These days, reading about restaurant hot spots in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are about as common as a fortune cookie at the bottom of a Chinese take out bag. It's when you hear about a restaurant in a city off the usual food-centric beaten path that somehow can open the eyes and really pique the taste buds in a surprising way. Oakland CA, Nashville TN, and Portland OR come to mind.
The hyper-local, methodical and refined Forage single handedly put Salt Lake City on the map. Co-owner and Chef Viet Pham launched the city into the food stratosphere when he received the coveted Food & Wine magazine honor of Best New Chef in 2011. The Malaysian born, bay area raised Pham has been on an absolute tear since then, continuing to rack up the accolades, and infiltrating households everywhere with a blitz on multiple Food Network television shows. Pham is a dude who understands that to truly be chef these days, there's a national game where you have to be player.
And has he. He was the runner up on The Amazing Race-meets-Chopped style Extreme Chef, and recently had a brutal stint on Food Network Star where somehow an old bald dude who made questionable looking pies made it to the finals, whereas Pham did not. After all he did take down Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, so while the forced personality requirements of Food Network Star weren't for Pham, his cooking skills are clearly on a different level.
On the eve of opening his next restaurant called Ember + Ash, I sat down with Pham to chat about his recent Food Network exploits, his Karate Kid-type experience at his first restaurant internship, whack Salt Lake City liquor laws aka the “Zion curtain,” and of course Forage, the restaurant that put him on the map.
You've been a busy man lately. How was the whole Food Network Star experience?
It's been kind of crazy. You know… I tell people it was a million dollar opportunity, but I wouldn't pay a dollar to do it again. It was a good experience in a sense that it was a show that wasn't just primarily about cooking. It's about your presence, your personality, etc. First and foremost I'm a chef, and I will always be a chef. So my outlook going into that show… you know these days, in my industry, it's so dynamic and changing all the time. You can't just be that chef from twenty years ago, in the kitchen keeping your head down. These days with Food Network, Cooking Channel, Bravo, etc., they've really changed the whole environment and the way people see chefs. When people come in, it's not just to eat. They want the experience of you. You just have to be more dynamic these days to be successful.
It seemed challenging for you. Was it?
It put me a situations that were extremely uncomfortable, took me out of my comfort zone. And a lot of times I failed but you know what? You can't become better if you don't fail.
I was honestly hoping you or Russell Jackson would win because I feel like back in the day, you'd watch the Food Network and actually see experts at the top of their game doing what they do. Mario Batali walking around Italy, the old school Iron Chef show from Japan, etc. With all of these new shows though, it doesn't feel that way anymore. Seems like a bunch of jackasses who don't really know food, making food that's not all that interesting.
It's unfortunate, really. These days people are drawn to drama. They want to see crazy personalities. Truthfully though, I do try to live up that part too as much as I still can be myself while sticking to my craft. And it does help me to open up more.
Iron Chef America, at least, seems much more focused on the cooking. Which is why it played to your strengths more I'm sure.
Oh yeah. And it's such an iconic cooking show. I grew up watching that show with my parents. We'd get take out and watch it on Friday nights. And this was a time even before I wanted to become a cook when I was much younger. And now just to be on that stage, looking out and seeing my parents in the audience… it was surreal. And to win it too, was even better. Amazing experience all around.
Did you actually go in seeking out Bobby Flay out of the whole Iron Chef crew? Was he the one you wanted to battle?
No I didn't. The person I really wanted to battle was Morimoto. And I knew that going against him would be tough because I consider him the most talented chef on the show.
He's like the old school guy too.
Exactly, he's the old school dude. But you don't really get to choose who you battle when they select you. Everyone's schedule is so busy, they choose it for you. In retrospect though, like from a business point a view, I think battling and winning against Bobby Flay was ultimately a better move in the long run because he's such a household name. Like when people think of the Food Network, they think — Giada, Alton Brown, and Bobby Flay. A lot of people don't know Morimoto on that level still believe it or not.
Pretty crazy though. Iron Chef America, Food Network Star, and you were even the runner up on Extreme Chef. Talk about getting around.
[Laughs] And the crazy part is, all of those tapings happened in just about a year. Extreme Chef was filmed in February-March 2012, Iron Chef America was filmed in July of 2012, and Food Network Star was filmed in January 2013. The finale of Food Network Star is filmed a few days before it aired.
Let's talk about your background a bit. You grew up in San Francisco yeah?
I actually grew up in San Jose. I was born in Malaysia and come from a refugee family, and actually the first eight years of my life were spent in Illinois. We came to the US in the 1970s, when I was five months old. We moved to California in 1987. But yeah I was in San Jose until about five years ago.
What about these early years helped shape your culinary outlook?
Well, the reason why my parents moved out to California was to start a catering business. My dad had a cousin who had a catering truck business, and we came out because of that. But when we got out here, we didn't have a lot of money, all that. And one of the things I really remember was all of us in the kitchen during an afternoon, and we were making this tempura fried chicken. But it wasn't any kind of fried chicken like you find in America, definitely more like Asian fried chicken. Really crusty thick tempura batter.
Sounds pretty good to me.
