Family's dream brings Vietnam, Canada, Naperville together at new poutine restaurant

There were glaring reasons for Thi Tram Nguyen to open a poutine restaurant in downtown Naperville.

But what may seem obvious to her is a mystery to others. How does a Vietnamese woman with a background in pharmaceutical sales bring a Canadian delicacy to Chicago's western suburbs?

The answer is steeped in childhood tragedy, adult resiliency and future intentions more satisfying than the delicious flavors Nguyen and her family are poised to serve.

“This is something that became a dream of ours,” Nguyen said. “And the way everyone around us has helped so far, I really think we'll be successful.”

The Chez Francois Poutinerie opens today at the site of a former Naf Naf Grill, 22 East Chicago Ave. in Naperville. While the location is surrounded by restaurants, the Poutinerie offers something unique to the area.

For those who haven't tried poutine, it's a dish created and popularized in the Canadian province of Quebec. The ingredients can change slightly, but classic poutine is french fries topped with cheese curds and drenched in hot gravy.

The authentic version served by the Chez Francois Poutinerie is a family recipe from the poutine hub of Montreal that goes back decades.

Nguyen's mission with the restaurant is twofold and comes at the risk of about $300,000 her family invested. She aims to introduce poutine to the area, and she wants to provide as many employment opportunities as possible to people with special needs.

The restaurant is named after her son, 17-year-old Francois, who has autism and attends Naperville Central High School. Nguyen hopes the Poutinerie becomes the launching point for her son's career in the restaurant business as she helps others in similar situations.

“(Francois) grew up as a normal kid and was in the same classes with all the other kids,” Nguyen said. “But at 22, when he ages out of the school system, there's nothing for him. No one's going to hire him, so this was perfect.”

Thi Tram Nguyen, right, named the Chez Francois Poutinerie in downtown Naperville after her son, Francois, left. Courtesy of Thi Tram Nguyen

War-torn childhood

Nguyen was born in 1971 in the midst of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. When she was 8, Nguyen and her family were forced to leave Vietnam after the communist regime took over in the mid-1970s.

Her family spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand after boarding a boat and drifting in the middle of the night. From there she found a way to France to stay with an uncle, and at 11 she reunited with her parents in Montreal.

“I was part of the boat people, and I was lucky to survive,” she said. “We had to escape because, as capitalists and intellectuals, they took everything from us.”

Nguyen went to college in Canada and entered the business world. She soon met her husband, Francois, and started a family before moving to Naperville in 2013 when Francois got a job in the area.

They tried finding authentic poutine as a reminder of home but had no luck. The idea of opening a restaurant was discussed but put on hold as they raised a family.

When they finally decided to open the Poutinerie, it took eight months to find the ideal spot in downtown Naperville. Additional time was needed to refine the menu - Vietnamese-style salads with egg rolls will add a touch of Nguyen's homeland - and hire the staff necessary to match the authenticity found in Quebec.

After trying 30 different kinds of cheese curds, Nguyen chose one sourced just outside Milwaukee. The potatoes are from Idaho and the gravy is a recipe from her husband's Montreal-born grandmother.

Although Nguyen wishes she could hire more, a large percentage of her crew will consist of 20 people with special needs she's trained to make poutine. Nguyen said she received four times as many inquiries about job opportunities, but she can't accommodate additional employees.

At least not yet, she can't.

Poutine empire

The decor at the Chez Francois Poutinerie has a mix of Canadian - you can't miss the giant caribou mural on the wall - and Vietnamese influences. But it mainly has the feel of a casual restaurant serving custom food quickly in a counter-style manner similar to Chipotle.

Thanks to recipes based on repetition, it's perfect for the employees. The location near North Central College and the hours of operation - open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday night - is ideal for a younger crowd needing about $12 for a hearty meal.

There will be nine styles of poutine in serving sizes that two can share, including everything from the Montreal Classic to a vegetarian version with sweet potato fries.

For those willing to round up their bill to the next dollar, the additional money will go to a nonprofit organization Nguyen set up, Friends of Francois, that will help adults with special needs attend recreational events.

Nguyen is confident the Chez Francois Poutinerie will catch on in the dining hotbed of Naperville. She's so confident, in fact, that she's already hoping to expand to a second restaurant in about a year.

“This is what I love to do,” Nguyen said. “I'll be here seven days a week to make sure we're successful.”

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