'Top Chef's' Tu David Phu on Going Against the Grain
The Bay Area chef gained a reputation as one of the most helpful competitors on this season.
A hectic episode filled with twists had the chefs scrambling and a strategic misfire coupled with lackluster garnish sent Bay Area chef Tu David Phu packing his knives. Phu, who started off strong netting the first Quickfire win of the season with his cold corn salpicon, struggled with the elimination challenges this season, scalding broths and improperly butchering a rack of lamb that almost cost his team a win. Despite these missteps, he proved to think well on his feet and performed well during Quickfires, winding up in the winner’s circle multiple times. Prior to competing on Top Chef Tu is the chef and founder of the pop-up series ĂN: A Vietnamese Dining Experience. Before pursuing his own pop-up, he trained in the most famous Michelin-starred kitchens in the country including Chez Panisse, Quince, Daniel Boulud, the Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. In 2017 the San Francisco Chronicle named him Rising Star Chef.
Food & Wine: Your strategy to contrast your dishes off of what other chefs were doing—going cold in the first Quickfire and the Denver omelette challenge and attempting to do rabbit three ways—proved successful until it didn’t. Looking back, are there different dishes that you would have prepared for those challenges had you not been in the competition setting?
Tu David Phu: Absolutely! Because it's a competition, we chefs have to be cognizant of time. More than anything, time pressure is the one that determines most chefs' successes and failures on the show.
FW: What is a dish or technique you wish you got to show the judges that you never got a chance to cook?
TDP: I wanted to make Coconut Milk Maos on the show. I have a cult following for them.
FW: What was your favorite dish you made on Top Chef?
TDP: I was most proud of my Vietnamese Bouillabaisse. Unfortunately, Greg Gourdette thought it lacked acid. Fun fact: Taste is subjective.
FW: How did being in the Top Chef bubble affect your cooking?
TDP: In episode four, I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had made by Syrian & Latin immigrant women. It wasn’t in a 3 Michelin star restaurant nor a World’s Top 50. I was truly inspired. Cooking with these immigrant women gave me perspective on what great food can be.
FW: Would you ever come back for another season of Top Chef? What would you do differently?
TDP: Yes. You would have to watch!
FW: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
TDP: Ryan Scott of Top Chef Season 4 encouraged me to apply. We met on his radio show.
FW: Who do you think is going to be Top Chef? And who are you rooting for?
TDP: At this point, it can be anyone’s game!
FW: What is your strategy going into Last Chance Kitchen?
TDP: I’ve been pretty successful in my Quickfires. Last Chance Kitchen is essentially the same thing. Sticking the game plan should work out just fine for me.
FW: What was your favorite challenge this season on Top Chef?
TDP: Heritage challenge and cooking the kids meal.
FW: You gained a reputation for helping out other chefs in the kitchen. Who’s someone you met on Top Chef that you’d want to cook with in the future?
TDP: Everyone for sure. We all became very close. Specifically Brother Luck, Rogelio Garcia, Chris Scott, Carrie Baird, and Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins. Even though our styles are dramatically different, our food and work philosophies are very complimentary of each other.
FW: What’s something you learned from competing on Top Chef?
TDP: “Keep it Simple.” Thank you, Chef Tom Colicchio.