It was pretty good! And my parents showed me other things. Like packaged ramen was really big in my family. But that's basically how I learned to cook. That's how my curiosity got started. Cause we would get so tired of ramen, so we'd start to add stuff like hot dogs into it, bunch of other stuff. That's really what got me interested. And once my family's catering business started… they worked long hours, seven days a week. And they always told us that they did that so that we'd be able to go to school and get a good education, become a doctor or lawyer or something, and not have to do what they did. And that actually worked for us. I was originally an engineer major actually, but I switched my major to business.
Business major?? That kind of makes sense in a weird way.
Ha. Well, ultimately I left school to go to culinary school though. I went to the California Culinary Academy in 2001 and honestly, I just thought it was the biggest joke ever. Like an absolute joke. Like if you were to ask any of my classmates from that time if they knew who I was, I bet most wouldn't because I cut school all the time. I cut at least twice a week.
You hear that about culinary school a lot, that it's a complete waste of time and money. Why didn't you like it?
There were a lot people like just out of high school. And a lot of people were seriously on drugs… just wasn't a good environment. Like these so-called “fundamental” classes they taught… just a joke. So I just cut a lot, surfed a lot, slept in my car, etc. But what I do credit culinary school in doing for me is getting me my internship at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco, when Laurent Gras was still there in 2001. That truly was life-changing.
A name like Laurent Gras… now that's a seriously esteemed, well-decorated dude. Old school French though right? I hear you can't get more hardcore than that.
Oh man… these guys. That kitchen… he was tough on me. He was very old school. Screaming, yelling, etc. And he had this look… it was intense. There were literally so many moments where I just wanted to break down and cry because I felt like the scum of the earth when I went to work. And for me, commuting from San Jose to San Francisco, working fourteen hour days, not getting paid… I could feel my morale going away each time I went in. It really was hardcore. But, there comes a point when you have a choice. You could choose to quit, take a job in finance, hang out with your friends on Fridays, etc. But something clicked with me during that time. I realized that ultimately, it was something I loved doing. Laurent showed me that the skills I learned in his kitchen won't just help me be a better cook, but will actually help me in my life, to become a better person. So I pushed forward, kept pressing, and ultimately started to gain the respect of the kitchen. They stopped giving me a hard time, they didn't make me do all the bad stuff, the crap work. I moved up in the rankings. It was the first time I really decided I wanted to be better at something in life. It was a personal journey. It was some Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi kind of stuff.
That all sounds pretty epic. Did you keep in contact with Laurent?
Well, the thing is, when he got Food & Wine Best New Chef years ago, I remember looking at the magazine and thinking that was the coolest thing. So when I got it in 2011, the first person I thought of and called up was Laurent. I called him and was like “Guess what? I got Best New Chef and I owe it all to you, and I'd be honored if you'd come with me as my guest to the event.” And he did come with me as my guest to the Food & Wine event. And it was the first time I'd seen him since the Fifth Floor days.
Let's transition to Salt Lake City. You opened Forage there in 2009. How/why did you choose Salt Lake City?
After Laurent left Fifth Floor for Chicago, I left the industry for a bit. I tried something different, went into real estate banking… haha. Made good money there. Washington Mutual Home Loans. But at the end of the day, I knew I wasn't happy. I knew where my passion was at.
I made it to Utah through an acquaintance who had connections to Provo. He asked if I would put together a menu for his new place. He asked me to come out and help a bit in January 2008. From there he asked if I'd move there to ultimately open the place. I didn't hesitate at all, did it in a heartbeat. I decided I wanted to get back into cooking, and I was ready to get out of the bay area. I was still living at home to be honest… and coming to Utah gave me an independence I never had previously. One of the first guys I hired was a guy name Bowman Brown, who now does the cooking at Forage, who is also now my business partner. Bowman and I ended up really clashing with this guy on a number of levels ultimately, he wanted to cut corners, etc., so we started to talk about our own place, what we would do differently. And thinking about Salt Lake City, it's much different and refreshing compared to Provo. This guy ended up firing both Bowman and I in January 2009. But the awesome part of this is that we actually found the spot that ultimately became Forage only two days prior. We had looked at the space, not knowing at the time that we were actually going to bite the bullet and do it. But once we both were fired from our spot in Provo, that kind of made the decision for us. We got a small loan from my parents, drove up to Salt Lake City and signed the lease the next day.
Sounds like fate was talking. You didn't really have a choice in a way.
Yeah. I really had no idea I would ever open up my own place. And on top of that, this was 2008/2009 in the height of the recession — not exactly the best time to open a restaurant, let alone in one of the most conservative states in the country. But at the same time, I knew that Salt Lake City had the kind of people — those who cared about food beyond the chain restaurants you see across the rest of the state, those who travel, those into wine, etc. — who would be interested in Forage.
Tell me a little bit more about Salt Lake City. What's up with their crazy liquor laws?
Oh… those. They're just crazy. Those just don't make sense as they are now. We try to work with legislators to make things better… but we'll get there. I won't bore you with the details but… for example, if I wanted to open a restaurant that served liquor, wine, and beer… I couldn't have a bar that was visible inside to the rest of the restaurant. Like we couldn't have any kinds of bottles displayed whatsoever. We call it the “Zion Curtain” here because people they don't want kids to see liquor being poured, etc. The only way to have an exposed bar is to have a bar license, which are extremely rare in the state of Utah.
