Charles Phan / Charles Phan opened the original The Slanted Door in San Francisco’s Mission district–it has since moved to a more expansive location in the Ferry Building– in 1995. While Phan drew inspiration from other Bay Area restaurants’ food philosophies, he broke new ground in giving Vietnamese food a modern, upscale setting. As a finalist for the James Beard Outstanding Chef Award, Phan is in town for a Hale ‘Aina ‘Ohana cooking demonstration on Vietnamese cuisine, followed by a demo and reception at the Halekulani on Friday.
In a phone interview with the Weekly, Phan shared his vision and why he might adjust his dishes and flavors to suit customers, but refuses to compromise on ingredient quality.
So why Vietnamese food and local ingredients?
This is the stuff I ate when I was a kid in Vietnam; lots of small farm-to-table things. So it’s only natural that I started looking to buy better ingredients–better meat [and] better produce to replicate things that I learned and tasted in the past.
So our hot trend now is just the status quo in Vietnam?
Yeah, they don’t have corporate farms. Things are made in small quantities. It was very fresh and tasty.
Did you find when you first opened you had to adapt any of the Vietnamese food to the Western palate?
A little bit. You always have to adapt to your local customers. Something as simple as customers didn’t really like chicken with bones in it. So in the beginning, we made some of those changes. But over time, we always push people to eat the things that we think they ought to eat, like chicken with bones in it. So we don’t have a take-no-prisoners attitude. But sometimes you’re not going to win everytime. Some dishes people just don’t like it in this country. But in Asia, they love it. Hainan [poached] chicken is a good example. People here just thought it was rubbery and weird. But in Asia it’s one of the most famous dishes….So you kind of just move on and constantly push that envelope and get people to eat different things, new things. Sometimes you strike out.
These days there’s a lot of cheap Vietnamese food. The general assumption is that ethnic food is cheap. Do you ever have that hurdle with Slanted Door?
Yeah, people complain all the time saying they could get the same dish [somewhere else]. But there are also people that realize that they’re not getting the same product….
I think that because I’m on [the] forefront of introducing farm-fresh products, I [sometimes] have to educate the customer that they ought to pay a little more for this stuff because it costs that much. For instance, buying chicken or fresh shrimp from New Orleans. They’re not frozen, farm-raised stuff. You know, I’m not getting wealthy. [People are] supporting an industry that’s dying.
There’s just a lot of stuff that people don’t understand. People here are always looking for those cheap foods and it’s a big problem for this country. They think they should eat chicken five times a week. Chicken takes a long time to grow if you want a good one. And a tasty one….I can guarantee you these farmers are not getting their fancy Mercedes or even [a] Ford truck. People just gotta know you gotta put money where your mouth is and literally support this dying industry.
So how do you educate consumers on all that?
Take it or leave it. This is it. For instance, I’m doing kids food (at the California Academy of Sciences). And I don’t want kids to eat pizza, so I don’t serve pizza. So I try to get them to eat other food….At some point, you gotta draw a line in the sand and say this is what I’m fighting for and this is what I believe in and you just kind of move on. Not everybody’s gonna love you.
How about your new restaurant, which focuses on Chinese food?
My parents are Chinese, so I do have background in Chinese food. Now I go to China and learn about Chinese food that I haven’t seen before. Chinese food in San Francisco, pretty much everybody serves the same thing. You need to go outside of this continent to learn about different Chinese food.
Do you see any trends in Asian food?
No, the trend is really farm-to-table, sustainable product. I just hope more people are going to do it. The Asian food community is a little behind the eight ball in that department. Trends come and go. Fusion was big in the ’80s. Now it’s all the [molecular] gastronomy. But everybody has their interest and so far what I see is a lot of the classic ideas last a little longer. Whether it’s a perfect sausage from South of France or a perfect porridge from Southern Vietnam, those things are tried and true. It’s just a matter of you duplicating those recipes to bring it back to life.
Halekulani Hotel, 2199 Kalia Rd.