A Hard Act to Follow: Charles Phan, Chef-Owner Extraordinaire

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Before he was considered to be the inventor of modern Vietnamese cuisine in the United States, Charles Phan left Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in April 1975 with his family. They spent two years in Guam before settling in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  As the eldest child, Charles cooked for the family and taught himself to do so through magazines and modifying traditional Vietnamese recipes.

Charles studied architecture at UC Berkeley which he puts to good use every day whether it’s creating his restaurants or working on his own private projects.  He opened his now legendary restaurant, The Slanted Door, 18 years ago in the heart of the Mission District and the rest is history.

Winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: California in 2004, The Slanted Door was also nominated in the Outstanding Restaurant category in 2008. In 2010 & 2011, Charles was nominated for an Outstanding Chef award by the Foundation. In 2011 he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. He has appeared on the television and volunteers his talent for good causes.

I physically tracked him down and caught a few minutes of his time to learn more about his upcoming projects.


Charles Phan

I hear you’re opening a new restaurant, what’s it about?  

I actually have two projects in the works.  One is a fried chicken and bourbon place serving good old southern Creole food on Pier 3 to open in February 2013. The other is a collaboration with the SFJazz Center.  Did you know that they haven’t had a home for 30 years? Now they have a building on Franklin and Fell.  We’ll be their restaurateur and caterer and plan to open on Martin Luther King Day, 2013.

Why fried chicken?

I turned 50 this year and I feel more confident and willing to try different things.  At some point you have to stop getting scared and do things you like.  I love fried chicken!

What do you love about cooking?

It’s fun and artistic.  It’s always about today, if it’s bad, it only lasts a few hours, unlike a building.  And when you’re “On,” it’s like the perfect golf swing.

So you like golf?

Yes!  If I had more time, I’d play more golf and build things.  Right now I’m building a pizza hearth and wok station in Napa.  I’m working on my sister’s house also. And I also manage the construction at Pier 3 and at the SFJazz Center.  I’m very hands-on…I lay tiles and make design decisions.

Your cookbook is beautiful.  How long did it take to create?

This is my first cookbook and it took 2 years. It’s also the first cookbook that Apple has done online with pop up applications.  It’s pretty cool.  I’m working on my new Slanted Door cookbook now.

Okay, I know my time is limited so here’s a rapid fire set of questions:  

Favorite golfer:  I’m still rooting for Tiger Woods.

Favorite travel destination:  Anywhere in Asia.

Favorite drink:  Bourbon.

Favorite hangout:  Any hole-in-the-wall where I can relax and not be recognized.

Qualities in friends:  Interesting, builders, not fussy, and relaxed.

Favorite singer:  When I was single, Patsy Cline but I no longer need to hear sad songs, so George Jones.

Favorite movie:  Just saw Sky Fall which is my one and only movie for the year.

Dream:  To raise chickens.

Other projects: I’m working with the San Francisco Unified School District on a school lunch program. Kids, including my own, complain about the food in the schools.

Obit:  I hope people will say I’m a good and interesting guy at my funeral.  That’s all.

If you judge Charles Phan by the names of his restaurants, he’s far from the status quo: Slanted Door, Heaven’s Dog, Wo Hing General Store.  Now I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to name his new chicken venture. Charles is busier than ever and foodies don’t have to worry because he’s not going to retire anytime soon.  He’s got more surprises under his apron.

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