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Valerie Phillips: S.L. chef goes to the extreme on food series

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 6:47 p.m. MDT

Viet Pham, co-owner of Forage, is on "Extreme Chef" airing Thursday. Viet Pham, co-owner of Forage, is on "Extreme Chef" airing Thursday.

Food Network

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"Extreme Chef" is not for wimps, as Viet Pham of Salt Lake City can tell you. He is one of seven chefs competing in the scorching California desert and Thailand jungles for a $50,000 grand prize in the second season of the Food Network's reality series, which premieres Thursday, Aug. 16 (10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time). It could be described as "Iron Chef" meets "Survivor."

"It was physically and emotionally challenging, very tough," he said of the competition, which was filmed in March and April. "We were taken out of our comfort zone."

The chefs test their physical prowess, mental toughness and culinary skills in challenges such as pulling out needles from a cactus pad to create a tasty dish, and rescuing ingredients from a capsized fishing boat in the ocean to create a meal in 60 minutes on a floating dock.

But for Pham, 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 by boat when it fell to the Communists in the 1970s. They struggled for survival. Pham was born on an island in Malaysia, where his father had to chop trees to build a treehouse for the family to live. They eventually were able to immigrate to the United States, and they now live in the San Francisco Bay area.

"I felt like I was doing a reverse journey of what they did, coming to America," Pham said. "My having to adapt was similar to what my parents had to do," he said. "I learned a lot about myself and I developed a deep appreciation of what they went through."

Pham, a co-owner of Forage in Salt Lake City, said he turned down an invitation to compete on the series last year because he and his partner Bowman Brown were named as two of Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chefs" and would be in New York City.

This year, he committed to the show just five days before he had to be in Los Angeles, which didn't give him much time to prepare. He was also anxious about leaving the restaurant for such a long period of time.

"My friend does Cross-Fit, so I did that for four days before I left, but I don't know how much good it could do you in four days," he said. "I live a healthy lifestyle, so I consider myself generally in really good shape. But there's really no way, even in four months, to prepare for the show, because you don't know what they are going to throw at you. The things that you can rely on are the things you've done growing up and in your career, and you dig deep."

During the first episode a helicopter drops the chefs into Salton City, Calif., an abandoned "post-apocalyptic wasteland," where they're left to scavenge for ingredients and tools, according to a Food Network press release.

The chefs have only 60 minutes to raid a deserted tent village for nonperishable ingredients, build their own cooking stations, and use items like steel wool, batteries and tumbleweed to start a fire.

After a tough round of judging, two chefs are sent into the "Final Showdown," where they must create the perfect bite and one will be sent home.

"First and foremost it a cooking competition, about your skills and how you are able to cook under pressure and your ingenuity," Pham said. "But it's also a strategic game where you form alliances and play like a game of chess."

Playing against the odds is something Pham is used to doing. The small restaurant, Forage, at 370 E. 900 South, was a long shot when it opened in the midst of the economic downturn in the summer of 2009.

Owners Pham and Brown chose to serve just one fixed-price meal each night, with the menu changing every day based on what was in season. They wanted to rely on local, organic ingredients and even started a vegetable garden and greenhouse to raise them. And a meal could run well over $50 — not a great lure for cost-conscious Utahns.

Both Pham and Brown had culinary-school training and cooked in high-end California restaurants before coming to Utah to open Spark in Provo. But their culinary philosophy differed from that of Spark's owner.

"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."

He said he hopes his appearance will help shine a light on Salt Lake City's restaurants.

"I felt like Utah's never really been on the map as far as dining destinations," he said. "But the dining scene is so different now that it was three years ago."

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com. Email: vphillips@desnews.com

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