In the summer of 1980, a young Vietnamese woman looked at her young son with a gaze that she knew would likely be the last time she saw him.
The boy replied a resounding, “Yes!” when asked if he would like to ride in the boat with his uncle and two young cousins who were about his same age.
Though the war was over, North Vietnam was still making it impossible for people to live in freedom. During a recent escape attempt, her husband had been captured and held behind in prison, following the release of the women and children. Her son, Kenzo, was the oldest of three siblings.
There seemed to be no way out; so, while risky, sending Kenzo away seemed to be Dao Pham’s only choice to spare her son from the miseries of a country in turmoil. Though she knew her husband would not approve and was well aware of the low survival rates of the journey, she held the young boy one final time before releasing him into the unknown with an unselfish love for which repercussions only a mother’s instinct and God’s help could possibly provide such courage.
This is the life story of Kenzo Tran, one as passionate and compelling as any Puccini opera you ever seen, one that testifies to love’s eternal power and the will to survive in the most adverse circumstances.
At the age of 6, Kenzo was excited about going away with his cousins and did not realize that he was leaving his mother’s care for a lifetime. “I thought I was going away for the weekend,” he said. “I think deep down, my mother wanted me to say, ‘no’ to going away, but she knew it was my best chance of surviving until adulthood.”
After boarding a crowded, hand-crafted boat, the vessel pushed away from the shore of Vietnam never to return to life there again. “I remember being on that boat with my cousins. The women and children were in a small lower cabin. The men stayed on the upper deck and brought rice with soy sauce down twice each day,” said Tran.
This was the routine for 7 days and 7 nights before reaching land on the shore of Manila, Philippines. “I remember the shore being very rough with shells and pebbles. It smelled fishy!” But for three young boys, the island was nothing other than a playground.
“My cousins were like brothers to me. While the adults studied English and worked all day, we had a whole island to roam with no one watching us. We remembered all the times back in Vietnam when we played in the rain and climbed the trees to pick mangoes. In Manila, we spent our days climbing mountains and playing in the ocean.”
After one year, the United States brought Kenzo and his Uncle’s family to New York where they registered entry into the country. “One of the first things I saw was the Statue of Liberty,” said Tran. They located to Scranton, Pennsylvania then Philadelphia where Kenzo’s Aunt and Uncle found jobs. “My cousins and I taught ourselves how to fish in a nearby creek with makeshift fishing rods using sticks, strings, and my Aunt’s sewing needles. That’s what we did for fun.”
Tran continued to live with his uncle and aunt, who was his mother’s older sister, but when his father was released from prison and learned of Kenzo’s departure from Vietnam, he was heartbroken. He found a way to contact his own father who had fled Vietnam and relocated to Fort Worth.
“My father demanded that my grandfather find a way to move me from Philly to Fort Worth. In the summer of 1984, I told my cousins goodbye and it was one of the worst days of my life. When I moved to Texas, my grandfather gave me chores around the house which included cooking and cleaning. The days of fishing with my cousins were gone.” Kenzo spent the rest of his years being trained in the disciplines of hard work with his grandfather as his teacher.
After graduating from high school, Kenzo traveled America and took on whatever job was available. “It took me about two years of traveling from place to place until I finally landed in Florida and took my first restaurant job as a dishwasher. I felt at home in the restaurant and I knew that this was my future. I applied everything my grandfather taught me and worked my way to the top.”
Like everyone, Kenzo went through many challenges throughout the years, but in 2001, moved to Arlington, Texas and opened his first Piranha Killer Sushi restaurant.
“I was very confident that I would make it. After you spend eight years dreaming about something, you have the most unbelievable feeling when it finally happens. I worked real hard. I was there every day. Though we didn’t have the budget for signage, or money to invest, we were able to make a profit immediately.”
Shortly afterwards, he opened another restaurant called My Martini, but after seven years, he decided to consolidate. In 2006, he expanded Piranha Killer Sushi to downtown Fort Worth; Arlington Highlands in 2008 and then finally Austin in 2009. This spring he will be opening in Flower Mound’s Robertson Creek Shopping Center at FM 2499 and Dixon.
“We are pleased that Piranha Killer Sushi has selected Robertson’s Creek retail center for their newest restaurant,” said Melissa Glasgow, Director of Economic Development for the Town of Flower Mound. “Their award-winning sushi attracts a loyal following so they will be a great addition to the Town for our residents and visitors to enjoy.”
When asked about his overwhelming success, Tran replied, “My grandfather taught me to always leave room for hunger when I eat. To never forget where I have come from. I think that because of this lesson, I always save room for growth in my personal life and in my business.” With all the many days he spent in the ocean, he never learned to swim, until later in life when he put his mind to it.
“Because I have known hardship in my life, I am very aware that there are needs all around us here in our city. I feel responsible for 180 employees and their well-being along with helping to meet the needs of those in the local community.”
Part of Tran’s business model at Piranha Killer Sushi involves partnering with a local charity. After considering several non-profits that impact the Flower Mound area, Tran has named Christian Community Action (CCA) as his non-profit of choice. “They seem to encompass a comprehensive program that teaches men to fish, rather than just give them a fish for the day.”
Tran’s first CCA benefit will be a festive grand opening gala in the Flower Mound restaurant later this spring with all of the evening’s proceeds going to the ministries of CCA.
“Piranha Killer Sushi is a really quality sushi restaurant with exceptional service and A-class atmosphere. And I would have described Piranha just like that BEFORE Kenzo asked if he could donate their opening-night proceeds to CCA. Now I simply add that Piranha Killer Sushi is a very generous community partner as well, and we are extremely grateful for all of our partners in our community!” said Chief Development Officer Ian Lawson of CCA.
In 2000, Tran traveled back to Saigon after twenty years. “When I got there, my entire family was waiting for me at the airport. A mom could never forget her son. A dad could never forget. They spotted me immediately. I met my brother and sisters. It was very emotional. There was overwhelming joy. All of the people who knew me as a child kept touching my face and saying, ‘It is Kenzo!’. It was awesome when I got there, but it was real bad when I left,” said Tran.
“My parents’ living conditions were still very rough. My dad had always questioned whether my mother made the right choice in sending me away, but when I did come back, he was finally at peace. There was a sparkle of hope for the future in my family.
When I returned to the U.S., I was more determined and focused than ever. My heart was broken and I was torn up; so
mething came into me, fully-determined, ‘I am going to save my family no matter what’. The trip gave them hope, and it woke me up.”
Both Tran’s mother and father have been working for many years to receive final approval on their paperwork to come to America to be reunited for good with their son. The process is in the final stages now. He hopes to have them here for the grand opening of his Flower Mound restaurant, set to benefit CCA some time in late spring.