Tell us a bit about where you grew up and early food memories.
I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia – my parents were boat people, which means they fled Vietnam during the war. We came to the US when I was about 5 months old. We lived in Illinois and then my parents moved us out to California when I was eight years old.When we came to the US we were extremely poor and in our case there were three families, two of my uncles and their children, so there were 14 or 16 of us living in the same household. At dinner time and lunch time, I remember all the kids would get together at a table and pick herbs. Everyone had a duty, a job.
I would love to say that I have fond memories of my mom slaving away and making traditional dishes, but growing up in an Asian family, you’re always eating Asian food, and it would get really boring, so I craved for American food and given the choice between a hamburger or a bowl of pho, I would have chosen the hamburger. My parents had a business with catering trucks, so I get asked a lot if this is where I got my inspiration from, but you know, they were never really happy because they worked long hours and used that as an example to my brother and I, to go to school to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.
I spent a lot of time going food shopping with my parents and seeing a variety of different produce. That instilled curiosity in me. And, because my parents worked a lot, they taught us how to take care of ourselves. From kindergarten on, we would boil water and make our own ramen. We would add leftovers and bits and pieces. My fascination and curiosity came from adding and exploring different ingredients and ultimately seeing how they translated.
How did you first get into a professional kitchen?
I was going to college at San Jose State University and I took a break my senior year and I attended culinary school. I didn’t learn anything really, I think everything they taught I already knew from watching Jacque Pepin and Martin Yan on PBS, or cooking at home. I do credit culinary school for requiring an internship to graduate.
I had applied for an internship at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia. I wrote a long letter and put together this beautiful packet, but I sent it and never heard back. And it wound down to a week before I had to submit my internship info and my counselor told me there was a restaurant down the street looking for interns, and the Chef, Laurent Gras had just been awarded FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef. I went to the 5th Floor that same day. One of the first things Laurent emphasized was that culinary school does not provide a foundation. Everything I would learn, the foundation I would build in the kitchen would be with him from here on out.
What was it like working for Laurent Gras?
Working with him changed my life. I literally got beaten physically and emotionally to the point where there were many times that I wanted to give up. But, Laurent’s philosophy resonated with me. I learned that practicing makes you not only a better cook but also a better person.
I had a long commute everyday, but it gave me an opportunity to clear my mind and really focus on what I needed to do to not be yelled at, I’d ask myself, ‘What do I have to do today to not get in trouble and to do something that would make Laurent proud?”. Over time things started to change. I remember Laurent telling me “Oh – you’re finally using your brain.” It was a huge compliment and I felt really good.
Now you’re based in Salt Lake City, which must have been a departure from San Francisco. What is the food scene like and how was Forage received?
It’s up and coming. I’ve been here six years now and I never anticipated so much to happen in such a short time. When we opened Forage, we received a lot of accolades early on and that reinforced how I felt about our dining community.
When we first opened, we didn’t know what to expect, but for myself and Bowman (Brown) it was the only thing we could imagine ourselves doing, and if it didn’t work out at least we tried. In the beginning it was very difficult, especially because the format was so different and new to Utah. For tasting menus across the country it’s nothing new or special.
We had a fixed tasting menu (for $72) and an optional 3 course menu for $29. In other cities it might seem cheap, but according to Utah standards it was really high. We got a lot of complaints early on, but once we got food reviewers and writers in and got glowing reviews the restaurant was packed. After we were jointly awarded Best New Chef by FOOD & WINE Magazine, we decided to get away from the three course menu and just do one menu of 14-17 courses, focusing on execution, quality of ingredients and the progression of the meal.
What do you have planned for your next project Ember and Ash?
The main influence for Ember and Ash comes from a really good buddy of mine. Joshua Skenes who has a restaurant called Saison in San Francisco. He was named FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef the same year I was. We’ve worked together a few times and it’s been life changing. At Forage we always cooked over a fire but what Josh is able to do takes it to a whole new level. Josh has incorporated a level of finesse and skill that’s poetic. You’re using the intensity of the heat but not incorporating the smoke or the char and that intensity brings out the deepest point of flavor in a lot of different and often times humble foods such as potatoes or beets or turnips. The flavors are unlike anything you can achieve through conventional cooking methods like sauté, baking, roasting all that.
I decided to incorporate a hearth into Ember and Ash. We’ll have a set menu. We’ll do 4 courses. I wanted to create a more relaxed atmosphere with casual but really attentive service and food that really speaks for itself. Chefs are serving you. I want people to leave feeling happy and surprised. With a price point where they can come back and back.
Your latest project with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, Beer Bar, just opened in downtown Salt Lake City. How did this come about?
I first met Ty Burell a few years ago when he dined at Forage. At that time I really didn’t know who he was, but learned through my server. Ultimately I went out and purchased season 2 of Modern Family after watching the entire season, I was hooked. Ty, along with his brother Duncan and some partners, opened Bar X, let’s just say it’s a place I frequent a lot. Through spending time there we all became good friends and established a great partnership.
When I heard they were toying with the idea of a beer bar with food, it definitely piqued my interest and I thought it would be a wonderful challenge because it would be totally casual, event though my background is in fine dining. I helped them develop their specialty brat sandwiches, their sauces, fries, kitchen layout and defining their menu. It’s been really fun and well received. And was picked up by Food & Wine for their March issue – Tyler and did a photo shoot, where we got to cook and eat/drink, and shoot the shit together. All said and done, Tyler is an amazing and savvy business person. With the success that he has achieved, he’s still a nice and humble guy that just wants to do good things for the community.
What are your essential kitchen tools?
I love my tweezers, and a lot of people think using tweezers is ridiculous, but to me it’s a tool of finesse. Often times we use small herbs that your fingers would bruise. Our dishes tend to be smaller and tweezers allow for that intricacy that is required and the health department likes it. Blenders are often overlooked, but they do so much. Everything from sauces to purees to making oils and all that stuff. And I take great pride in taking care of my knives. The craftsmanship of Japanese knives is an inspiration and extension of what we are trying to do as chefs.
You’re a spokesman for the the International Rescue Committee, tell us a little about your work there?
I come from a refugee family and we were fortunate enough to come to the US and have someone sponsor us, I know how important the IRC’s work is. Bringing people from war torn countries and giving them a second chance while providing education and workforce services. All that great stuff gets the people up and going.
The division that I work with is called The Roots and basically what we’ve done in Salt Lake City is purchase a huge plot of land and turned it into a farming community. It allows different refugees to get a plot of land so they can grow their own native ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. It’s special for me because get introduced to ingredients I’d never see in supermarkets, like Sudanese Roselle Leaf, which is part of the hibiscus family, it’s really sour. This leaf is kind of red in color as it matures and has a really lemony flavor.