Utah chef Viet Pham brainstorms his follow-up to Pretty Bird

After moving from high-end cuisine to a fried chicken chain, Pham considers a barbecue joint.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Pretty Bird owner Viet Pham at the chicken chain's Midvale location, Sept. 13, 2022.

When the groundbreaking Forage restaurant in Salt Lake City closed some seven years ago, no one correctly guessed Viet Pham’s trajectory.

Forage, influenced by molecular gastronomy, was a one-of-a-kind restaurant for Utah. Even today, few have attempted to emulate what Pham and co-owner Bowman Brown intricately crafted over their six-year plating span. Awards rained down on the restaurant, but so did the toll of the intricacies of putting out an almost nightly tasting menu.

After their much-lauded run at Forage came to an end in 2016, many expected Pham’s adventure to continue in the fine dining tradition. Instead, the foams and gels were tossed aside for makeup and microphones — as Pham became an ever-increasing presence on the Food Network. In recent years, his repeated besting of Bobby Flay has seen him become something of a staple on the culinary channel.

Still, many locals predicted it only a matter of time before Pham returned to town – sous vide and spherification kit under arm. The reality couldn’t have been more different.

The byzantine complexities of Forage’s raison d’être had become punishing — the tweezers, the stories, the convoluted process of crafting an intricate and nightly tasting menu. While many see a Michelin-beckoning menu as the apex of dining, the daily demands had simply tarnished the luster. Many balked at the $89 sticker price for the duo’s menu (though I remember counseling just how lucky Salt Lake City diners had it at the time).

Pham’s next project, Pretty Bird, hatched out of the blue for many onlookers, but the transition was an easy one for Pham. An opportunity to return to something simpler, something more accessible and — let’s just say it – fun.

The restaurant, which specializes in Nashville-style hot chicken, immediately garnered a cult following via social media; this in turn translating to lines down Regent Street in downtown Salt Lake City. Locations in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood, Park City and Midvale soon followed.

So what’s next? When I sat down to lunch several weeks ago with the chef, his update surprised even me. And more than that, it got me all a little hot under the collar. (I know, I know, I’m like that.)

Pham’s nebulous idea for the next adventure started as a pure play barbecue concept. Pham being Pham, though, the idea quickly took on richer detail. His Midwest youth would be the transformative icing on a promising looking cake.

In an interview with the website Tasting Table, Pham talked about his Midwest influence. “Growing up in Illinois, one of my favorite things to eat every Friday with my family was Portillo’s,” Pham said. “I thought, ‘What if I do something similar to Portillo’s?’”

The iconic Italian beef was the natural jumping-off point for a possible fusion of barbecue and traditional sandwiches. A centerpiece of the planned operation would see the classic composition of slow-braised beef with peppers given a whole new lease on life via the smoker. From there? Maybe other archetypes, such as pork and chicken and turkey, but with ember-fueled twists. The possibilities are endless; A classic club remade with more thought than the hotel lobby? A smoke-kissed schnitzel with a gourmet edge? (Those last two my own suggestions – insert your imagination here.)

The working name for the new business is Pretty Q, and those that are familiar with Pham’s critical attention to detail will want to follow along as the story develops.

For all the apparent easing up in transitioning from fine dining to QSR (quick-service restaurants), tremendous care goes into everything under his watch at Pretty Bird. Take the seemingly humble chicken sandwich that the chef has spent the last few years iterating – even the minutiae of the spice blend has seen endless reworking.

“One of the challenges we faced: ‘How do we get an even application of that blend onto the chicken?’,” Pham told me. “Each component in the spice blend has a differing particle size, a different weight. The individual ingredients fall at disparate rates. In our earlier days we’d find that as a shaker came to an end, certain elements would outweigh others. Sandwiches might then differ – spicier, saltier, sweeter.”

How to fix that? A meticulous evolution of the recipe and process. Team members are now required to perform a special series of pats, shakes and flourishes to ensure even distribution. While it might sound eccentric in isolation, it’s just one considered calculation among many. Everything from the sourcing of chicken (specially ordered at increased costs to ensure precise portion sizes) through to the use of high-end pressure fryers are all in place to ensure that the experience is uniform and replicable for each guest.

The thought of that level of quality control applied to an Italian beef (hi there, fans of “The Bear”) – and smoked to boot – let’s just say I’m giddy. Before you get carried away with me, though, and begin considering whether you want your sandwich dipped or wet, the plan for now remains one in progress.

In our conversation, Pham confirmed that the business could have already opened as early as last fall, if it weren’t for the multiple challenges facing the industry right now: Staffing, pricing and inflation among them.

For the moment, Pham continues to evolve recipes in private, while keeping a keen eye on the local business environment. Watch this space, we might have another great sandwich shop in our midst very soon.

Stuart Melling is creator and chief writer of the website Gastronomic SLC, which has a content-sharing agreement with The Salt Lake Tribune.