For years now, I and other Bay Area food people have asked chef/restaurateur Charles Phan this question: When will you have a cookbook? If you don’t know Charles, he and his family own and operate one of the most successful and high-profile Asian restaurant empires in the U.S. Their flagship establishment is San Francisco’s Slanted Door, an 8,000-square foot space located not in the city’s Little Saigon but rather the Ferry Building — the iconic epicenter of the Bay Area’s local and artisanal food movement. As one of San Francisco’s top culinary destinations, Slanted Door announces that modern Asian food has arrived.
On a nightly basis, Slanted Door is packed with foodies, tourists, and suits feasting family style and relishing Vietnamese dishes. What attracts diners are the tight, ingredient-driven menu, inviting ambiance, and professional service, not a kitschy, themed experience. In fact, the sleek design of stone, wood and glass echoes the panoramic view of the rugged bay. Other than the faint whiff of nuoc mam, the environment doesn’t give away Slanted Door’s Vietnamese identity. By transcending preconceived notions of race and ethnicity, the restaurant is refreshingly post-ethnic, as dynamic and organic as Asia itself.
So when Phan’s debut cookbook arrived, I had certain expectations. Never mind that he collaborated with Jessica Battilana on the book. That’s what many chefs do these days. Jessica is a very able writer tasked with recording and conveying his words and recipes.
Most restaurant chefs first release a book about their establishment. Phan’s first book is surprisingly broadly titled, Vietnamese Home Cooking.
A slew of shock-and-awe travel shots of him in Vietnam open the book. They then segue into images what appears to be Phan's home in the Bay Area. There are few obvious photos of the Slanted Door, despite the fact that a fair number of recipes come from the restaurant and/or reference cooks there. Chefs coats and latex-gloved hands signal a professional cooking environment, not a home kitchen.
At first glance, Vietnamese Home Cooking seems perplexing, perhaps because it aims to fill too many needs.
Mixed Purposes and Messages
Location shots of Vietnam evoke the edgy adventurousness of David Thompson’s Thai Street Food but recipes aren’t purely from the motherland. Phan’s recipes don’t always tie back to his travels in Vietnam, which if you’ve been to Slanted Door and/or followed his career, you totally understand. Phan emphasizes cooking with local resources. Slanted Door’s mantra has been to convey the soul of Viet fare with a Bay Area sensibility. Recipe food shots are sometimes from Vietnam but the recipes themselves don’t replicate those images; Phan admits so but readers use food photos not only to dream but also to reference and copy.
At the outset, Phan emphasizes conveying knowledge about Vietnamese aesthetics. (Slanted Door is a stunning, well-style restaurant because Phan attends to minute details. He loves wood and used to be a potter. Slanted Door's food is served on local Heath ceramics.) Phan also wants to present fundamental Vietnamese cooking techniques yet recipe chapters are unevenly titled: Soup, Street Food, Steaming, Braising, Stir-Frying, Grilling, and Frying. These are not comparable categories.
The soup chapter (consider it the “simmering” chapter, if you like) leads with a selection of stocks and complex noodle soups, followed by simpler, everyday preparations. I wish that the order was reversed so that cooks could dip their toes into the Viet water before diving in. Phan correctly says that many homes in Vietnam lack ovens yet the beef stock recipe calls for roasting onion in an oven for a hour. That’s technique should have been explained, especially because the stock is used for pho broth, which traditionally calls for roasting the aromatics over an open flame.
The street food chapter seems out of place in a book on home cooking because in general, those foods are specialty foods that vendors master. But more importantly, the street food recipes could have been slotted per cooking techniques in the other chapters. And vice versa. Dumpling and bun (bao) recipes in the “Steaming” chapter are street foods, as should the noodle soups. In fact, the street food chapter introduction includes a photo of Phan eating what looks like bun bo Hue noodle soup but that recipe is in the soup chapter. Vietnamese Home Cooking wants to call out noodle soup and street food -- beloved, go-to dishes that readers know from travel and eating out. But the book’s technique-oriented framework makes that goal awkward to achieve.
Phan’s recipe collection reflects his background. His family is ethnically Chinese, a point that he makes in the daikon rice cake recipe introduction (page 70), one of many Chinese recipes in Vietnamese Home Cooking.
The Chinese have influenced and exchanged ideas with the Vietnamese for millennia by virtue of location and most notably through nearly 1,000 years of colonization. Phan’s father fled from Southern China to Vietnam to avoid the oppressive Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). Eventually their Chinese-Viet family escaped Vietnam’s political upheaval in the 1970s and resettled in San Francisco, an area with a substantial Chinese population. Recipes such as the daikon cakes (a dim sum fave), Chinese donuts/crullers (dau chao quay in Vietnamese), lacquered quail with Sichuan cucumber pickles, southern Chinese lo soi braised pork reflect Phan’s Chinese roots.
