1/11/2013 01:23:00 PM

Viet Pham on Foraging, Extreme Chef and Beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America

Kicking the crap out of Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America is no small feat, but neither is winning Food & Wine's Best New Chef 2011, or owning and operating your own ├╝ber-buzzy Salt Lake City eatery. Chef Viet Pham has accomplished all three, the former just this Sunday but his plans for culinary domination don't stop there. A close friendship with Saison chef Josh Skenes has influenced the young toque to open a new Utah venture this summer that will focus on open-fire cooking. We caught up with the Extreme Chef runner-up recently to kibitz on all of the above. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: You beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America this Sunday by a sizable margin - what was the experience like?
It was quite a surreal experience, because it’s such an iconic cooking show and it dates back…like twenty years or so of history is there and I grew up watching Iron Chef Japan. You never tell yourself, "oh one day I’ll be on Iron Chef," and all of the sudden I got this tremendous opportunity. I used to watch Iron Chef Japan with my parents so for this competition, I was able to fly my parents out and they were in the audience watching. So it was a very surreal and a very proud moment. 

Prior to filming I did a show called Extreme Chef and that was very much about utilizing ingredients that are foraged and not having the comfort of your kitchen. I can honestly tell you that the one hour I did in Kitchen Stadium was more intense  than all of those five challenges put together. It’s so much pressure, my family is watching and it’s Iron Chef and also getting acclimated with the kitchen. It’s one thing when you’re in the desert you don’t have knives and forks but it's another when you’re cooking in the kitchen where you have everything but you don’t know where anything is and how everything operates  - it was very very difficult. 

Zagat: Do you feel like your training prepared you for reality show cooking competitions?
I never really planned for all this TV stuff to kind of happen. I found out some strengths through it - that I do work really well under pressure and because of that and personality, it went a long way and I’ve been fortunate to get other gigs. But now I’m at a point where I’m trying to find a balance. But also with TV, it’s branding and it’s marketing and actually free marketing but at the same time I don’t want it to take away from my craft.

Zagat: How would you describe the dining scene in Salt Lake City?
I would say Salt Lake City’s dining scene is up and coming. We have all of the elements and ingredients to be like a Portland OR, or an Austin, TX. For a long time, cooks have overlooked Salt Lake City, it’s always been about conventions, the church and skiing. But Forage has been around for three years, and so much has changed within the past few years. There’s been a lot of really great restaurants opening and a lot of national recognition. It’s getting better and better and it’s really exciting to be a part of. 

Zagat: Who were your biggest culinary influences?
My biggest culinary influence would be Laurent Gras. He was the first chef that I worked for back in 2002. His teachings stuck with me through all these years. He was the one who made biggest impact in my culinary career. He taught me a lot of things that apply to cooking but at the same time apply to life.

Zagat: What made you want to be a chef growing up?
I grew up in a family that was involved in the food industry, and I told myself growing up I would never want to be involved in cooking but somehow along the way I just found a connection that I didn’t really see before. I’ve always been a very creative individual and with cooking I was able to really express myself. I’m here to express all forms of art and at the same make people happy. 

Zagat: What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new project right now, Josh Skenes [of Saison in SF] is probably one of my biggest influences. A lot of restaurants are too gimmicky and they forget about like what the true meaning of cooking is - to bring out the maximum, purest flavor we can bring out. And Josh has introduced me to cooking over fire. A lot of people barbecue but there’s so much more strategy to open-fire cooking. With this new project I’m really utilizing that technique to really bring out the flavors, you can’t achieve those flavors with traditional methods. It might either be in Salt Lake City or Park City. We’re still working on it right now so it’s slightly under wraps but hope to be open by summertime. It’s going to focus on a lot of seafood and we’ll also specialize in aging wild game.

Zagat: Any inside details about the new Saison?
The kitchen itself, the build-out,  the construction is just like a dream. If I were to have a kitchen and I were to have unlimited a money to build a kitchen, that would be the kitchen. I’m really excited for him and all the ventures that are happening for him. I consider him one of the top five chefs in the country. What he’s doing is really true to himself and his art and I really respect that. I can't give away too much!


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