Slow Food East Bay Makes Connections Through Food
At Slow Food East Bay’s cultural dinners, guests savor favored recipes and stories. Early this fall, three chefs — Tu David Phu, Denise Huynh, and Hai Lam — prepared dishes representing Vietnamese tastes.
Photos by Marcus Hänschen
After Donald Trump was elected president, Berkeley Pilates instructor Willow Blish did not just sit home and mope.
“I watched the anti-immigrant rhetoric come out, the Muslim ban, and the ways that people were being pointed out as ‘the other,’” she told guests at a recent sold-out dinner cooked by three local Vietnamese chefs. “It made me think, what tools do I have that can start conversations about this to try to fight back? I have food,” said the chapter leader of Slow Food East Bay. “Food is the most amazing place to gather people together, both as a convivial thing, but also as it connects to the story of migration and immigration.”
In early fall, 75 guests were gathered in the dining room of a small Berkeley college for the fourth in a yearlong monthly series, Slow Food’s Celebrating Cultural Food Traditions Project. The previous dinners featured chefs from Indigenous America, Northern Iran and Iraq, and Black America. Blish explained that rather than calling it an “organization,” Slow Food, which began in Italy in the 1980’s, is a worldwide movement to counter the pervasive effects of fast food. There are thousands of chapters in more than 150 countries. It was founded on the principle that “all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it, and good for the planet.” Blish emphasized that means that we should know the people who bring us our food. And immigrants are deeply involved in all aspects of food.
The three chefs who treated eager guests to seven carefully prepared dishes in Bauman College’s two adjoining open kitchens were Tu David Phu, featured on Top Chef; Denise Huynh, owner of Oakland’s Tay Ho Restaurant; and Hai Lam of the website Eating Saigon. The evening was organized in a “sandwich approach,” with discussions neatly squeezed between courses. After appetizers, Blish invited the chefs to the front of the room to introduce themselves and provide a little background, followed by the main courses. The chefs then returned upfront to recall their family food memories, followed by dessert.
The meal kicked off with a trio of appetizers, delicate compositions with a multitude of ingredients, plated just so. In the white rose dumplings prepared by Denise Huynh, each petite steamed rice dumpling was topped with mung beans, dried crumbled shrimp, fried shallots, green onions, and a light fish sauce. The bright colors and flavors set a high bar for the evening, which all the chefs ably met with their own creations.
When Tu David Phu introduced himself, he explained the background of his scallop fish cake banh mi appetizer. “Fish cake in my family is a sacred thing — not the dyed orange kind you see in sushi or ramen bowls. Fish cake is a way to be resourceful with seafood, which is one of the most wasteful things in the Western world. Cooks usually scrape off the bones, throw away the belly and the skin. All those things can be used in fish cake. Mortar and pound it, add the right things, and it results in a beautiful texture. Especially scallops, where cooks discard the feet and the heart. I used all those things in this scallop fish cake.” Phu’s fish cake was a silky, bouncy, fish-imbued cloud in a mini-banh mi, balanced by paté, Vietnamese mayo, and pickled roots.
The three chefs represented a multigenerational group. Phu was born in the United States. Huynh’s family came to the United States when she was 12. Hai Lam, who moved here only six years ago, told guests he was born in Saigon in 1978, the 10th of 12 children, during a difficult time. His father, who had worked for the U.S. Army as a pilot, was put in jail and lost his business. As a child, when Lam was sent to the market to get cabbage for his mother to cook, he vowed never to be hungry when he grew up. That led him to become a chef. His mother was a fantastic cook. And his grandmother had a restaurant in Saigon, which Lam eventually inherited. His younger brother still runs it. Lam’s appetizer was a mini chicken salad, with crisp radish and fresh Vietnamese coriander in a tangy sweet sauce.
One of Blish’s goals is for guests get to know each other through meaningful discussion. While diners enjoyed the main courses of Phu’s crunchy banana flower salad, Lam’s earthy duck noodle soup, and Huynh’s flavorful grilled pork sausage, they were encouraged to share with their tablemates their own perspectives on the evening’s theme: how food connects us to family and history.
