It was about 4 a.m. in a research lab when Kim Vu stopped to think: Is this what my life is going to be like?

A biochemistry student at the California Institute of Technology who went on to work as a staff scientist at UCLA, Vu was on track to go to medical school and having trouble coming to terms with her career path.

“I felt really trapped,” she said.

Her mood was decidedly different Wednesday night as she bounced around the intimate eating space at Vucacious Catering, which settled into its new location in Santa Monica earlier this year. She was celebrating the opening of her company’s private dining room, which she’ll use to host corporate events as well as mixology classes, wine tastings and other private functions.

The soft opening marked the latest chapter in a dramatic professional transition for Vu, 38, who launched her own catering service nearly four years ago.

“This was already a dining room,” said Vu, a Santa Monica resident who took over a former restaurant on Lincoln Boulevard between Michigan Avenue and Pico Boulevard. “I thought I would just expand the kitchen, but we didn’t need to do that. In Santa Monica, there are a lot of people who would like to throw dinner parties but don’t necessarily have the space. … I’m looking to make this place their private dining room.”

Vu is aiming to provide a chef-to-table experience that can be modified depending on the wishes of her clients. The bar and dining tables are mounted on rolling casters so they can be rearranged. The prep tables can be left in the kitchen or brought into the dining space for a more interactive experience.

Vu, who is Vietnamese, specializes in new American cuisine that incorporates a wide variety of cultural influences. She and her cooks can turn out Asian-inspired duck confit with spicy plum sauce on a crispy wonton as easily as they can whip up beef sliders with arugula, caramelized onions, blue cheese and chipotle aioli.

“Nobody just wants roasted chicken,” she said. “They want something unusual. But whatever the cuisine, it’s always my interpretation.”

Although she didn’t go to culinary school, Vu managed to gain ample experience in the food industry on her way to launching Vucacious.

She worked in several restaurants as a teenager, including at Caltech’s faculty club. After ditching her science career, Vu took a job in sales and found her way back in the restaurant business as she developed her cooking skills. She worked in catering for the film industry, completed several chef apprenticeships and sold banh mi sandwiches on Sundays at Santa Monica’s Main Street farmers market.

“Over the years, several friends in the food or wine industry would say, ‘We think you’re going to end up doing this again,’” she said.

After getting married and taking time away from her career to become a mother, Vu felt it was time to launch her own catering service. These days, she doesn’t prepare every dish on her own, but she remains closely involved with the food her company serves.

“I’m just exploring what’s possible with this space,” she said. “That keeps it really fresh and exciting.”

jeff@www.smdp.com