Flavors of Home
Vietnamese dishes and family stories
come to the pop-up dining table
Story and Photos By Alix Wall
A few months ago at age 32, Chef Tu David Phu was named a “Rising Star Chef” in the San Francisco Chronicle. One could say that Phu’s rise began as this son of Vietnamese immigrants worked under some of the finest chefs in Manhattan—Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for instance.
But on returning home to Oakland and cooking again in his family home, Phu realized that his mother was an equal inspiration as well as a repository of valuable information, especially when it comes to not wasting food. During the Vietnam War, when supplies were rationed, she learned out of necessity that corn silk could be dried and used as tea or toasted, deep-fried, or sautéed to serve with rice.
“That was a huge turning point for me,” said Phu. “As opposed to looking outward to learn more about food, that’s when I realized I had already learned a lot from my mom.”
Ceviche and a story
Given this background, it’s no surprise that family stories play a significant role when Phu (and business partner Bryan Price) holds his nouveau Vietnamese-Californian seasonal pop-up dinners. Called “Ăn” (which Phu translates as “to eat”), the dinners take place in the Golden Stateroom, an event space that’s just steps away from Oakland Tech, where Phu attended high school.
Although there are servers at the pop-ups, Phu may be the one pouring hot broth into your bowl. As he serves the ceviche, he may say, “This is the last dish I ate with my grandfather before he passed.” You will also hear about Phu’s mother’s family and their enterprises back in Vietnam, where they farm peppercorns and also run their 100-year-old fish sauce–making business. Their version of that Vietnamese staple condiment is of such high quality that Phu and his parents bring bottles back to the United States in their luggage.
Phu’s parents emigrated from the island of Phú Quốc, which is off the coast of Cambodia. In Oakland, his father found work as a fishmonger and his mother as a seamstress. Their aspirations for their son did not include working in a kitchen, but Phu gravitated toward it anyway.
“I was the fat kid, always asking mom when the food would be ready,” he says, noting that as he helped with cooking, he developed his palate, and that by shopping with his mom, he learned how to select the best produce. “A lot of chefs pick up a phone,” he says.
An open kitchen
Before starting his pop-ups (which he also holds in San Francisco) Phu fell into a crisis of conscience over his chosen industry. He had wanted to be a restaurateur ever since he was young, and his discriminating palate led him to fine dining, but the frills didn’t mesh with who he was: the son of immigrants who had settled in
“I never liked the pretentiousness of it,” says Phu, who is quick to smile. His heavily inked arms include the letters C-H-E-F on the fingers of his right hand. “Chefs are behind this wall, god-like. I realized I needed to implement my own systems to be more connected with the diner.”
That means an open kitchen, and perhaps even more importantly, personally introducing each dish. He likes watching his guests interact, not only with their food but with each other. And he wants to see that look of delight when they dig in.
“I’m trying to go backwards, to that food stall in another country where the cook has one burner and is making your soup,” he says.
Phu graduated from San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy in 2005 and worked as a sous chef in short stints around the Bay. But he never lasted too long anywhere until he reached an unlikely destination: Saul’s Deli in Berkeley.
Tu “the Jew” Phu
Phu quickly endeared himself to Saul’s co-owners, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, whom he still regards as mentors. When he said he wanted to learn front of house, they not only paid for management classes, but also encouraged Phu to attend Toastmasters (the public speaking and leadership program) to improve his communication skills. In his two and a half years at Saul’s, he went from managing front of house to chef, studying up on Jewish deli knowledge along the way. And that’s not to say his expertise went unquestioned by Saul’s regulars. “I accepted their challenge,” he says. “I fell in love with Jewish culture and food because I could relate to it like my own.” Phu says the importance that food and family play in both cultures felt very much the same to him, and he also noted that both cultures show a remarkable resilience, despite both having
“We called him Tu ‘the Jew’ Phu,” says Levitt, adding that Phu was a “diamond in the rough” but still “loveable” when he arrived at Saul’s at age 23.
But clearly Phu wasn’t meant to stay at Saul’s.
“We are so proud of the time he spent with us,” says Levitt. “We watch his progress like Bubbie and Zeyde.” (That’s Yiddish for grandparents.)
Phu also did a stint at Gather after its founding chef left, but departed over ideological differences.
Phu credits Anthony Bourdain for giving Vietnamese food its proper respect as he opened Westerners’ minds and palates to that range of flavors and types of dishes. Phu’s tasting menus are full of ideas he’s been thinking up for the past 12 years while at all his other jobs.
Phu’s menus start out with tastes so subtle that diners might think a dish needs more seasoning. But it’s deliberate: He slowly wakes up the palate by incrementally introducing stronger flavors.
“Each course has to be ingredient-focused,” he says. “It’s like a puzzle. You have to place them correctly, not just in terms of flavor but in terms of storytelling, so they all make sense.”
In this writer’s opinion, Phu’s pineapple chili sauce with notes of lemongrass should be bottled and sold. A beef tenderloin wrapped in seaweed (Phu often dives for that vegetable himself) is an umami bomb. Silken tofu, which he makes à la minute from a gallon of fresh Hodo Soy milk and serves with ginger syrup and a touch of gold leaf, made me doubt that I had ever truly tried silken tofu before.
Phu says the pop-up concept is working for him now, but adds that he can see having his own brick-and-mortar restaurant some day, as long as it’s intimate enough that he can see and interact with his guests (which quite often means hugging some of them as they depart).
Phu advertises the pop-ups through the social dining venue Feastly. “They give a good platform for chefs, both professional and amateur, to host pop-ups in their home or a venue they provide,” says Phu, who likes the way Feastly takes care of ticketing and coaches chefs through marketing and publicity. “What they’re doing is redefining a way people approach dining out, which is a great thing.”
It’s a concept that Phu’s guests like Russ Nelson of Oakland appreciate. On the night we both dined at Ăn he said it was his sixth or seventh time at one of Chef Tu’s dinners. A fan of the concept overall, Nelson describes Phu as one of his favorite Feastly chefs.
“He’s very creative,” Nelson says. “His twist on Vietnamese cuisine is so interesting. There’s always a flavor I’ve never had before. And his personality is so warm. He’s a joy to talk to.” ♦
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and personal chef. She is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child. Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter @WallAlix.
Chef Tu David Phu’s Lemongrass Beef
“I always get a lot of questions on how to use lemongrass. The most common remark is, ‘I never seem to extract the lemongrass flavor.’ My answer is that you have to use a lot of lemongrass, and that you will either have to bruise the stalk or chop it very finely.
“People also ask, ‘Which fish sauce do I use? How do I apply it?’ I prefer Three Crab brand fish sauce for adding to sauces that won’t be cooked, since the brand seems to lose its salty flavor with long cooking. Squid brand fish sauce is saltier and is great for marinades.” —Chef Tu David Phu
1 stalk lemongrass
3 tablespoons Squid brand fish sauce
1 tablespoon organic sugar
5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 pound filet mignon, tri-tip, or skirt steak
Prepare lemongrass by cutting away the bottom half inch of the stalk. (This part is very woody and should be saved for broths or soups.) Cut the stalks into ½-inch segments and chop finely in a food processor. Add garlic cloves, fish sauce, and sugar. Blend to a fine paste, about 1 minute. Place beef into a zip-top bag with the marinade, making sure to coat all of the beef. Seal and marinate overnight or 8 hours*. Remove the beef from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Drain away marinade before cooking to your liking. Letting the beef rest for about 10 minutes before slicing will help it retain the juices.
*Note: If you have a sous vide machine, there’s no need to marinate. Set machine and water to 140° and let it sit for 2 hours. Then cook to your liking.