Charles Phan is executive chef and owner of four San Francisco restaurants showcasing Vietnamese food made from fresh, sustainable ingredients sourced largely from the San Francisco Bay Area.
A home-trained cook who didn't go to cooking school, Phan's path to restaurant ownership was circuitous. Born in Vietnam, he came to the United States as a teenager when his family fled the country in 1975. He studied architecture at the University of California Berkeley and held a variety of jobs before deciding to open a restaurant.
In 1995, Phan and several relatives pooled their money and opened The Slanted Door. Inspired by the legendary Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, he focused on a small selection of carefully prepared dishes made from local ingredients—the kind of food he grew up with in Vietnam. From the start, The Slanted Door was a favorite with San Francisco natives and visitors.
Although Phan's list of restaurants continues to grow, his dedication to supporting local farmers and fishermen remains the same. "The more you understand about food production in the United States," he says, "the more you want to buy from small farms in small batches. We're getting these bigger and bigger consolidations, huge companies and food monocultures. If you want diverse food, you've got to support smaller companies."
His strategy is the same when it comes to seafood. "What I do is not a whole lot different than what a home cook does," he says. "You've got to find a purveyor you trust who's bringing in sustainable seafood—someone who's constantly looking for new seafood and is up to date on the issues.
"You've also got to do your homework to make sure that you eat the right fish. There are people still selling orange roughy out there."
Serving sustainable seafood at his restaurants has meant removing popular items, like Chilean seabass, from the menu. Although some customers complain, Phan doesn't mind. As far as he's concerned, educating people about seafood has to start somewhere, and his restaurants are as good a place as any.
As a father of three, Phan is trying to teach his kids about the importance of fresh food and healthy oceans. "Once you have kids and family, you have to give them the best foods, and teach them how to become better citizens, better eaters and better cooks. If you become a better eater then you'll see how important it is to drive five miles to get that fresh fish. If you don't teach kids that, they'll just settle for fish fillet at a fast food chain. It all goes hand in hand."