, but I can never stick with it,” Thoa said.
The display cases of Banh and Butter are packed every morning with freshly made pastry, savory and sweet.
The best seller and customer favorite is the strawberry-and-cream croissant, boasting freshly sliced strawberries and whipped cream stuffed to overflowing from the laminate.
There is also a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches to choose from, including a banh mi, which is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, filled with layers of meat, mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, chilies, fresh cucumbers and herbs.
Thoa likes to sometimes substitute a croissant for the baguette, when she’s treating herself. She also loves to fill croissants with apples, bleu cheese and chili oil, or separately with Laughing Cow cheese and raspberry jam.
But the bakery business isn’t all sweetness. It’s a business.
She’s learned that the numbers side of owning a business is critical and consuming.
As Banh and Butter gets off the ground, she’s considering expanding to more than just a brick and mortar establishment. She has plans for e-commerce, too.
Thoa wants to create and market what she calls “Cookies for a Cause” with proceeds from the sales going toward foundations that support women and minority small business owners.
She’s learned that her expansion depends on a successful relationship with dedicated employees, who deserve her dedication to them.
Thoa said opening any business can be tough, but it’s often even tougher for women and minorities for a host of reasons.
She knows that not everyone who wants to start a small business has the opportunity to get a loan from their family in order to fulfill their dreams and passions, like she did.
“There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders when you’re responsible for the livelihood of nine other people,” she said. “The last thing I want is to see this business fail and have people lose their jobs as a result of it.”