Chef Charles Phan treated guests at Fresh Starts Chef Events last week to a taste of where his culinary fame began: Pork & Shrimp Spring Rolls, one of the most popular dishes at San Francisco’s Slanted Door.
The spring rolls, Chef Charles said, “gave me the confidence to open Slanted Door.” In 2014, it was named best restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation and continues to buzz after more than 20 years.
Guests enjoyed other favorite dishes: a salad of asparagus, radishes, hazelnuts and cilantro with a tahini dressing, then braised duck leg with egg noodles, greens and mushrooms, and finished with a citrus no-bake cheesecake.
After demonstrating the spring rolls, Chef Charles inspired everyone with his story, which began when his family escaped Vietnam as Saigon fell. After two years in a refugee camp in Guam, they settled in San Francisco.
The city now hosts a total of three Charles Phan restaurants, with Vietnamese street food at Out the Door and a Southern flavor at Hard Water, an American whiskey bar. In addition, he has a new venture coming to the UC Berkeley campus.
The affable, entertaining and sometime self-deprecating chef talked about the hard work that preceded his renown as the inventor of modern Vietnamese cooking in this country. As the oldest of five siblings, Chef Charles often cooked the family meals while both parents worked and he later bused tables at a pub.
Though he has a background in architecture, making art and design an important aspect of his restaurants, he says, “it’s all about the food.” From the start, he wanted to present family-style meals at Slanted Door that rely on flavors and textures from his homeland, adapted with local and organic ingredients.
His opportunities to feed important people like President Bill Clinton have been memorable, but Chef Charles says he’s equally interested in finding ways “to change the way we feed our kids in school.”
As a grateful recipient of aid and assistance when new to this country, the chef expressed appreciation for Fresh Starts Culinary Academy’s job-training program. “It’s amazing,” he said, “getting to know about this group…and the big enterprise here.” — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.