Charles Phan stood at the powerful gas-powered wok in his apartment kitchen. Grabbing the handle, he heated it up and shook it, as flames flew from the gas tank below. Phan, 50, is the renowned chef and owner of the Slanted Door, a restaurant on the Embarcadero waterfront that has won national acclaim for its Vietnamese cuisine. His recent cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking (Ten Speed Press), landed on many critics' list of the best of
2012. But on this day, the chef was truly at home, dressed in jeans, a boyish cowlick in his hair, stir-frying Swiss chard with fish sauce for a family meal.
Nearby, his mother, Quyen Tran, used a knife to lift silky banh beo, small pancakes made of rice flour and cornstarch, from moulds to a plate. She carefully topped the disks with diced Vietnamese sausage, dried shrimp flakes and scallion oil, a combination of scallions, salt, sugar and oil that is always on hand for these dishes. The banh beo are a favourite of the three Phan children, who call them 'circle noodles' because of their slippery texture.
As Nati, 14, Panu, 12, and Pana, 11, wandered one by one into the kitchen, they sat down to eat the street food that their father grew up within his native Vietnam before the fall of Saigon forced his family to flee on a boat to Guam, homeless and stateless. They came to the United States in 1977, when Phan, the oldest of six, was 15. These days he is constantly in motion, flitting from one to another of his six successful Vietnamese restaurants. "But when I am at home," he said, "I cook." His children prefer to eat there. But he doesn't have far to go to raid his restaurant pantry for ingredients; the family lives in an apartment above his Out the Door restaurant in the Pacific Heights section. The dishes he makes for them and the recipes he learned from his mother appear in the new cookbook, which takes care to explain Vietnamese techniques to American home cooks. Though a Phan family meal may appeal to Westerners, it is decidedly Asian, with small bowls of rice topped with at least three steamed, braised or stir-fried dishes. As Phan started to prepare a dish of tomatoes, squid and chard, he shook the wok.
"You have to get the wok really hot," he said. "And you can't put too much product in the wok or you won't get the power of the wok." While Phan hacked up chicken pieces with a cleaver, Angkana Kurutach, his wife and self-proclaimed sous-chef, scooped rice from the rice cooker. "I like steaming and braising vegetables and meats," Phan said as he assembled a bamboo basket over a second wok filled with water, steamed chicken pieces with lily buds and dried shiitakes. For this dish he uses chickens from a local Chinese organic farmer. "They are more muscley than the Cornish Cross chickens found at the farmers' market in Berkeley," he said. He cuts up whole chickens, rather than use the boneless ones he serves in his restaurants. When everything was ready, the family sat down to a meal served atop a hard table-tennis cover on their dining room table.
"We go to an American family camp near Yosemite every summer where we play Ping-Pong," Tran said apologetically, referring to Camp Mather, which is run by the city of San Francisco. "When we come home, we want to practice. Putting the Ping-Pong top on and off is a pain. It's just easier to keep it on." While the family ate, Phan's mother quietly peeled longan fruit and cut persimmons into wedges for dessert.
Whenever the children ask for American food, Phan takes them out to dinner or makes pasta with them and serves it with his Western condiments, which are stored on a separate shelf from his Vietnamese ones. And each summer after their week at camp, the first thing the entire family wants is a Vietnamese meal. Luckily they can eat something prepared upstairs, or down.