To kick-start this discussion, when attendees arrived, they had been asked to put the answer to this question on their nametags: “What food reminds you of home?” The diverse crowd sported responses such as: falafel, chicken enchilada, lychee sweet and sour pork, and split pea soup. Lively exchanges seemed to flow easily at every table.
After the main courses, Blish invited the chefs to the front again. She asked Denise Huynh how she came to own Tay Ho, since she had never worked in food before and had enjoyed her career in marketing. Huynh confessed she always loved food. But she didn’t want to cook it; she just wanted to eat.
“The restaurant just dropped in my lap,” she explained. For nine years, her aunt had owned the restaurant and was tired of it, since she didn’t cook herself, and instead employed chefs to work for her. Her aunt made her an offer to take it over.
Huynh thought she could own the restaurant and still work at her other job, but eight days later, when she realized the chefs could not really cook the Vietnamese dishes she liked, she quit her job, and brought in her mother and brother to help in the kitchen. After nine years, she is grateful that her mom is still there.
“I wanted the food to be consistently good,” Huynh said. “Made by someone who cares.”
Now the menu features dishes she grew up eating. “My job is to be an ambassador of Vietnamese-American cooking. I want to educate people about dishes they have never tried. The first generation made pho and banh mi, because they were easy. The second generation needs to showcase our roots with the real food people eat at home with their family.”
Hai Lam told the group that when he moved here in 2013 with his American husband, Joe, he missed Vietnamese food. He has gone to cooking school, taken a management course, and worked at several restaurants. His goal is to open his own restaurant here. But it’s an expensive prospect. So, for now, he cooks authentic Vietnamese food out of his house once a week. His customers become his friends, and he returns to Saigon every year and posts his travel tips on his website Eating Saigon.com.
Tu David Phu, a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star Chef, is the best known of the trio. After attending culinary school and a stint working at Chez Panisse, he moved to New York where he cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Daniel and Acquerello. “I cooked in that space to learn about food,” he told the crowd, “but it deterred me from learning about myself.” His pivot point came when he realized that his parents could never afford to eat at his place of work. So he came back to California.
“I wanted to know more about the flavor profiles my parents cooked with,” Phu told the crowd. “Every story about food was connected to stories about the war, their history and lineage.”
“Food helped me connect to my parents; we had a nonexistent relationship, not just because they’re Asian, but because they’ve been in two wars and have PTSD. They don’t tell me they love me. Conversations happen in the kitchen through food, because that’s the purest way to tell someone that you love them. ‘Hey I made this food with my hands for you.’ That inspired me to do the same in the community space.”
Phu connects with men in prison by teaching inmates at San Quentin how to cook. “Food has that power,” he said. “Slow Food East Bay allows people like me to have voices.”
Look for Phu’s new lunchtime pop-up, BanhMi-Ni, at Copper Spoon Restaurant in Oakland.
Each Slow Food dinner in this series not only celebrates the cuisine of one country or culture, butt also shines a spotlight on a partner nonprofit organization. The proceeds are shared between the chef(s) and the nonprofit that works with recent arrivals. As guests enjoyed dessert — Lam’s heavenly corn pudding with sticky rice, topped with coconut milk and pandan leaf — Blish introduced Steven Dial, CEO of the evening’s partner agency, AnewAmerica in Oakland, which provides training, counseling, and other support services to help women entrepreneurs start and successfully grow their businesses. Blish has heard from several other Slow Food chapters around the country who are eager to replicate this project.
The remaining dinners on the schedule include Nov. 24, Mexico, with Chefs Jorge and Raquel of Pipirin and the Chavez family of El Huarache Azteca; Jan. 26, 2020, Senegal, with chef Nafy Flatley of Teranga; and Feb. 23, 2020, Burma, which is still in the planning stage but will feature a local Burmese chef plus a surprise guest. For more info, visit SlowFoodEastBay.wixsite.com/culturalfood. These dinners are meant to be inclusive and have a sliding scale of ticket prices from $45-$85.