Charles Phan
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Charles Phan

Carolyn Jung / July 2010

Food Arts presents the July/August 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Charles Phan, the San Francisco chef who grew up longing to be a potter but instead ended up shaping Americans' appetite for Vietnamese cuisine.

Phan's 15 year old The Slanted Door in San Francisco, the anchor of the Ferry Building food hall since it moved there six years ago from its humble birthplace in the Mission District, remains one of the hardest tickets in town, with throngs gathering noon and night for his signature daikon rice cakes and "shaking beef." His reach has extended to include three Out The Door street food–style Vietnamese eateries and the Chinese-influenced Heaven's Dog. Phan, the James Beard Best Chef: California of 2004, also teamed with chef Loretta Keller of Coco500 to turn museum food on its head at the Academy Café and The Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where global fare is served up with premium ingredients.

"Charles is the J-Lo of Asian cooking, the crossover artist who helped make Vietnamese cuisine accessible and exciting," says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant based in California and New York City.

A "boat person" at 13 fleeing Vietnam after the war, Phan and his penniless family settled in San Francisco, where he cooked for his five siblings while his parents worked. Through high school and architecture studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Phan bussed tables at white tablecloth Western-style restaurants to make ends meet. He began to wonder why there weren't any fine dining restaurants centered on Vietnamese cooking. With the notion to start his own, he rallied family members to help take over a storefront in the then-sketchy Mission in 1995.

"The room was hip and modern. The food was all new and interesting to people," Phan, 48, says about opening The Slanted Door. "It was never scary. I just had confidence in my heart. Every now and then, you come up with a great idea, and you just know it will work."

At a time when Asian restaurants served mediocre tea for free, Phan charged $6 for a pot steeped with premium leaves. When most Asian restaurants deemed desserts an afterthought and offered only overoaked Chardonnay, Phan hired a pastry chef to create innovative sweets and a sommelier to craft a stellar wine list dominated by cuisine-appropriate Rieslings. And when customers at first balked at paying $11 for a side of bok choy or $34 for tamarind lamb, Phan stuck to his guns, insisting on pricey organic vegetables and artisanal meats.

Phan now has 600 employees, of whom 22 are relatives. They work at the restaurants and the commissary, established last year in the Mission to help standardize stocks and sauces, and make it more efficient to continue to expand his burgeoning business.

"I feel good that a lot of Vietnamese people are thankful of what we've achieved," Phan says. "We've done something to make them proud, and that is very touching."