Utah restaurateur gets cooking on ‘Iron Chef’

Viet Pham

Story by Valerie Phillips
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Dec 31, 2012
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In January of 2009, chef Viet Pham was fired from his job at a Provo restaurant, with no other job prospects. Four years later, he’s competing against Bobby Flay on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef.” The episode of Pham versus Flay will air locally at  11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6.

“Getting fired was actually a blessing in disguise, because of all the opportunities that have opened up for me,” said Pham.

It spurred him to open his own restaurant, Forage, with Bowman Brown, his former sous chef. The small, upscale restaurant, at 370 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, serves just one fixed-price meal each night, with a creative menu changing daily based on what is in season. 

It quickly garnered national attention, and he and Brown were named two of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best Young Chefs” in 2011. Next came a chance to compete on the Food Network’s “Extreme Chef,” reality series, which aired last fall. He made it to the finals. Although he lost out on the $50,000 grand prize, he impressed one of the judges, Simon Majumdar.

“Simon Majumdar told his agent about me, and the agent flew out to Utah and had dinner at Forage,” said Pham in a telephone interview.

Soon after, the agent called, telling Pham he was going to be competing on “Iron Chef.” 

“It’s one of the shows that’s so iconic,” said Pham. “I remember watching ‘Iron Chef Japan’ as a kid with my parents. When we flew out to New York to film, I flew my parents out so they could be in the audience. It was all very surreal.”

The show, in which a challenging chef is pitted against one of the master “Iron Chefs,” is as stressful in real life as it looks on TV, according to Pham.

“You have one hour, and you’re working in a kitchen you’re not used to. The first 20 minutes, it was just getting acclimated with the stove, and knowing where things are and finding the ingredients.”

Pham didn’t have much time to get acquainted with Flay, a Food Network icon. 

“I met him right before the shoot, and we talked during the judging and a little bit afterward, and that was it,” said Pham. “He’s a very busy individual, and he seems very nice.”

Pham had culinary-school training and cooked in high-end California restaurants before coming to Utah. His culinary skills were tested on “Extreme Chef,” which could be described as “Iron Chef” meets “Survivor.”   

“It was physically and emotionally challenging, very tough,” he said of the competition. “We were taken out of our comfort zone.”

It was also a sentimental journey, since part of the series was filmed in Southeast Asia. His parents, Hiep and Hoa Pham, were “boat people” who fled Vietnam when it fell to the Communists in the 1970s. They struggled for survival on an island in Malaysia where Pham was born. They eventually were able to immigrate to the United States, and they now live in the San Francisco Bay area.

“I developed a deep appreciation of what they went through,” said Pham.

Pham couldn’t divulge who wins the “Iron Chef” showdown. But lest anyone think this is simply his “15 minutes of Pham,” so to speak, he hinted that viewers will see more of him on the small screen in the future. He’s also working on opening a restaurant in Park City, slated to be up and running this spring.

With so many other projects in the fire, Pham stepped down as co-chef of Forage, although he’s still part-owner.

“Forage is in good hands with Bowman, he’s doing a really good job,” Pham said.

The two celebrated the restaurant’s third anniversary last fall. 

Brown was Pham’s sous chef at Spark, the Provo restaurant where Pham was executive chef. But the duo’s culinary philosophy clashed with that of the owner, and they were sent packing after just a few months on the job. 

“When things didn’t work out at Spark, I didn’t want to come home to California,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable and if I failed, at least I’d know I tried. Forage was never about the money, but about doing what we loved and satisfying people’s palates. And it’s worked out.”

Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

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