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BERKELEY, California: When chef Charles Phan was 16, he made Thanksgiving dinner for 10: his parents, aunt, uncle and five younger siblings. The family had recently arrived in San Francisco, having escaped Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and landing in Guam. With recipes from Gourmet magazine, he cooked turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, gravy, cranberry sauce and apple pie. The meal bombed. "I was trying to get them to embrace the culture," Phan recalled last month. "My mom made some curry in case I botched the dinner, and I made rice to go with the gravy. So we had that, instead."
Phan kept cooking because he had to; each parent worked two jobs, so he was the one to get dinner on the table, mixing his mother's traditional Vietnamese recipes with American ingredients. But he had never cooked professionally when he opened the Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District in 1995. If he had been told as a teenager that in 2004 he would win the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in California, and that in 2014 the Slanted Door would win the national Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant, he would have laughed.
Particularly because his initial aim was decidedly more modest: to open a crepe shop. He had found the ideal space in the derelict Tenderloin district, but the landlord refused him; too many Vietnamese restaurants were nearby. "And the rest is history," Phan noted wryly. The crepe behind that early dream, a banh xeo, meaning "sizzling cake," is an adaptation of the classic, a nod to Vietnam's longtime French rule, that has been part of Phan's history since childhood. When I met him at the University of California, Berkeley, his alma mater, we ate it together as he told me his story.
I found Phan outside Wurster Hall, an ugly concrete building that houses the College of Environmental Design, where he studied architecture. At 55, he is tan and fit, wearing jeans and an impossibly white T-shirt, and he banged at a metal grill with a hammer. He is opening a Vietnamese cafe called Rice & Bones here this month, and as is his wont, he tends to his restaurants' spaces as meticulously as their menus. The food will change daily (black bean spareribs, chicken congee), serving students and the general public. "When I went to school here I gained a lot of weight," Phan said. "We will provide filtered and carbonated water free, but no soda."
We sat down inside, but Phan jumped up repeatedly to answer questions from someone with a wrench or a tape measure in hand. "I chose the name Rice & Bones," he said, "because early on when I used chicken with bones, I worried that people wouldn't buy the food. Everyone wanted boneless 20 years ago. It was a different public back then. Using bones is flavorful and frugal and says everything about making beautiful things with very little."
That was a skill thrust upon him, one he has spent a lifetime perfecting. Like many refugees, Phan is a chameleon; displacement requires the center to shift in order to survive. He can seem to disappear before your eyes, or when the mood strikes, sparkle so insistently you can look nowhere else. He grew up in Da Lat in the central highlands of South Vietnam and lived above the general store his parents owned there. When North Vietnam invaded in 1975, the family made it onto a cargo ship. "When we were safe in international water," he recalled, "my mom brought me to the top of the ship and said, 'From now on you need to be in charge of this family and take care of your siblings.' I was 13. My childhood ended that day."
In Guam, the family lived in a refugee camp of 400,000. Eventually, Larry Tecker, a local attorney, and his wife, Karen, sponsored the family so they could leave the camp. "There were barracks of beds and we were lined up like puppies," Phan said. "They were going up and down the rows to pick one. I was with my aunt and uncle, she worked for the Teckers as a nanny. Karen chose me. I said, 'Do you want to see my other family? Maybe you want them, too?' She took all of us." How did he get the name Charles? "Karen took the six of us to the doctor and just decided to name everybody," he said. His given name was Toan.
"My introduction to Guam was Chef Boyardee," he said. "I used to love it. On the ship we ate canned sardines and mackerel and tomato sauce. I still put that on rice. I think it's the greatest food in memory." Along with those crepes.
"Right behind my mom's general store was the crepe shop," he recalled. "It was inside an army tent with a hole cut at the top for smoke. There was a hot pan, they'd pour the batter, it would sizzle. They'd cook it, then put the lid on to dry it out and make it crispy. It was a charcoal stove, and they'd move the pan from one burner to the next, for less and less heat. You see a lot of street food in Vietnam, but that crepe was the champ. It's like all of Vietnam on the plate: the herbs, the vegetables, the fish sauce."
In 1977 the family relocated to San Francisco, where a friend assured them a beautiful apartment awaited. "It turned out to be two studios for 11 people in the Tenderloin," Phan said. 'The men went in one room, the women in the other. We slept crossways on the bed. Dad found jobs in Chinatown as a janitor and dishwasher, so we moved there."
By the time Phan was 16, he was attending Mission High School and working four nights a week as a bar back and busser. "I was bringing home as much money as my mom, who was a seamstress," he said. "Everyone was relying on me." He enrolled at Berkeley in 1982 but dropped out in his third year to protest a steep tuition increase. He helped his family with a sewing shop they opened to service local designers. Phan also designed his own clothing line and owned a retail store before going bankrupt in 1992. "We got too big, and a lot of people didn't pay us," he said. He briefly sold software, courted his dream of a crepe shop and, once thwarted, found the space that would become the Slanted Door.
"My hunch was that the Vietnamese dishes my mom made at home would be popular here if made with quality ingredients," Phan said. His face darkened. "But let's be realistic," he continued. "Twenty years ago I had to ask, 'Are white people going to eat this? Will they pay me for this?' I would sell a whole fish, and people would be upset to see the eyes and the bones. It was about trying to survive as a business."
Well, as he said, the rest is history. The Slanted Door moved to the tony Ferry Building in 2004, expanding from 100 seats to 250. Phan has opened two casual spinoffs, both called Out the Door, and a bourbon bar called Hard Water. A Slanted Door is to open in Los Angeles next spring, near the Staples Center. And next summer, a Slanted Door is to open in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace.
"I can't sit still," he said, slightly self-mockingly. "I look for opportunities. We have investor partners, but the family is the controlling interest." His smile seemed a bit hard: "I'm still carrying the load."
Phan's father died in 2004. His mother, Quyen, lives with one of his sisters. Phan and his wife, Angkana Kurutach, have three children, the eldest in college, the other two in high school. After that first Thanksgiving dinner, he mastered the form, and his siblings rely on him to make one each year, along with prime rib at Christmas; they go to his weekend house in the Napa Valley, where he built an outdoor kitchen and typically cooks for 30.
This day, though, it was just us. He led the way toward the kitchen area and plugged in two portable burners. His ingredients were in plastic containers, perfectly prepped. "It's all in the batter," he said as he poured. One pan was nonstick, and that crepe was gorgeous. The other pan was not, and the crepe had no chance of making it out whole. He poured some fish sauce onto it and picked up a fork. "Still delicious," he said. "There's not a lot of rules. It's just got to be piping hot like this." The crepe was exactly as he'd described it: crispy and crunchy, with each ingredient working together, flavorful yet light.
At least that's what I tasted. What he tastes is his alone. In a lost world where the smoke beckons, a tent flap lifts, a pan sizzles. And he is still a boy.