Bartender Tony Nguyen of Catherine & Mary’s shares a drink with us as we discuss flying, love and family.
My parents both immigrated to Memphis with their families after the Vietnam War. They actually met each other in Memphis. My mom’s a really great cook. We grew up mainly eating Vietnamese food, but she would make Italian food, southern food and anything else she wanted to try.
My aunt married a gentleman from Mississippi, who would cook steaks a lot and just a lot of southern dishes. He always made this dessert called Chocolate Delight. It was my favorite thing as a child. So I ended up becoming interested in trying different types of food.
I started cooking when I was about 13. Both of my parents worked a lot. My dad was in shipping and handling at a warehouse and my mom was a manicurist. So, my mom would only have time to really make one meal a day, which was dinner and typically a Vietnamese dish. I wanted to try different things so I started cooking meals myself.
In Vietnamese culture it’s really important for children to take care of their parents later in life. So, when my grandfather started getting older, he moved in with my family. I was an only child so I’d hang out with him a lot while my parents were at work. He loved eating, so he was always around to try whatever I was cooking.
My first job was at Chick-fil-a when I was 14-years-old. It was around then I had my first drink. It was Bailey’s Irish Cream. Me and a buddy took it from a friend’s mom and drank it before gym class at Christian Brothers. That did not work out too well.
When I turned 16 I started waiting tables at Chili’s, what was my first real restaurant job. I didn’t start bartending until I started working at Texas de Brazil, when I was around 21. Back then it was one of the best restaurants in Memphis. I started drinking simple cocktails like mules and becoming interested in cocktails.
I became fascinated with traveling and flying when I was younger because of my grandfather. He used to travel a lot when I was growing up. Back then we would be able to walk to the gate and actually watch him take off. I guess those feelings of excitement just stuck with me.
At the same time that I started bartending I started skydiving with friends whose family own a skydiving company. Since starting I’ve probably jumped around 400 times. That number may seem like a lot, but for being involved with the sport for 13 years it’s really not that much. I have friends who started around when I did and are probably close to 4,000 jumps.
Skydiving really reinforced my drive to be a pilot. It’s the freedom of being alone in the sky — the freedom of falling. You’re just floating.
I love being able to manipulate my control surface to maneuver in the air. Canopy flights are probably my favorite part; controlling the parachute and flying. Just enjoying the sunsets, which make the clouds look like giant bales of cotton candy. It’s just peaceful.
I started taking classes at University of Memphis. I chose to study sociology and psychology because it was the fastest track to go into the Navy. It was the most efficient way to get a degree and begin becoming a pilot.
After I graduated my then girlfriend, now wife, and I decided to move out to Nashville to go to MTSU for my pilots license. While I was in Nashville I worked at Kayne Prime, a boutique steakhouse that focuses on Wagyu beef.
Moving to and working in Nashville was definitely an eye-opening and very educational experience. In Memphis I thought I was a great bartender. At the time Nashville was leagues above Memphis as far as food and cocktails are concerned. It was an incredibly humbling experience.
I ended up finishing and getting a commercial pilot’s license and joining the Navy. It turned out that I was medically disqualified from the Navy and I was sent home. It was pretty disappointing, but everything happens for a reason. I could get paid to fly professionally now, but I just enjoy bartending and wanted to be able to stay close and available for family.
My girlfriend’s step-dad is from Australia, so she had planned this big trip to visit her family in Melbourne to help pass the time while I was away. Since I wasn’t able to stay in the Navy, I was able to meet up with her in Australia. It was there I asked her to marry me. Like I said, everything happens for a reason.
Both of our families lived in Memphis, so we decided to move back home. I’m an only child, so it’s my responsibility to take care of my parents. We’re also wanting to start our own family soon, and we felt that it’s crucial to have the support system of having your family near you. It’s better to be 30 minutes away instead of three hours.
When I moved back I needed a job and I’ve known people in the Andrew Michael restaurant group since before I moved to Nashville. When I came back to town one of the managers reached out to me and offered both me and my wife jobs. I went to Catherine and Mary’s and she went to Andrew Michael’s. Eventually she transferred to C&M as well.
Working with your spouse might stress some people out, but it worked really well for us. We try to keep it as professional as possible. You have to have the mentality that at work, you’re not married. And since I was a bartender and she was a server we were almost in two different departments anyway.
In the three years that I was gone Memphis’ food scene totally changed. It’s become much more elevated. The cocktail culture just blew up here. So when I came back from Nashville it was almost like I was moving to another Nashville instead of Memphis. I think the public has just become more adventurous and willing to try new things.
I get a lot of inspiration from my wife. This October, we will have been married for five years, but we’ve been together for 11 years.
She’s just really full of life and loves creating memories. That’s why I think I like creating memories for people, and making cocktails around memories. Because she has instilled that in me.
When I’m creating cocktails, or even just riffing off of something, I try to think of what I can do to create a memory for the consumer. My cocktail philosophy is creating memories. I want you to have some sense of nostalgia. I like to create cocktails that remind you of feelings you’ve had, whether it’s sitting by a fire or a childhood flavor you loved.
I just really enjoy talking to people and curating experiences for them. So, the pandemic has definitely changed how we go about doing that, but I think it’s as important as ever. There’s a lot of sadness in the world right now, so I want to try to help people forget that when they’re at my bar.
A Little Bit of R & R
Generally ‘R&R’ stands for rest and relaxation, for the drink it stands for rum and rye.I really just wanted to play with the idea of mixing rum and rye together. Having them kind of dance harmoniously together. The spiciness and the cinnamon notes of the rye with the molasses and the sweetness of the rum taste perfect together. The dry curacao adds another element to the drink with a layer of slight orange notes. The vermouth adds hints of vanilla, finishing this boozy cocktail.
1.25 oz El Dorado 12-Year Rum
1.00 oz Riverset Rye Whiskey
0.50 oz Carpano Antica
0.50 oz Dry Curacao
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously. Strain into a rocks glass over a large cube of ice. Garnish with a twisted lemon peel.
All products are available at Joe’s Wines and Liquor. Prices and availability are subject to change. You must be 21-years-or-older to consume alcoholic beverages. Drink responsibly.
Ingredients available at Joe's Wines and Liquors
Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
Aromas of orange blossom and candied orange zest with notes of toasted wood. Deliciously bitter-sweet orange enhanced by notes of candied orange and a touch of hazelnut, almonds and marzipan on the palate.
El Dorado 12 Year Rum
This rum is composed of a blend of aged rums, all at least 12 years old. The rums are distilled using a combination of stills including double wooden pot stills and are aged in bourbon oak casks. The final product release abundant flavors of ocoa, caramel, prunes, spices, & vanilla.
This Memphis made rye is rich in flavor with hints of cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla blended with notes of brown sugar and dark fruits. It’s a great addition to many fall cocktails, and jsut as tasty to sip on its own.
This bartender-favorite vermouth is slightly bitter with floral notes. A composition of citrus, cherries, mint, vanilla, raisins and root beer among the many flavors that play with the palate. This is a must have for any serious home-bartenders.