A family’s dream unites Vietnam, Canada and Naperville in a new poutine restaurant

Thi Tram Nguyen had obvious reasons for opening 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 the western suburbs of Chicago?

The answer is rooted in childhood tragedy, adult resilience, and more satisfying future intentions than the delicious flavors Nguyen and his family are ready to serve.

“It’s something that has become a dream of ours,” Nguyen said. “And the way everyone around us has helped so far, I really think we will be successful.”

Chez François Poutinerie opens today on the site of a former Naf Naf Grill, 22 East Chicago Ave. in Naperville. While the location is surrounded by restaurants, La 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 may change slightly, but the classic poutine is fries topped with cheese curds and dipped in a tangy sauce.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

The authentic version served by Chez Francois Poutinerie is a family recipe from Montreal’s poutine hub that dates back decades.

Nguyen’s mission with the restaurant is two-fold and involves a risk of around $300,000 invested by his family. She aims to introduce poutine to the area and wants to provide as many job opportunities as possible to people with special needs.

The restaurant is named after her son, Francois, 17, who has autism and attends Naperville Central High School. Nguyen hopes Poutinerie will become the starting point for her son’s career in the restaurant business as she helps others in similar situations.

“(François) grew up like a normal kid and was in the same classes as all the other kids,” Nguyen said. “But at 22, when he’s aging out of the school system, there’s nothing for him. Nobody’s going to hire him, so it was perfect.”

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


War-torn childhood

Nguyen was born in 1971 amid American involvement in the Vietnam War. At the age of 8, Nguyen and his family were forced to leave Vietnam after the communist regime took power in the mid-1970s.

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

“I was one of the boat people and I was lucky to survive,” she said. “We had to flee 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 found employment in the area.

They tried to find an authentic poutine as a reminder of the house, 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 Poutinerie, it took eight months to find the perfect location in downtown Naperville. It took longer to polish the menu – Vietnamese-style salads with egg rolls will add a touch of Nguyen’s homeland – and hire the necessary staff to match the authenticity found in Quebec.

After trying 30 different types of cheese curds, Nguyen chose one from just outside Milwaukee. The potatoes are from Idaho and the sauce is a recipe from her husband’s Montreal grandmother.

Although Nguyen wishes she could hire more, a large percentage of her crew will be made up of 20 people with special needs who she has trained to make poutine. Nguyen said she received four times as many inquiries about job opportunities, but could not accommodate additional employees.

At least not yet, she can’t.

Poutine Empire

The decor at Chez François Poutinerie is a mix of Canadian influences – you can’t miss the giant caribou mural on the wall – and Vietnamese. But it mostly has the feel of a casual restaurant serving up quick custom dishes in a manner similar to Chipotle.

Thanks to recipes based on repetition, it’s perfect for employees. The location near North Central College and the hours of operation — open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights — are ideal for a younger crowd needing around $12 for a hearty meal.

There will be nine styles of poutine in portions that two can share, ranging from the Montreal classic to a vegetarian version with sweet potato fries.

For those who wish to round up their bill to the next dollar, the extra money will go to a non-profit organization created by Nguyen, Friends of Francois, which will help adults with special needs attend recreational events.

Nguyen is confident that poutinerie Chez François will make its way into Naperville’s gastronomic hotbed. She’s so confident, in fact, that she’s already hoping to open a second restaurant in about a year.

“That’s what I love to do,” Nguyen said. “I will be here seven days a week to make sure we are successful.”

About Marc Womack

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