“A knish is one of the greatest things because it comes in its own package,” he said. “Baos and pitas and falafels—there’s true genius there.”
Phu, a Top Chef contestant who cooked at fancy Bay Area restaurants like Acquelllero, Quince, and Chez Panisse, started doing pop ups about three years ago. He made the food he ate growing up.
“I just wanted to cook my mother’s food—that’s what I knew to be the most delicious,” he said. “I was formally trained in French and Italian cuisine and I did it well, but for me it wasn’t excellent. My family is from Phu Quoc, a southern island of Vietnam and we love bitters, specifically from herbs, and that’s what I cherish and love. That’s kind of the polar opposite of what I was doing.”
About a year ago, Phu started holding night markets around the country since he and his chef friends thought some of the best food and dining experiences were ones they’d had at these types of Asian outdoor markets.
“They predated restaurants for centuries—it’s a community center, inside or outside- usually outside, and most people just make one thing. You sit at communal tables and break bread with everyone around you,” he said. “I fell in love with that again mainly because of the political times we’re in. I didn’t want to be cooking in a very elitist restaurant. Most of my friends couldn’t really afford to eat there. My parents couldn’t afford to eat there.”
Phu met Silvia Chang, who works in public programs at the Asian Art Museum and has been organizing the Tasting Menu events at the museum on Thursday nights. Together, Phu and Chang worked on putting together this event with food, drinks and music with a line up of Bay Area cooking superstars like Francis Ang of Pinoy Heritage, Reem Assil of Reem’s California, and Preeti Minstry of the recently closed Navi Kitchen and author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook. Deuki Hong, beloved for his fried chicken and now chef at the cafe at the Asian Art Museum, Sunday at the Museum, (taking it over recently with lots of fanfare and attention from media, including the New York Times) will be making a dessert, toasted rice soft serve with honey butter crumble and Misugaru dust.
The dish he’ll be making, Bún Nhâm Hà Tiên, is a childhood favorite, Phu said, with rice noodles, shrimp powder, coconut milk and fish sauce.
“These are humble ingredients – in essence, it’s a peasant dish,” he said. “Those are the types of dishes I take pride in learning the most. They were created out of necessity to feed and to care.”
All the proceeds from the event will go to the museum, which Phu says does a great service.
“They share all this knowledge about the culture and history of Asia that a lot of people don’t have access to, and I want to empower institutions like that,” he said. “My parents went through two wars- with the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War, and I had to learn about it through food. The Asian attempts to teach people about these cultures. I’m a chef, so I do it through food, and they do it through art.”
CHEF’S HAWKER CENTRE FESTIVAL
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Tickets and more info here