Kevin Tang, Sous Chef and Pop-Up Pioneer

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A Year in the Life

Kevin Tang, Sous Chef and Pop-Up Pioneer

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Like many other chefs who found themselves unmoored from their full-time jobs when dining rooms closed in March 2020, Nari sous chef Kevin Tang decided to launch his very own San Francisco pop-up, called Claws of Mantis, with three close friends and fellow cooks — Kris Hoang, Shane Sardina, and Dan Kanzler. 

I wanted to showcase Vietnamese food beyond pho and banh mi,” Tang says. “Before the pandemic, it was just always drunken bar talk. The shutdown was the push I needed to actually make it happen. Watching all these cooks doing super delicious, super cool pop-ups was inspiring, and I wanted in.” 

Restaurants and cooking have always been central to Tang, whose parents owned a Chinese American takeout spot while he was growing up. “My mom was the chef, and she was a badass at the wok.” For Tang, a Vietnamese American who grew up on the east side of San Jose, Claws of Mantis is his attempt to “recreate food memories of growing up as a Millennial, first-generation Asian American.” 

One year after the pandemic first struck, Tang is still a sous chef at Nari, but he’s looking forward to owning a restaurant of his own, soon. His story of the past 12 months follows. 

March 2020: It was a confusing time. We weren't sure what was going to happen. I would often day dream worst-case scenarios, my mind wasn't straight. The ghee (pictured here) is used for our hand-rolled rotis at Nari. — K.T.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

April 2020: Nari had to adapt to these new circumstances. We cooked a lot of meals for people in need and for hospital frontline workers.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

May 2020: At Nari, we sold farm boxes ... a lot of them.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

June 2020: At this point, I've gained some weight. With gyms shut down, I attempted to recreate a TRX structure at home with gymnast rings and a $25 pull up bar from Amazon. I almost tore my door frame off. Before, I always went out with friends, and I loved being social. But I had to learn how to be a homebody (though Korean dramas have helped).

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

July 2020: Polaroids from our very first pop-up, where we had 13 orders! That's Shane on the bottom left, and Kris on the bottom right. Kris is a line cook at Nari with me, but at Claws, he's my right-hand man. Claws of Mantis all started with us just talking about Vietnamese food, like how our moms did different dishes. He came to Nari from Austin, and when he started, he asked me if I had any recommendations for Vietnamese food in San Francisco. Shane and Dan [Kanzler, not pictured] are friends I met cooking at Mister Jiu's; they worked at Moongate Lounge, upstairs. We'd go out every Sunday to try new restaurants or hang out at bars. They're my ride or dies.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

August 2020: With so many people leaving San Francisco, I found a great deal on an apartment down the street. I was finally able to move out of my tiny two-bedroom apartment that happens to be on the same block as a fire department and weed dispensary. This is a picture of the old kitchen.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

September 2020: This is our dinner set spread for Claws of Mantis from September 27. My birthday was just four days before; I turned 29. What's come out of the pandemic has been this exciting pop-up scene, where I've had some of the most creative and delicious food. The cooking scene in the Bay Area is like the Wild West right now. I love how we all root and support each other.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

October 2020: From left to right: Will Cao, co-owner of Gamsaan; Dan Kanzler; Danny Louie, co-owner of Gamsaan; me; Kris Hoang; and Shane Sardina. This was our first collaboration with Gamsaan, a cocktail pop-up, at The Showdown, a bar in North Beach. It was the first time we served our food hot, not in our usual finish-at-home format. We worked with Danny and Will at Mister Jiu's, where Danny was the bar manager. They're so much fun to work with. This event was the start of a blooming partnership with them.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

November 2020: The world was introduced to my roommate's work-from-home four-screen workstation.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

December 2020: We got published in the San Francisco Chronicle. It introduced us to a lot of new people. Soleil Ho did an amazing job on the piece.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

January 2021: This is our Cháo gỏi vịt from Claws of Mantis. It's a porridge of toasted jasmine rice and chicken and shiitake broth seeped with hojicha, lotus leaf, and puffed rice. It's topped with a touch of chicken fat and julienned ginger and scallions. We served it with a confit duck and cabbage salad with watermelon radish, red onion, purple daikon, rau ram, cilantro, peanuts, and fried shallots tossed with a ginger nuoc cham. 

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

February 2021: My personal favorite set we've done. This is a shot of our "Tet Year of the Ox Power Pack." Tet (Lunar New Year) means so much to us, and this was our ode to past celebrations. I always had this idea of wanting to win a Michelin for Vietnamese food, but the pandemic has made me really rethink that: I craved homey foods and mom-and-pop shops more than any Michelin-starred restaurant. So, I'm still undecided, but the end goal is a brick-and-mortar restaurant, regardless.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

March 2021, One Year Later: This is a dinner I cooked with some friends: Char siu; mapo tofu with chickpea miso; cold spicy sesame noodles; gai lan with mushroom gravy and fried shallots; and wonton soup with baby bok choy.

Photo Courtesy Kevin Tang

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