The guests didn’t know what to do with the fish.
They’d been presented with a grilled, whole sea bass on a platter, stuffed with dill and surrounded by a bed of wild watercress. Shimmering and beautiful, but what do they do with the branzino’s head? How do they cut around the bones?
“Help them with the fish,” a host at the fundraiser quietly implored the chef’s assistant.
Get used to it, Utah.
This was one of Viet Pham’s offerings at a $1,000-a-plate dinner. And it’s how Pham will be serving his mostly seafood menu at his new restaurant, Fire & Water, which will open on the corner of Main Street and Heber Avenue in Park City this summer.
While Pham is still a co-owner of Salt Lake City’s Forage, he no longer cooks or helps run the restaurant that made him famous.
The 34-year-old has moved to a bigger stage. Besides the larger restaurant, Pham is one of 11 chefs competing on the next season of “Food Network Star.” The 11-week show premieres Sunday, June 2, on the cable channel. It’s the third TV show for Pham, who previously competed on “Extreme Chef” — he was the runner-up — and “Iron Chef America,” where he bested Bobby Flay.
Being part of “Food Network Star” means more exposure for Salt Lake’s most high-profile chef — and more attention to the state’s dining scene.
With the connections he’s made through TV — and after being named one of the Best New Chef’s in 2011 by Food & Wine Magazine, with his Forage partner Bowman Brown — Pham could have opened his new restaurant anywhere.
But he says he wants to commit, at least for now, to the community that helped him become a success.
“It would be very foolish for me to leave, considering the amount of press we’ve gotten here — and also seeing where the food scene is going,” says Pham, adding audaciously that “nowhere” else has a food scene as exciting as Utah’s. “I feel like we’re in the beginning of this wave and it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
In Park City, Pham says he wants to show a different side to seafood than broiled halibut or grilled salmon.
Most of the ingredients at his new restaurant will be from the water, cooked in the embers and ashes of an 8-foot wide open hearth.
It will be a stretch for him. While Forage can serve 36 meals a night, Fire & Water will seat 70 and could serve three times that during the Sundance Film Festival.
He calls the style of his new restaurant “primal cooking with precision and finesse.”
He’ll be aging and fermenting meats in display cases and serving the a la carte dishes “communal-style” — entrees on large platters to be divvied out by the diners — just like that branzino fish.
Drawn to water • Water is a theme in Pham’s life.
His mother, Hoa Pham, was pregnant with him when she and her husband, Hiep, escaped the Communist rule in Vietnam, along with hundreds of thousands of other “Boat People.” They traveled by fishing boat at night across the Gulf of Thailand to Malaysia where Viet was born in a refugee camp in 1979 on Bidong Island.
A brother, born 1 1/2 years later, after the family moved to Illinois as refugees, was named Nam — the sons’ names forever a reminder of their roots.
They moved to San Jose, Calif., when Pham was 8 so his parents could join a family member in a catering company. Eventually, his father would drive the catering truck while his mother would cook Mexican, American, Chinese and Vietnamese food.
Pham grew up watching his parents cook — and feeling connected to the water. He started body surfing when he was in middle school. Later, he would cut class while he attended the California Culinary Academy to surf.
“The ocean is very near and dear to me,” says Pham says, whose family believes being on the sea while his mother was pregnant is the reason. They call him a dolphin.
During culinary school, which he “hated,” Pham interned at the Fifth Floor Restaurant under Laurent Gras. “He’s the one that developed me as a chef,” Pham says of the Food & Wine Best New Chef 2002.
Still, Pham decided to leave the kitchen, saying he wanted to have fun with his friends instead of working 12-hour days. He was a home loan officer until the market crashed.
He joined a software company. But, “at the end of the day I was never really happy,” he recalled. “What made me happy was cooking.”
Utah beginning • Of all places, it was Provo that brought Pham back to the kitchen.
While a support technician, Pham connected with Blake Ballard, who was also in California but wanted to open a restaurant back home. He knew of Pham’s cooking background through a mutual friend and asked him to be the head chef at Spark. Pham considered it for all of a half hour before agreeing. It was time to move out of his parents’ house and pursue his passion.
Brown was hired as the sous chef. But soon after they were both fired. (Although, Ballard claims Brown quit.)
Pham and Brown decided to open their own restaurant — a renovated house at 340 E. 900 South, which they discovered on Craigslist.
Ballard said recently Pham wanted to “push the limits of food. That’s worked out really well for him in Salt Lake and I’m very happy [for Pham and Brown],” said Ballard. “Everybody deserves to be successful at what they’re passionate about.”
Pham and Brown are an odd alliance because both agree they have different styles, with Brown emphasizing the land and Pham the water.
But it worked. Forage opened July 2009, technically after the Great Recession but when average pocketbooks still were suffering. It offered a new level of fine dining in Salt Lake City — a three-hour tasting menu at, then, $79 a person. A reviewer for The Salt Lake Tribune lauded the chefs’ “superb technical skill, beautiful ingredients and artful presentations.”
The pair have been James Beard Foundation semi-finalists for best chefs in the southwest region for the past three years. And then there was the Best New Chefs award, which Pham said changed his life.
Besides cooking at magazine-related events in New York and Aspen, and attending countless food festivals, it helped him land spots on three TV shows. He took a call to be on “Extreme Chef” in January 2012 while he was foraging for watercress in a snowy ravine and soon after was filming episodes in Los Angeles and Thailand.
That led to getting an agent, who promised to get him on “Iron Chef America.”
“I thought to myself, ‘No way. That’s crazy,’ because it’s such an iconic show,” says Pham, who grew up watching the original Japanese version while eating take-out with his family.
The episode aired earlier this year. Ground meat was the theme, and the judges were wowed by the ice-cream Pham and Brown — who was Pham’s sous chef for the show — made using beef fat. One judge said “this fat fluff powder is one of the most incredible experiences.”
Pham says the compressed cherry sweet was similar to a dessert served at Forage.
“When people think of beef fat ice-cream, you think it’s gross because … you’re thinking of the fat you cut off. But when you render beef fat slowly, it develops a really rich, sweet, nutty smell. It’s like browning butter.”
TV was never Pham’s goal, he says. And he hates the term “celebrity chef.”
“I’m trying to be as true to myself as I can. Who I am is a cook first and foremost. I also am an opportunist. When an opportunity comes, I’m going to take it.”
Being part of the television programs help Pham establish a personal brand and help promote Salt Lake City.
Scott Evans, owner of Salt Lake City Pago and Finca restaurants, says anytime local eateries receive national recognition it helps everyone.
“It helps the locals appreciate what the local talent is doing,” says Evans.
Pham acknowledges that some of the attention paid to the state is because it’s happening in Utah.
“People are tired of reading about New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago restaurants and chefs,” Pham says. “When they hear … about the cocktail program at this restaurant is outstanding and it’s in Utah, people are intrigued by that.”
Pham said he wants to push the bar in Park City, just like he and Brown did with Forage.
As the fundraiser showed, it may take some getting used to.
But the days of presenting guests with separate entrees are over, Pham assures.
“The act of eating as a community, breaking bread, that’s how I like to eat.”
Utah chef on ‘Food Network Star’
Chef Viet Pham, co-owner of Salt Lake City’s Forage restaurant, is one of 11 contestants on the new season of “Food Network Star.” It premieres Sunday, June 2, on Food Network. Check listings for exact time.