Young & Hungry VIETNAMESE-AMERICANS BREAKING NEW GROUND IN THE CULINARY WORLD

A Night of Modern Vietnamese Dining

By Hieu Gray

The Feastly Dinner Pop-up Series in the Mission district of San Francisco Photo by: Hieu Gray

Climbing up the steps of the mid-level walk-up, I am first drawn to the familiar smells of my childhood before I even open the door - the pungency of fish sauce intermingling with the bright citrus notes of lemongrass. Once inside, I am seated at a communal table with twenty other strangers. Here in this loft apartment in the ultra-hip Mission district in San Francisco, we are anticipating a modern day “pop-up.” Chef Tu David Phu is at the helm of this renegade dining experience taking place at the Feastly office – a start-up specializing in organizing informal meals without the stuffiness or red tape of a restaurant.

“I was at a point in my career where I had been in the industry cooking for twelve years and I wanted to cook my own food." CHEF TU DAVID PHU

Chef Tu is decked out in a backwards baseball cap, black V-neck t-shirt with tattoos adorning the muscles on his arms. On his apron is inconspicuously clipped a pair of long skinny tweezers used in fine dining establishments to intricately plate the tiniest details onto a dish. He is not an aspiring cook like most in Feastly’s line up of weekend warrior chefs, but a veteran of top restaurants like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern. It is rare to find a Vietnamese chef who has spent his career cooking in high end dining establishments. Skilled in both classic western and eastern techniques, his menu is a culmination of familiar flavors. Each dish is presented as if they could have come from the city’s best fine dining establishments.

Menu for Chef David Tu's Pop-up in San Francisco Photo by Hieu Gray

For Chef Tu, it makes sense economically to do pop-ups. In a city like San Francisco where restaurants and high rents go hand-in-hand, an alternative option seems almost necessary to be successful. But more importantly, for Chef Tu, it is about freedom, “I was at a point in my career where I had been in the industry cooking for twelve years and I wanted to cook my own food. Dude, I think the people are ready for the funky fish sauce. It’s not about the money, for me, it’s about the craft.”

It’s not about the money, for me, it’s about the craft.” Chef Tu David Phu

Tonight, he is preparing a modern Vietnamese menu focused on hand-made noodles in various shapes and forms. During the two and a half hour tasting menu, he will take us on a culinary journey that he hopes will change people’s perceptions about Vietnamese food. The theme of tonight’s menu is “Nui” which is a slang term for pasta from his region in Vietnam.

“I’m just doing what I know. I’m Vietnamese,” Chef Tu honestly states. He is doing a profession he loves and defying the expectations of his family. “They hated it!” he exclaims.

Bánh bột lọc - tapioca dumplings stuffed with shrimp and pork

Childhood memories play a large part in tonight’s dinner. Our first course is Bánh bột lọc, an appetizer consisting of dumplings made from tapioca flour stuffed with shrimp and pork. Chef Tu remarks, “growing up, my mom would always make them and freeze them, the version that she makes is wrapped in banana leaf.” Here, the dumplings are shaped like little raviolis unapologetically splashed with the strong flavors of thick “nước chấm” or fish sauce. Chef Tu’s maternal family hails from Vietnam’s fish sauce making capitol Phu Quoc where he travels annually. He describes good fish sauce as “very dark, super umami.”

“I’m just doing what I know. I’m Vietnamese,” Chef Tu David Phu

The arrival of the second dish is Chef Tu’s rendition of Hủ tiếu Nam Vang, a hot noodle soup dish. In the chef’s hands, the broth is transformed into a consommé that is poured tableside for a dramatic presentation on top of thick hand-rolled noodles, made just hours earlier. “I had all those same elements and I wanted people to eat this and for those who have had it before, it reminds them of it, but a different take on it,” he says. Other accoutrements include wood ear mushrooms, foraged fish wort (an herb that tastes strangely like fish) and tofu from a start-up company called Hodo Soy.

Bánh Canh Tay - "Carbonara-style" Vietnamese tapioca noodles

For the next dish, Chef Tu brings to the table Bánh Canh Tay which roughly translates to Tapioca noodles western-style. The thick handmade noodles are mixed in a rich bright yellow egg yolk sauce. “It’s a take on carbonara and fusion experiences that I have as a chef at the Italian places that I have cooked,” he describes. Chinese sausage called lạp xưong replace the Guanciale or pancetta in the original Italian recipe. The tapioca noodles provide a satisfyingly chewy texture.

"Nui" or noodles with smoked beef and caramelized soy

For our fourth dish, Chef Tu mixes east and west in a stir-fried dish with semolina Garganelli, a pasta similar in shape to the tubular-shaped penne and Asian elements like soy stewed beef, tofu, bean sprouts and flavored with lemongrass. It is a take on one of his favorite childhood dishes. He reminisces, “My sister and I would complain there’s always rice every day at the table. So my mom would try and get creative, she would pan-fry pork chops and cook rigatoni or pasta shells and she would toss it in the pan drippings.”

To end the meal, a simple dish of Hodo soy silken tofu with ginger syrup. The tofu, freshly made hours beforehand, delicately quivers to the touch. Thin slices of candied kumquats add a citrus-y floral note to each bite. For me, it brings back wistful childhood memories. As a little girl, I would make this dish for my mother and have it waiting for her as she came home from her shift from the car mat factory. I would make the tofu from a dry mix and make a ginger sauce from a simple sugar mixture infused with slivers of ginger. It was her favorite dish.

It made me think twice, oh shit, I’m on my own. I really got to make something with this.” Chef Tu David Phu

As we say our goodbyes, I steal a glance at Chef Tu as he breaks down the kitchen. I know his his path has been challenging. “My parents made it loud and clear that they weren’t going to support me, but at the same token I feel if they didn’t take those means, or made me go through that path, I probably wouldn’t have taken this career path as seriously. It made me think twice, oh shit, I’m on my own. I really got to make something with this.”

Sometimes, in order to look forward, one must look backwards. It is exciting to see a young chef reinterpreting classic dishes in new and exciting ways. As Chef Tu says, “I’m not a quitter.”

Created By
Hieu Huynh
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Hieu Gray

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