photographs by Catherine Nguyen
If your cookout requires 240 pounds of live Louisiana crawfish, it’s important to plan ahead. Raleighite Duc Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant by way of Biloxi, Miss., knows the drill.
Twice a year, he has four 60-pound coolers of crustaceans shippped overnight from a farm in Louisiana to the nail salon he owns on Capital Boulevard. Then he takes them out back and spends all day boiling them up to make a feast for his 27 employees and their families.
“I love my employees so much,” Tran says as he chops corn and potatoes to add to the pots he’s set up on burners in a makeshift, parking-lot kitchen. “That’s why I do this.” Seven of his workers are members of his family. The others, most of whom have worked for Tran for as much as a decade, may as well be, he says.
“My philosophy is that if you’re considerate of other people, if you respect them, they will respect you.” He opens a cooler of crawling crawdads and pokes a running hose inside. “You soak them until the water is clear. You have to do it like this, or it doesn’t taste good.” He picks up an escapee, its claws clattering on the pavement, and tosses it back.
Tran knows crawfish from his time fishing in the Mississippi Gulf off of Biloxi, where he landed in 1980 as a 14-year-old refugee from Vietnam. He’d fled his homeland by boat two years earlier. “I had been watching people escape,” he says, looking up from his hands, busy with papery heads of garlic. “One night, I decided to go.” He says he snuck on board and was surprised to find his older brother among the others. Three days later, they landed in a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for 14 months before finding asylum in the United States. After some time in Connecticut and New Jersey, Tran moved to Biloxi.
“That’s how I learned about crawfish,” he says, picking up a couple more lobstery creatures from the ground. Corn, potatoes, and sausage are some of the traditional crawfish boil ingredients he’s gathered to cook them with. But he adds his own touch: “I modified it a little bit,” he says. “If you’re sucking the head, you have to have a good broth.” Pineapples, oranges, bacon, handfuls of garlic, several onions, and whole chickens go into every pot. “It’s like pho,” he says. “It’s all in the broth.”
It takes Tran all day – one of his rare days off of work – to prepare the feast. In addition to Majestic Nail and Day Spa, he owns a beauty supply business that takes up most of his workweek. He also co-owns a manufacturing company that makes ventilation systems for nail spas. He uses Majestic as “an R&D lab,” he says. Tran says he’s always trying to make his business, his life, and his family’s life better. He moved to Raleigh from Asheville because he knew his business needed a bigger city to grow, and Charlotte “didn’t feel like home.” Raleigh did. “I love to raise a family here,” he says. “It’s big enough, but small enough. It’s calm.” He and his family live in Wakefield. “I’m not going to leave. I’m going to get old here.”
Tran’s son Nicholas, 19, studies marketing at High Point University and says he hopes to work full time with his father one day; Tran’s daughter, 17, is a student at Wakefield High School who helps out in the salon on Saturdays.
Both children arrive with friends to join the feast. “I love crawfish,” Nicholas Tran says, grabbing a plateful. “I drove an hour-and-a-half to be here.” He gives his sister a hug.
His father offers beers and Cokes all around as he spoons out platefuls of potatoes and corn, and piles a table with crawfish. “You don’t want to be a lady when you eat crawfish,” Tran suggests to a visitor. “You watch: You take the tail, you twist it off. Now suck the head. When you eat this, you gotta get dirty.” He sucks noisily on a carcass. “I really enjoy this,” he says, taking in the growing crowd. “Because it makes them very happy.”
It’s the same reason Tran says he likes the nail and spa business: “I’m not only going to make you pretty, I’m going to make you happy. You feel good, relaxed, and you enjoy your day. And if you feel good about yourself, you can do anything in life.”
Majestic Nail & Day Spa: 5225 Capital Blvd.; 919-875-0187;
Duc Tran orders his crawfish from Louisiana Crawfish Co.: