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?
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.
"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.Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.