There’s a sweet-and-sour fish dish inspired by a Phan’s engagement banquet in Thailand, where his wife was born. Ingredients such as porcini mushroom powder and curry leaves offer glimpses into how Phan and the Slanted Door incorporate non-traditional ideas in their Viet fare. Beer-battered soft-shell crab references Zabar’s in New York and employs Viet fermented anchovy sauce. Overall, the recipe collection tells the unique story of Phan and the Slanted Door, as one of immigration and the unfolding multiracial American culinary landscape.
With all the accent marks (called diacritical marks), Viet language is tricky to correctly spell. Choosing the right font to present the terms and proofreading are among the issues of publishing about Viet topics.
To skirt the issue, Vietnamese Home Cooking does not offer a Viet name for most recipes and ingredients. Nevertheless, diacritical marks show up on a random basis. Sometimes, such as in the case of “pho gá” [sic], it should be spelled phở gà to be fully correct or pho ga to omit the diacritics altogether. Chicken pho would do too because pho, like banh mi, have both become part of the English dictionary. You don’t have to italicize them. (Hurray.) However, if the words are presented next to a Viet word dressed with diacritical marks, you have to go all the way. Phan’s hometown is misspelled as “Đà Lat” [sic] when it should be Đà Lạt, Da Lat or Dalat.
Spelling quibbles aside, Phan presents a few ideas that confound and confuse. His halibut vermicelli with dill and pineapple-anchovy sauce pairs a northern Viet classic with a southern Viet sauce. Mam nem, a sludgy anchovy-based fermented condiment is mistaken for mam tom (mam ruoc), a pasty shrimp-based fermented condiment. Both are stinky but their funkiness are not the same. In 2010 when I went to Cha Ca La Vong, the Hanoi restaurant that’s often cited for its rendition of the dish (Phan gives his nod to it too), diners are offered sauces made with mam tom and nuoc mam, not mam nem.
Lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice is described as a must-have for September harvest festivals, particularly the dragon boat festival. Phan’s recipe is for steamed Cantonese lo mai gai (nuo mi ji in Mandarin) packets served at dim sum. For dragon boat festivals, it’s the slightly conical-shaped Chinese zongzi dumpling of boiled sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves that are cast into the water. [10/27/12: In Vietnam, zongzi are called banh tro and typically wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied up just like the classic Chinese ones; abroad, you often see them for sale at Vietnamese delis and markets. However, I just found out that zongzi are sometimes wrapped in lotus and banana leaves so perhaps that rendition is what the recipe in Vietnamese Home Cooking refers to. If you'd like to see how zongzi are wraped, jump to this post on Asian Dumpling Tips.]
Readers unfamiliar with Vietnamese and Chinese culture and foodways would not detect these points. However, if Phan aims to teach people something, then being accurate matters.
Gems in the Pages
Given my comments about Vietnamese Home Cooking, why look at the book? In my home, I’ve renamed it The Slanted Door Cookbook because that’s what it really is, a restaurant book. Restaurant cookbooks give readers insights into little tricks of the trade and approaches to food that you can glean from. In my case, I was intrigued by a DIY recipe for bun rice noodles that Phan presented. When I was in Seattle, I got to see how the pros made banh cuon rice noodle sheets at Van Loi Noodle Factory. We were too late for the bun rice noodles so my curiosity lingered. Phan offered instructions for homemade versions that I tried. (More on that here soon.)
Slanted Door adds salt and sugar to their scallion oil, a trick that I’m going to try. Their roasted chile paste isn’t traditional Viet cooking but it looks tasty. The Phan family’s ground pork with salted fish seems like great Chinese homey fare. A yuba (tofu skin) dumplings with miso broth recipe intrigues me, though it’s obviously not Vietnamese.
If you’re interested in one of the premier Vietnamese restaurants in America, check out Phan’s cookbook. Vietnamese Home Cooking contains interesting takes on Asian food that are worth considering.
Have thoughts on the book, restaurant, or Vietnamese food and cooking? Share them below.
- Bun Rice Noodle Recipe Project (+ a video tip)
- Zongzi wrapping lesson from a master (on Asian Dumpling Tips, if you're curious about how they come together)
- 2009 Review of Asian Cookbooks (including Thai Street Food by David Thompson and Songs of Sapa by Luke Nguyen)
- How Banh Cuon Rice Noodle Rolls are Made (+ video) (at Van Loi Noodle Factory in Seattle)