Charles Phan is a local boy, through and through: before he became a celebrity chef with the runaway success of the Slanted Door, he went to UC Berkeley and Mission High School. He spent his teen years in San Francisco’s Chinatown and recalls it nostalgically, even though his family struggled financially at the time. In the 1970s, his mother was making $2 an hour.
Today, Phan employs more than 20 of his relatives at eight restaurants in San Francisco. Even an ostensibly non-local restaurant concept like The Coachman ties back to Phan’s first job in the US, bussing at a different Coachman that closed years ago.
Place and time figure heavily in Phan’s approach to cooking — and life. “When you don’t have the story [behind a dish or a menu], it just means a little less. It’s about flavor now, and there’s nothing that ties you back to the past, to why people do what they do.”
Now that he’s expanded beyond his home cuisine of Vietnam, Phan has been researching to connect his restaurants and their menus to story. A vast bookcase across from his open kitchen is filled with cookbooks, but he also travels, to taste and taste and taste again. Phan jokes that he exhausts the patience of his children, who get dragged along on these research trips.
“I have to eat the same dishes five, six times to get a bearing: What’s everybody think? Food’s very personal. Everybody will have their secret way of doing it, but after awhile you get a sense of — sometimes it’s physical. The location, the weather, the material [ingredients] that you have.”
He has to research Vietnamese food, too. After all, he left Vietnam when he was 13 years-old. But also, traditions continue to change and evolve over time.
“You know, what the Vietnamese ate 50, 100 years ago, I’m sure was completely different.” So, he says, when he talks about his Vietnamese tradition, he’s talking about something drawn from his family’s experience in the last half century. “Not that far back.”
Hence the story of how his mother developed the peanut sauce for the spring rolls that helped launch the original Slanted Door restaurant nearly 20 years ago. Waiting for the bus that would take her to work, Phan’s mother traded recipes and cooking tips with other Vietnamese immigrants. That’s where she heard about using sticky rice and miso as blending agents for the peanut sauce, to develop the perfect taste and viscosity. As he explained to KQED host Thuy Vu on Forum, use too much peanut butter, and you’ll get something “almost like Skippy, with Thai chili in it.”
Charles Phan talks about family traditions and shares the origin of the Slanted Door in this interview.
Vietnamese cuisine, he notes, is an amalgamation, heavily influenced by Chinese and French cuisine. The other secret ingredient in his mom’s spring roll? Mayonnaise, a legacy of a job she held at a French hospital in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Phan brings that expansive attitude to the menu at the Slanted Door. He’s using ingredients local to Northern California. But the aesthetic is also Vietnamese-American, like him.
That’s not true of the dish he prepares for Bay Area Bites on the day we come to visit. We’ve asked him to make a holiday dish, a dish with religious significance, for KQED’s Food & Spirituality series. He obliges with a dish he doesn’t typically prepare because his mother is the one that makes it.
It’s banh chưng, a savory sticky, rice cake cooked in banana leaves, like a tamale — a dish familiar to Chinese and Vietnamese people as a new year’s treat. Phan’s father fled Southern China to Vietnam during the Cultural Revolution, and his family serves banh chưng during Tết, or Chinese New Year.
Inside the banana leaves, inside a base of glutinous rice, are all sorts of goodies: mung bean, pork belly, pork shoulder, Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and last but not least, a salted duck egg in the center. “That’s one of my favorite things,” Phan says, “to find a salted duck egg in the middle.”
So what’s the story behind banh chưng? In Vietnam, one version of the story goes, there was a king who had 18 sons. To choose the next king, he held a cooking competition. Most of the princes opted for rare and fancy ingredients. The youngest son was too poor for that. He created a dish inspired by the countryside he lived in — rice from the nearby fields, green leaves from the forest. His humility, and the simple purity of his approach, won the king over.
“You know,” says Phan, “a lot of Vietnamese cuisine’s about that. It’s never about the expensive foie gras or caviar. It’s always about simple ingredients — and what can you turn these ingredients into, to create food that’s just amazing.”
It’s a dish that usually involves a small army of women getting together in the kitchen to prepare and combine the ingredients, then hover over the pots in which piles of banh chưng are boiled. Small, hungry children typically watch with great interest, but the first banh chưng go to the family’s altar honoring ancestors.
The story of why people come to the Bay Area from a foreign land is often a painful one. Poverty, political upheaval, and war compel people to risk everything for a future in the US. But over time, it becomes more and more difficult to hold on to memories of the homeland, and to the cultural traditions that make less and less sense as the years pass. But food is an easy link…provided you hang on to the recipes.
With the flash of a sharp knife, Phan slices through the string that holds the banana leaves together. The boiled banh chưng can be re-steamed, or sliced and sauteed, then topped with a drizzle of soy sauce or Maggi, another condiment that’s a favorite of the Vietnamese. The glutinous rice with mung bean recalls grits, and the sausage and egg inside pair perfectly, recalling the classic American breakfast of grits, eggs and ham or sausage.
Phan says you can find banh chưng in dim sum houses, especially around Chinese New Year, but not in his restaurants.
“It’s just stuck in my head that it’s a religious food, so I won’t serve it in a restaurant. Seems sacrilegious.” He laughs, and tucks again into the fruit of his labor.