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Viet Pham

Chef Viet Pham
Photo courtesy of Viet Pham

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Forage (Salt Lake City); Cluck, a small fried chicken place in Salt Lake City, opening fall 2013; and Fire and Water, at the Sky Lodge (Park City, UT)

Experience: Fifth Floor (San Francisco)

Education: California Culinary Academy (San Francisco)

What is the recipe you are most famous for?
Forage is probably most known for our soft scrambled egg. It’s a take on the L’Arpège egg that David Kinch does at Manresa. It’s an egg yolk poached in its shell with maple syrup and cream, sherry vinegar and chives. When we opened Forage, we tried to copy the Kinch egg, and failed every single time. So instead of poaching the whole yolk in the egg, we ended up scrambling the egg yolk with the same elements. Now we can’t get rid of it or people get upset.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Laurent Gras. When he hired me, he warned me that working in the kitchen with him was going to be extremely hard, that everything that I’d learned in culinary school was going to mean nothing, it would only be a foundation. He said the things I’d learn with him would help me not only in the kitchen, but also in life, like being clean in the kitchen, being meticulous, being soigné. And he was right. I’ve been able to apply that to everything from cooking to ironing my shirts and pants. Working with Laurent Gras bumped me up to that tier, of being a perfectionist.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Humility. A lot of cooks come out of culinary school and have this ego, when you need an open heart to learn.

Current food obsessions?
We’ve been playing around with aging game, meats and birds. Take beef: We smoked it and then coated it in ash. Then we wrapped it in hay, bound it with cheesecloth and let it age and ferment at the same time. We’re aging some meats for for anywhere from 30 days to 120 days. I learned a lot about it from working with Joshua Skenes at Saison.

Fermentation and preservation are other [obsessions], like kimchi and fruit preserves. It’s a big deal here in Utah; Mormons preserve a lot. They have huge pantries. That’s part of their faith. With our short growing season, I figured we’d dabble with it.

Secret-weapon ingredient?
Sake lees. They’re the yeast and rice leftover at the bottom of the fermenting vat after they drain off sake. They’re popular in Japanese cooking. They sell them in Asian grocery stores. They have so much umami flavor, a natural savoriness or MSG. I use them on scallops, or to marinate meats. There are many different varieties; you can get them in powder form or fresh. You can sprinkle a little of the powder over almost anything to deepen the flavor.

What will we always find in your fridge?
I’m big on juicing, so you’ll usually find a ton of kale, carrots, apples, all the vegetables. I’m looking in my fridge right now: there are 10 bottles of juice, a case of PBR and some koji, which is this fermented rice that I’m making.

What do you eat when you come home starving after service at night?
I buy a lot of Amy’s organic frozen foods. I just throw one of them in the microwave. I consider myself fairly healthy so I’ll consume my juice, and I’ll eat Amy’s frozen foods. I like the saag paneer. I love Indian food.

What’s the best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
Red Boat Fish Sauce. I’ve only started to experiment with Asian ingredients; I grew up hating fish sauce. But this one, I don’t know what it is, but it’s 100 times better than the fish sauce I grew up with, the viscosity and the flavor. I first used it on a Food Network show called Extreme Chef. I overused it and one of the judges said, “You’ve never worked with fish sauce before, right?” So now I’m obsessed. My employees love Red Boat now, too. When we have staff meal, they pour it on their food.

Who do you follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook?
Ulterior Epicure, ChuckEats and A Life Worth Eating.

Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
After work, sometimes I walk out, look at the restaurant and can’t believe that all this has happened. We opened in July 2008. It’s surreal how much has happened in so short a time. When I leave work each day, one of the last thoughts I want to have is being grateful for all the things that we’ve had.

Food-related superstitions?
I’ve struggled to work with live shellfish because I grew up Buddhist. My parents never, ever buy live crab because they don’t want to kill anything. They’ll buy crabs that are dead, or slightly dead, So when we started getting lobster and crab and abalone at the restaurant, it would always cross my mind: I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to respect the animals and say a little prayer and thank them. The first time I had to kill something, I told myself, My parents are going to hate me for this. They’ve gotten over it, though. I recently spent some time with my family in the Bay Area. I told my mom I wanted some Dungeness crab. She objected at first, but she ended up going with me to the market to buy some live ones. She just clucked her tongue and said, “You shouldn’t be eating this stuff.”

What is your hidden talent?
I’m a pretty darned good wakeboarder. I bought a boat a few years ago and we used to wakeboard every weekend. I’m also good at break dancing. Back in middle school and high school, I used to be in a break dancing crew. I used to be a B-boy. When I go out with friends to a club, I still have that beat within my bones. I think it helped me with wakeboarding, because it requires some flexibility.

8 recipes by Chef Viet Pham
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