By Andrea Bosco Stehle | Photographs by Michael Fornataro
Six weeks prior to press time, Lily Tran took over Soba’s kitchen as executive chef — a position she has strived for since her teenage years. Though, at 18, Tran, the youngest of seven, listened to her parents’ wishes and attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a degree in pre-law. Following graduation and a stint working for a judge, she decided to listen to her heart and return to school — culinary school, that is. She attended Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts, prior to its closing, and pursued her passion, making her way around Pittsburgh kitchens.
Most recently, Tran served as Soba’s sous chef, with past posts including The Capital Grille and Donato’s. “Most of my Asian cooking experience is just from growing up in the Vietnamese culture and just life experience, per se,” the Philadelphia native says. “So making a living doing what I love has been great.” Her goal is to articulate the existing menu’s offerings with even stronger, traditional Asian roots. “I am sort of trying to blend two worlds,” she says. “Think of Thai street food and markets, and super traditional pho — mine is exactly how my mom makes it and her mom makes it.”
Soba’s pho starts its process on Sundays, taking two days or more to finish. Her northern variation (pictured on page 39) features beef, chicken, onion, lemongrass, cinnamon, and clove — “a lot of aromatics,” she says. “I grew up watching my mom make it. It takes a lot of patience and testing. I know how to season it and what my palate should watch out for. I wasn’t going to change this recipe for anyone.”
At 30, Tran’s personal strength and cuisine shine in the ever-exploding Pittsburgh food scene. “I’m definitely lucky to be a part of this female chef movement here,” she says. “I didn’t originally come to Pittsburgh for its upcoming trends. It was just the city that I live in and this is what I love to do.”
Check out Soba’s late-night Wednesday menu, which features Tran’s vegetable maki with fried tofu, asparagus, pickled shiitake mushrooms, shiso chimichurri, and avocado. Also in the lineup is a San Francisco-inspired bánh mì bao bun. “You’re taking all the essentials of that really nice Vietnamese street sandwich and putting it in a nice steamed bun,” she says. The pictured version highlights flavors of pork belly, hoisin, duck liver paté, carrot daikon, pickle, jalapeño, and cilantro.
She is taking her new opportunity day by day, putting a young, yet fierce, Vietnamese spin on each dish she prepares. “The best part of being a chef is probably just expressing myself through my food. I’ve lucked out.”
Soba, 5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. 412.362.5656. sobapa.com.