TikTok star Tue Nguyen's relaxed California vibes and stylish appearance might suggest a career in fashion or beauty, but her deft knife skills and culinary expertise in her videos reveal her true calling as a talented chef and restaurateur. Nguyen, often known by her social media handle @twaydabae, has a relatable energy that leaves you feeling like you’ve just cooked alongside one of your best girlfriends or sisters. As I found myself watching video after video, I couldn’t help but find myself smiling and intrigued with what she would cook up next.
Nguyen gained a following from cooking up some of her favorite Vietnamese dishes in easy, accessible ways during the pandemic. Since then, she has amassed nearly 14 million likes from her videos on TikTok and nearly half a million followers on Instagram. You might also recognize her from Buzzfeed's digital cooking segment, “Making It Big” or have heard the buzz surrounding the grand opening of her first restaurant, ĐiĐi (Vietnamese for “let’s go”), located in the heart of West Hollywood. At 25 years old, Nguyen has become an expert on combining traditional Vietnamese flavors with a modernized flair in the simplest ways.
Before rising to TikTok stardom, Nguyen didn't quite understand the impact that her family’s cooking would have on her years later. “Growing up [in Vietnam], I really didn't care about food like that because food was just…food,” she says with a chuckle. “It was just regular, you know? You don't go out for Indian or you don't go out and have Vietnamese food, because everything there is…[Vietnamese food]. So I didn't feel like it was special in any shape or form [at the time].”
Nguyen moved to the US at the age of eight without any knowledge of the English language. She was quickly thrust into the American education system within two weeks of relocating, which made it difficult to make friends. Through the years, she took to TV to pass the time, which included a lot of SpongeBob SquarePants and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
“When I saw his episode of when he traveled to Vietnam…the way that he talked to the people, the way he talked about the food, and how special it was to him, this light just lit up in my brain. I was like, “Wow, this American man loves Vietnamese food more than I do.” This was the impetus that propelled Nguyen to view some of her favorite childhood dishes that were cooked by her mother from an entirely new perspective. This genuine appreciation allowed her to view the Vietnamese dining experience as not merely “food”, but actually something really special in how it is shared and exchanged within the family and how it brings people together.
During the pandemic in 2020, Nguyen took to posting a simple TikTok video on how to make “quick and easy” fried rice at home. The video has since garnered nearly eight million views to date. It showcased her culinary skills in chopping up green onions and mincing garlic while radiating a fun and lively energy, eventually ending it with what would become her signature “chef’s kiss”. She continued to release content, drawing in thousands to millions of views, ranging from making Vietnamese Coffee and Vietnamese yogurt to egg rolls or Banh Xeo (savory Vietnamese crêpes filled with pork belly, shrimp, and bean sprouts).
Despite Nguyen’s playful and confident nature, she was quite apprehensive at first on posting any videos at all. “I still felt like there were so many things I could learn, and I didn't want people to perceive it in a way where I'm trying to portray that I know everything. But when the pandemic happened, everything just kind of went out the window. Nobody knew what was going on. It was like anything kind of went and everyone was forced to click anyway, so why not?”
As the pandemic progressed, so did Nguyen’s vision on how she viewed the Vietnamese cooking and dining experience, eventually lending itself to a clearer purpose for her audience. Nguyen continues, “I wanted it to be more inviting because [cooking] Southeast Asian food could be seen as intimidating. There are a lot of ingredients that people aren't familiar with. In a way, it's kind of demystifying Vietnamese cuisine and showing people that it's [actually] pretty simple.”
Following the COVID-19 shutdown, Nguyen’s culinary journey continued as she hosted her first pop-up in West Hollywood at Petite Taqueria, an establishment that would later become the launching grounds of ĐiĐi. This was a pivotal moment as most interactions during that period were constrained behind monitors and cellphones. The pop-up allowed Nguyen to interact and connect with some of her biggest fans and supporters outside of the digital space. Nguyen beams with joy as she recalls that day—a day filled with endless hugs and conversations. “It's so easy to watch somebody online and then just move on with your day. But for people to actually make the effort to buy the tickets, drive to the restaurant, and sit down to eat the food…that moment was like, ‘Okay, wow. This is something different, something that I've never experienced before.’ It’s such a surreal feeling.”
On July 20, 2023, ĐiĐi debuted as Nguyen’s first restaurant as a co-owner with the established Los Angeles-based hospitality company, H.Wood Group. Reservations were hard to come by as the coveted restaurant launched their grand opening. Aside from the flavorful dishes, patrons were immediately greeted with vibrant, stimulating colors while sustaining an ambience of comfort and home within the establishment. Nguyen emphasized the importance of having Vietnamese culture reflected within ĐiĐi’s design. “If you go to Vietnam right now, it’s such a different world. It's young. It's vibrant. It's fun. It's something that I don't see often represented over here. I wanted to bring modern-day Saigon to La Cienega.”
Becoming a restaurateur at a relatively young age has definitely come with its fair share of obstacles for Nguyen. She reflects on the massive undertaking at the time, saying, “I feel like my biggest obstacle would have to be fighting the imposter syndrome. I don't have the type of experience that a lot of people in the restaurant industry have [opening up a restaurant]. I have no idea what I'm doing or where it's going, but thank God I had such incredible partners who really helped me, uplifted me, and provided me with so many tools in order for this partnership to thrive and for ĐiĐi to really come to life.”
On how Nguyen envisions her culinary career in 10 years, she says, “I hope to bring ĐiĐi over to Saigon because I want to provide jobs for my family that are still there.” Nguyen explains the difficulties of finding a job in Vietnam with no connections, even with a college education. “If I'm able to bring ĐiĐi over to Saigon and [have] half of my family work there, it would mean the world to me.”
Nguyen’s expertise continues to rise as she dominates the social media realm as a content creator while managing her first restaurant. For aspiring chefs, her biggest advice is: “Stay true to yourself. Stay true to what you really like and stay true to the food as a whole. That's it.”