Chef Viet Pham is evolving toward simplicity in the culinary world.
By JANE LE SKAIFE
It’s hard to believe that one of the nation’s most prominent emerging chefs nearly dropped out of culinary school.
The waters off the bay in San Francisco tempted Viet Pham, and surfing and bass fishing were greater attractions than his classes at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
But when Chef Laurent Gras, a Michelin-starred chef then at the Fifth Floor restaurant, came calling and offered a highly coveted internship, Pham realized his passion and career were in the kitchen and not on the water.
Now, the 32-year-old Pham co-owns a successful restaurant in Salt Lake City and his name is bubbling to the top of the food world. He will be one of the featured chefs at the Food Network’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami next month. Food & Wine magazine recently named him and his restaurant partner, Bowman Brown, two of 2011’s Best New Chefs. And the prestigious James Beard Foundation named the two semifinalists in the Best New Chefs category in 2011.
At their restaurant, called Forage, Pham and Bowman carry out their complementary surf and turf style. Pham focuses on seafood while Brown focuses on land food, and Salt Lake City diners have taken notice.
“I sometimes wonder to myself if we would have opened up a Forage somewhere else … if we would have been so lucky,” he said.
Among the unusual Salt Lake City restaurants, Forage is unique in its own right. Not only does it serve some dishes in bite-sized portions, but it lives up to its name by relying on actual foraging for many of its culinary delights.
Pham and Bowman’s daily harvest involves gathering fresh ingredients from their own garden on site, but they also forage for anything from wild carrots in the local mountains to urban herbs on the streets of Salt Lake City. For them, the wild and urban search for food has become an essential part of their cooking.
“People have always foraged. It’s inherent in us,” Pham said. “We forage. We cook on a fire. It’s very primal. A lot of people over the years and over the generations, however, have lost sight of that due to things being readily available. Because things can be flown here and things can be grown commercially, we have lost sight of that,” Pham lamented.
“Knowing where your food comes from is very important to us. I think it should be very important to a lot of people because I think people nowadays have become lost in the sense that they don’t know where their food is coming from. You just go to the grocery store and pick it up. However, the more you know, the more likely people are respectful by reducing waste and their carbon footprint.”
Foraging has definitely helped Pham and Bowman to waste less and become more “green,” but it has also given them a notable advantage in creating the most flavorful dishes for their patrons. Pham has discovered that a carrot found in the wild is so much more intense in flavor than any carrot bought in a grocery store.
In most cases, a “bought carrot” has been given the most ideal conditions for growth while a “foraged carrot” often has fought to stay alive in rough conditions. Pham said he believes that it is the struggle to survive in the wild that provides the source of its intense flavor – survival of the fittest, in other words.
Once he has harvested the food, Pham skillfully enhances those naturally intense flavors in his cooking.
“For me, you get a turnip and look at it. OK, what can I do to bring out the most intense flavor of this turnip? Maybe, I will take this turnip and cook it in some embers, really roast it, really develop its flavors, and concentrate its flavors.”
It’s this return to simplicity in terms of ingredients and the preparation of them that marks what Pham considers to be his significant growth as a chef.
“As a cook, when you evolve, you start focusing on simplicity. You focus more on the main ingredients,” he explained.
Those main ingredients, however, often aren’t Vietnamese despite growing up eating great Vietnamese food daily prepared by his parents, particularly his mother’s banh xeo and bun bo hue. Despite his parents’ culinary skills, Pham never received professional or even at-home training in Vietnamese cuisine.
“When I talk to people, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I own a restaurant.’ They immediately think, ‘OK, there’s this Asian guy. He probably has an Asian restaurant.’ What’s really unfortunate is that I don’t know how to cook a single Asian thing or a single Vietnamese thing.”
Other prominent chefs, however, have learned to successfully incorporate Vietnamese ingredients into their cooking despite not growing up Vietnamese themselves. Pham talked about how Jordan Kahn, chef and partner at Red Medicine in Los Angeles, is a self-professed lover of Vietnamese cuisine.
“He uses nothing but Vietnamese herbs. He loves Vietnamese flavors,” Pham said.
Another Michelin-starred chef, Chef Curtis Duffy, has also tried to re-invent traditional Vietnamese dishes after having gone on a culinary tour of Asia. At a recent James Beard Foundation event in Kansas City, Mo., Pham met Duffy while he was making braised beef cheeks cooked in nuoc mau.
“Vietnamese ingredients have actually gotten really popular in the culinary world,” he said. Still, he predicts the use of Japanese ingredients is ready to soar in popularity among chefs. “You’ll notice more and more now. A lot of restaurants will use Japanese ingredients, a lot of Japanese techniques, and their simple plating designs.”
“In Japan,” he said, “there are more Michelin-starred restaurants than in France.”
Pham said he believes that Japan’s recent culinary success is due in large part to not only perfectionism, but also Japanese minimalism. “With Japanese cuisine, it’s very simple in the sense where they focus on the purity and intensity of the ingredients versus losing the ingredient through other ingredients.”
He aspires to learn more about Japanese cuisine and possibly visit there one day, but for his New Year’s resolution as a chef, he simply wants to be a better cook. He said Chef Laurent gave him this advice years ago, “He told me, ‘Try to do your best in everything that you do in the kitchen and you’ll become a better cook, and not only will you be a better cook, you’ll become a better person.’ “
That’s just one of the tips he’s picked up from chefs through the years. From Thomas Keller, chef at the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, he’s learned bigger isn’t always better.
“[Keller] works on something called ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns,’ which is why a lot of the courses are small. The reason why is if you sit down, and you are given a 16-ounce steak, you take your first bite, it’s wonderful. You take your second bite, it’s great, and the third bite is good. Your fourth bite, it’s OK.
“With Thomas Keller, he wants every bite to be excellent, which is why all his portions are small. You take one bite; it’s so good and you think, ‘I can’t wait to take my second bite.’ You take your second bite, it’s awesome. And then after your third bite, it’s gone. He takes the plate away and you’re wishing you had another bite. That’s what his goal is. So we try to follow that in a sense that we serve multiple courses.
“You can’t expect to get a huge plate every single course because you’ll be too full. So with all of our guests that come in, they get started off with a series of various canapés or “amuses” (bite-sized hors d’oeuvres). They get between three and four. Then you have your five courses and then your intermezzo – we sometimes will give you an in-between snack before your next course. And then you get your mignardises [bite-sized desserts] and a little giveaway before you leave. It is an experience.”
FIVE THINGS ABOUT CHEF VIET PHAM
1. His treasured tool in the kitchen is the egg topper, an innovative tool that allows him to seamlessly crack and remove the tops of eggshells.
2.His favorite foods involves two items that probably lie on the opposite ends of the culinary spectrum: uni (sea urchin) and fried chicken.
3.The best restaurant he has experienced is the Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif.
4.He often doesn’t play music while cooking, but if he did, he would listen to either classical music or hip jazz-like tunes.
5.The first dish he “invented” involved transforming packaged ramen noodles into a noodle stir fry as a young child.