Chef de triomphe

Mai Pham

Photo by Noel Neuburger

Sacramento’s fledging culinary scene has been slow to gain national attention, but Mai Pham, chef and owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant, has been in the spotlight for some time. Pham opened Lemon Grass in East Sacramento 14 years ago and has since become one of the world’s foremost authorities on Southeast Asian cuisine. Pham teaches classes, writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, has appeared on the Food Network and last year wrote a book—Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table—which this year was nominated for the prestigious James Beard award. But for Pham it’s not all about cooking. Before opening Lemon Grass, she worked as a television journalist and was a speechwriter for former Governor George Deukmejian. SN&R sat down with Pham at her restaurant and chatted over a delicious plate of Salad Rolls.

What do you cook at home?

I don’t do a lot of cooking at home and that’s because I do so much cooking here. Plus, I don’t have a staff at home, I don’t have a dishwasher—I love cooking but the cleaning up is not my favorite thing to do. I do make very simple things like salads. I love the mandolin (a manual slicer). I love shaved salads with things like fennel, cucumbers—Asians love cucumbers—and I just made a carrot salad. I tend to eat very simply and very healthy at home.

Where do you go out to eat in Sacramento?

I love all the noodle shops you can find on Stockton Boulevard. I like the Chicken Pho on Stockton. I like Saigon. Sometimes on Sundays when I’m lazy and want to eat I’ll go to Chinese Roasted Chicken or New Canton Station or Jumbo Seafood. I like nice, really wholesome, hearty soups.

I noticed the beautiful pictures you took of Vietnam, both on your Web site and the walls of the restaurant. Does photography satisfy some of your artistic needs outside of cooking?

I feel really lucky. I’ve come full circle. In the beginning I thought that I wanted to be on the creative side. I sent in my first story to Reader’s Digest at 13 and I got—of course—rejected. So that creative thing started early on in writing and that went on for 10 years and then I put that down and did cooking. I think fear of failure is a great motivator. When I first opened this restaurant 14 years ago I didn’t have a background in restaurants, so I was very scared. I really focused and felt I had to make this work. Looking back it was great discipline—basically I was fearful of collapsing—but over the years I’ve found that it’s a great profession and one can be creative too. To do photography and cookbook writing and to see how that can be in itself an art form makes me feel lucky.

You were a television reporter. Why did you leave for this?

I wanted to try something new. But in television journalism—if you want to do well—you have to make an escape tape. You always aspire for the next job, never the job you’re in. Connie Chung was my idol and I realized there were jobs that I aspired to in which you could do the stories you want to do and to be able to have the crew, and support, that you would need. The only people in that situation were Diane Sawyer, Judy Woodruff, Connie Chung … when you look at what it takes to get there, the chances aren’t very good. It’s a numbers game. I would have to hop around from market to market. It’s a life on tape.

Is there something about food that you don’t know now and would like to learn?

Obviously, my area of expertise is in Vietnam and Thailand. I’m very ambitious and I want to learn as much as I can. I’ve spent the last 15 years studying Southeast Asian cuisine. In the last five years I’ve studied Vietnam more because it’s just opened up. What I really like to do is study the entire Southeast Asia and how India and China have influenced Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. For example, in Southern India they do dishes that are very similar to what we do in Vietnam, so you wonder early in history whether during the trade routes they had some influence. It’s like learning history and anthropology through food.

You seem like a remarkably driven person. Where do you get your drive?

Early on in my life I think it came from being born and raised in Vietnam. You have to remember that Vietnam suffered from years of warfare. In the entire time we were growing up—for the last 100 years really—there’s been on and off warfare. There’s never any talk of economic development, we were always hearing about who got drafted, casualties, which cities got rocketed, can you go to school today. It was all about survival. Probably not too much different from the Middle East now, which is a sad thing. To come to America and see you can go to school and maybe get a scholarship, it was an opportunity. In this country education is seen as a right. But to us, to us to have an education is a privilege and an opportunity.