By Richard Leong
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Viet Pham follows his instinct on the wild flowers and plants he picks outside Salt Lake City where founded his acclaimed restaurant Forage with fellow chef Bowman Brown three years ago.
Forage features ambitious dishes inspired by what Pham finds on his forages.
He is now planning a solo project in Salt Lake City that revolves around "a lot seafood and a lot of cooking over fire."
The 33-year old, who was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia and moved to the United States when he was five-month old, spoke to Reuters of his journey on becoming a chef and his experiments with plants he find around Salt Lake City.
Q: Where did the love of your cooking come from?
A: "We grew up very poor. My parents were boat people. They came to the United States in the late 70s. When we first came here, we lived with two families like my uncle and aunt. During dinner time when we really got together and there's a lot of kids. That early part of my life I was introduced to food and family. Then growing up, my dad worked the graveyard shift and my mom worked during the day. My brother and I would start cooking these ramen noodles. After so many times you get bored of it. I remember vividly I chopped hot dogs and threw them in there. After we got bored of the broth, we poured it out and stir-fried the noodles and added a bunch of things to it.
Q: When did you decide on a career as a chef?
A: "I haven't been cooking as long as some of the cooks out there. I went to culinary school in 2001 after dropping out of college as a business major. I worked at a restaurant called the Sixth Floor with Laurent Gras in San Francisco. I worked for about two years and then I left doing other things like banking. I got into real estate. But deep down, I knew what my passion was which is cooking. But I got caught up in this mode about you need have to make a lot of money to have a good living. I made a decent amount of money but I was never really happy."
Q: How did you and Bowman conceive the concept for Forage?
A: "When I was in the Bay Area, I did a lot of hiking. I would forage for stuff so we named the restaurant Forage. Just around that time, the whole NOMA (a top Danish restaurant based on foraging) thing exploded. Then everyone got into foraging. We are not in an area where there are a lot of things available year round like California. Utah has a very short growing season. We slowly introduced foraging into our concept. And over time, we began offering dishes made up of 70 to 80 percent from foraged ingredients."
Q: What are the unique Utah vegetations you forage?
A: "There are a lot of wild, edible flowers. There are lot of rivers and streams here. We have a lot of watercress. We have a lot of wild strawberries. There are tons of wood sorrels. There are a lot of spruce and pines that we use."
Q: Are your and Bowman's cooking styles similar?
A: "Growing up on the West Coast and with a family that eats a lot of seafood, I spend a lot of time in the ocean. When I'm out there, I forage a lot of stuff out there too. As far as Bowman, he grew up on a farm in the mountains of Arizona. He grew up on a big ranch. He wants to work a lot with land. His style is more nomad. So any day at Forage, you get ocean and land."
Q: Forage is a small restaurant with 32 seats. How has it fit into the city's dining scene?
A: "We are very different from any of the restaurants in Salt Lake City. A lot of people said we wouldn't last, we wouldn't work out. We just told ourselves this is what we are passionate about. In Salt Lake City, we have a diverse community, which is well-versed in food, well-versed in wine and well-versed in travel. They have relocated to Salt Lake City and are looking for something different. We are a small restaurant. We don't have to turn 100 covers a day to be profitable."
FORAGE EGGS WITH SHERRY CREAM & MAPLE SYRUP (serves 4)
4 whole eggs cut with an egg topper, yolks separated and reserved in a mixing bowl. You can discard the egg whites.
5 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1 grind of fresh black pepper
1 pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tsp of salt and extra to taste
Combine all the ingredients and whisk. Once thoroughly mixed, put the bowl over a pot of boiling water and let cook. The steam will gently coddle the egg. At this time you want to use a spatula and carefully scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. You are looking for a runny scrambled egg consistency. Once achieved, put aside and keep warm.
1 cup of cold heavy whipping cream
pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Add the sherry vinegar and a pinch of sugar. The cream should be rich and creamy with a hint of acidity. The acidity will balance the richness from the eggs
finely chopped chives
Take the soft scrambled egg and spoon into the eggshell, about 1 tablespoon. pour in half a teaspoon of maple syrup. take the whipped cream and put in a piping bag and pipe the cream into the egg. Garnish with chopped chives.
(Reporting by Richard Leong, editing by Paul Casciato)