James Vu had just launched his OKC-based Peruvian fusion restaurant La Brasa when his then-business partner – and all but one staff member – walked out. Vu was left with a line cook and himself, and he had a restaurant full of customers.
“I didn’t cook,” says Vu. “I came home that evening, and I didn’t know what to do. My wife said: ‘James, you’ve never given up.’ So that night, I texted my line cook, Gina, and asked her to tell me what the two most popular dishes that we were making were. Then I watched videos about those dishes, and I learned how to make [them].”
It’s clear that Vu has always hustled to make things happen – a skill he learned from his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Raised in Florida and Washington, D.C., Vu says that Vietnamese flavors were deeply ingrained in his upbringing; his mother made cuisine rich in both flavor and culinary ingenuity.
“I didn’t get introduced to American cuisine until I started going to school, because I came from a family household where we didn’t have a lot of money, so we would just cook a lot at home,” says Vu. “I was exposed to Vietnamese flavors and curries a lot. I developed a sense of taste, and I’ve always had a love for Vietnamese food.”
After staying at his grandmother’s house in D.C. while his parents worked and attended college, Vu discovered Peruvian cuisine, which launched his passion for the culinary fusion of different cultures.
“I would walk to this Peruvian chicken restaurant and eat their chicken, called pollo a la brasa – Peruvian rotisserie chicken,” Vu says. “I loved it.”
After his parents graduated, the family moved to Oklahoma City. Vu attended college, but soon decided that route was not for him. Instead, he started a deli.
“Fast forward – my mom was in the same leadership class with a gentleman who owned Kamp’s [Bill Kamp’s Meat Market], which has been [in OKC] since 1910,” Vu says. “It’s one of the oldest grocery stores in the state, and we purchased Kamp’s from him. At the time, there was still a butcher there, and I put it in Kamp’s Deli.”
Later, Vu’s wife turned him on to a local Peruvian restaurant in Oklahoma City; the cuisine, he says, “reminded me of that Peruvian restaurant from my childhood.”
Soon after, he turned Kamp’s into La Brasa. Known for its Asian-Peruvian fusion dishes, the restaurant presents an upbeat, Miami-style vibe. Colorful and lively with greenery hanging from the ceilings and street art decorating the massive space, the restaurant combines the flavors Vu grew up with and the different fusions of Latin American countries he loves.
“Peru is the home of fusion,” says Vu. “That’s where ceviche started, thanks to the Japanese influence. Lomo saltado, which is a wok-cooked beef dish and our number one seller, is a fusion with Chinese cooking. I’m trying to come up with new dishes – a new take on old classic dishes from Latin America or French cuisine or Asian cuisine.”
But Vu isn’t content with one project. In the spring, he plans to open two new concepts in Oklahoma City – an authentic Mexican/Cabo style restaurant in Nichols Hills, and an Art Deco supper club-style joint on N.W. 23rd Street.
“Oklahoma City has done so much for me over the years,” says Vu, “and watching the growth of different districts, I want to give back to the city that has allowed me to grow as a small business owner.”