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"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.
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.
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.Next Page >
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