What’s a nice, young, tattooed Vietnamese boy from West Oakland doing as the top chef in a Jewish deli in North Berkeley?
I’m so glad you asked. Tu David Phu wanted to take a break from working the stoves in Bay Area fine dining establishments — his resume includes stints at The Peasant and the Pear in Danville and Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay. So he decided to try his hand in the front-of-the-house at Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in the Gourmet Ghetto. He liked managing the floor and dealing with customers, but it wasn’t long before he found himself keen to get into the kitchen. Owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman liked Phu’s ideas for improving the food, so back behind the stoves he went.
As regular knows, Saul’s is not your typical deli. The esteemed eatery turns out pastrami sandwiches, blintzes, knishes, celery soda, and matzo ball soup just like grandma used to make — only without the high-fructose corn syrup, canned soup stock, and pasty white bread. The staff at Saul’s pride themselves on keeping it authentic and close to its Jewish roots, while serving slow food made from local, seasonal ingredients.
Phu, 25, embraced the restaurant’s sustainable sensibility. He has a butcher’s background, California Culinary Academy training, and steeped himself in the flavors of a cuisine he says he fell in love with, doing field research in taste tests of classic dishes at several L.A. delis, studying the ingredients and methods of traditional recipes.
Phu’s parents come from an island off the south of Vietnam called Phu Quoc, famous for the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce, though island eats more closely resemble Cambodian and Thai cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh fish, local produce, and grill cooking. Not that Phu realized that growing up. He just thought his parents, both accomplished cooks, made traditional mainland Vietnamese cuisine.
You can catch Phu at Saul’s for another few weeks. In mid-September, he’s off to try his luck in Manhattan in a low-level slot at the high-end Daniel, named one of the ten best restaurants in the world not long after it opened.
I chatted with Phu this week at Saul’s the day after he returned from a stage (try-out) at Daniel.
Since your father also worked in the food business did he encourage you to follow in his footsteps?
Not at all, in fact he discouraged me. My dad worked as a fish grader. He told me it’s hard, you’ll work long hours, they’ll make you cry, and you’ll never earn enough money to feed your family. So far three out of four of those things have proven correct. But I like to say if I wasn’t a chef I’d be a failure. It’s what I do, it’s in my blood.
I understand why they might question me, I’d feel the same way at first about a non-Vietnamese person cooking the food I grew up with. It did hurt a bit at first. But when you show people the love you have for a cuisine and explain why you prepare something the way you do, they usually come around. I have tremendous respect for the Jewish cuisine. The Jewish people are really one of the only groups I can think of that have held onto their cooking traditions wherever they may live in the world. I mean, matzo ball soup is matzo ball soup. You have to make it with matzo crackers, it’s not like you can make it with semolina flour.
Delis are known for their loyal clientele — are there any people of note who frequent Saul’s?
Food writer Michael Pollan, comedian-monologist Josh Kornbluth, and the guy who plays Monica’s dad in Friends, from L.A. [Ed's Note: Presumably Elliot Gould.] Our vendors — and that’s really important to me, that the people who sell us their food also eat here, and the young people who work the farmers’ market stand — are all regulars.
What do you think you’ll miss about Berkeley food when you leave?
I’ll miss Acme Bread, just their regular baguette, it has such a great crunch. And I’ll miss the quality of our produce. I’m sorry, I’ve been to the farmers’ market in New York City and its just not the same. Chefs there like to say that West Coast chefs think we’re so hot but it’s really just the quality ingredients we have to work with that makes our food taste good. But you have to know how to handle those ingredients with care and bring out the best in them. I’ll also miss the fresh fish from Monterey Fish Market. I just don’t think that a fresh rock cod sourced from local waters tastes the same once you ship it across the country.
Do you see yourself returning to the Bay Area after a stint in the Big Apple?
Absolutely, my heart belongs here and I plan to return on a regular basis to Saul’s; we’re going to start smoking our own meat and I want to be part of that.
Ideally, I want to spend a couple of years in New York and then come back and open my own restaurant. I’d like to serve Vietnamese food like the dishes I grew up with, not so much the wok style of Vietnamese cuisine that [Slanted Door chef] Charles Phan has popularized. I want to introduce people to the kind of Vietnamese food that is more similar to Cambodian and Thai cuisine.
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.
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