No bottles displayed??! How do I trust that what's being poured is what I want?
Here's the other thing. Like when you order a glass or bottle of wine at a restaurant, someone will bring out the bottle and show it to you, and then pour your glass. Right? Well in Utah as it stands, you can't do that. Everything has to be poured in the back behind the “Zion Curtain” and then brought out to you. That's for glasses. For actual bottles though, we're allowed to leave the bottle at the table for you to pour no problem.
Ah-ha. So it's just straight up non-sensical then. Like the laws literally don't exist to make any kind of sense.
No logic whatsoever. It's what happens when you have people who don't drink that make laws for the rest of us. It's changing though, slowly. But it is changing. And at the end of the day, I do owe our success to the Salt Lake City community. They were very open to us and it would not have happened without them. It's nice to be a part of it.
Where else should I eat the next time I'm in SLC?
The Copper Onion, Pago are two standouts for sure.
Talk a little bit about the food you guys do at Forage.
Well Utah is a farming state, so we get a lot of great produce out here. In the summers our farmers markets are amazing. But as you know, our growing season out here is much shorter than say, California, for example, so you have to think of other things like preservation, etc., to get stuff to last throughout the year. So we won't serve you melon or strawberries in the winter time. We like to use indigenous ingredients that are from this region. From the mountains, rivers, streams, or our farmers and producers. Everything you eat at Forage comes from within a 400-500 mile radius. A farmer we're close with is thirty miles away, trout can come from nearby Idaho, and the mountains out here have some incredible wild edibles, herbs, etc. Foraging though, doesn't make up who we are as cooks, but it is part of our repertoire.
And you have a new restaurant called Ember + Ash that will be opening by the end of the year, also in Salt Lake City. Will that have a similar criteria when it comes to sourcing ingredients?
Ember + Ash will have a hearth. It's going to be the heart and soul of the restaurant. It will be a lot more casual compared to Forage. I will be cooking more seafood there too. That's something I loved to do in the Bay Area with the amazing access to the ocean there. But yeah it will be about cooking what I love at the new place. And about 70% of that will be seafood, and the other 30% will be focused on regional ingredients similar to how we do it at Forage. We'll be aging meats and game via some traditional and untraditional methods. Smoking, cooking with fire, burying things in ash, a bunch of cool stuff like that. But I'm most excited about being able to continue to develop my voice as a chef at the new place. There will be a counter with a set menu, and the rest of the restaurant will be a la carte.
What are a couple dishes that are true stand outs at Forage?
Well the menu there is constantly evolving and changing constantly. I'd have to say that the one Food & Wine pointed out is a good one. It's just a very simple dish — raw scallops, meyer lemon confit, herbs, olive oil. Very simple. But delicious.
When it comes to making your food, if you had to choose one, what is the one ingredient that is most important to you?
If there is one thing I had to use it would probably be fish sauce. Red Boat Fish Sauce in particular. And that's something that's fairly new to me. It's an Asian ingredient, but still not something I grew up using. Like I was that kid who if you offered a bowl of pho or a hamburger, I probably would have chosen the hamburger. But as you progress as a chef, you start to look for inspiration in new places. For me that was my mom's pantry. And I used to hate that stuff, because the smell to me is absolutely foul. But honestly it's amazing. It's like salt. If you use the right amount of it, it's going to bring out a huge amount of flavor. Make things taste better. And with fish sauce, you don't actually taste it. You taste a big ball of flavor, umami, that heightens the dish. I now put it in sauces, vinaigrettes, I roast with it, etc. And when I tell people I used fish sauce in something, they're always surprised because they never can tell. I have a dish where we roast cauliflower wrapped in foil or hours over slow burning embers. Like the embers are almost dying. But it gives the cauliflower a golden, caramelized char, makes it almost silky. Add a simple vinaigrette with fish sauce to that, and it goes to a different level. You can cut it up into a thick chop like a steak and eat it that way.
If there's one restaurant you'd rather eat at other than Forage, where would that be?
That would be Saison in San Francisco. I think Josh Skenes is the best chef in the country right now. He's a really good friend, but more importantly I admire what he's doing. The flavors he can achieve and the things he's able to do with the ingredients he sources is absolutely amazing and it's something I can only hope to aspire to one day. His food gives me the most perspective. I was also in New York recently and went to a place called Estela that was fantastic too. All very simple, but focus on quality ingredients. Really great.
If your food made music or were in a band, what kind of music would it make?
That's a good question. You know, I love classical renditions of modern music. Like… not to say I'm a One Direction fan or anything, but I was listening to this station on Pandora and there was this song from the group called the Piano Guys, where they played a song from One Direction. And it was beautiful!
Wow. Viet are you attempting to target the teen girl demographic with that answer?
[Laughs] To be clear… I would never listen to One Direction. It was more about the piano, arrangement, etc. And really, I think the fact that it was a modern song done in a very classical way and style is how it can relate to my food.