Private Chefs of the SF Bay is thrilled to welcome Chef Tu David Phu to its ranks. Chef Tu’s resume reflects a reverence for American culinary greats, skilled in classical European traditions. His stints include the nation’s top Michelin-rated restaurants: Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. Most recently, Chef Tu was Executive Chef of Gather in Berkeley.
But even before all this, Chef Tu had a rich culinary experience. His family hails from the Island of Phu Quoc in Southern Vietnam, and immersed him in the practices, ingredients, techniques, and flavors of one of world’s most sophisticated global cuisines. Gayot describes him this way,
“Chef Tu David Phu works in the open kitchen [which makes him ideally suited to work as a private chef] with the focus and artistic skill of a musician, arranging dishes from pure ingredients that sing of the land or water from which they came”
We interviewed Chef Tu as part of our series on what it takes to be a private chef.
Lawson Gray: I know you have extensive restaurant experience, including several Michelin-starred restaurants and notably most recently as Executive Chef at Gather. What would you say are the most profound differences between working as a chef in a restaurant setting and your work now, as a private chef?
Chef Tu: A restaurant chef and a private chef are immersed in two completely different worlds. In a micro view, restaurant chefs have brigades behind them: Dishwashers, cooks, sous chefs, bussers, servers, etc. Work is compartmentalized for efficiency and speed for each individual customer and table. A macro look sees private chefs usually orchestrating the event not just the food: Things such as equipment rentals and how the food will be executed on-site. Private chefs are more focused on the synchronicity of events since everyone is usually dinning at the same time unlike a traditional restaurant setting.
Lawson Gray: What drives you to cook? What do you look to share with those who eat what you create?
Chef Tu: Cooking is what I’m good at. It’s what I’ve always done. I grew up watching my parents make tapioca noodles and fresh coconut milk every Sunday in Oakland, California. The pure joy and care they placed into food and traditions stuck with me. I was amazed how much cooking can enrich the lives of others.
Lawson Gray: Can you talk more about Vietnamese food and food history?
Chef Tu: Vietnamese food is slowly getting exposed to the western palette. Westerners are now open to the smell of fish sauce, ferments and etc. It’s great! Only a few years ago, the presumption of Vietnamese cuisine was “Banh Mi, Pho and Spring Rolls.” There is definitely more to Vietnamese Cuisine than that. Vietnamese cuisine is going through the same struggles Italian cuisine went through 20 years ago. There is definitely more to Italian food than pasta, meatballs and pizza. As immigrants turn into first generation, then 2nd and so on, more about their culture and food gets exposed to westerners. I think it is an incredibly beautiful thing.
Lawson Gray: What are you plans for the rest of 2016 and beyond?
Chef Tu: My goal for 2016 is to find brick and mortar for my concept. I have a few in mind and will make sure to keep you updated!
Chef Tu: My favorite “can’t do without tool” would have to be my hand lime/lemon squeezer. Have you tried juicing with your bare hands?! Not fun!
Lawson Gray: What is one trick you can share with the aspiring home cook who is looking to be more creative in the kitchen?
Chef Tu: Substitute your seasoning salts with other forms of sodium such as soy, fish sauce and oyster sauce and then caramelized them. It’s a technique to make things more umami.
Catch Chef Tu’s Class Thursday July 28th on Vietnamese Street Food at 18Reasons; learn to create a memorable meal of – what many consider to be – the best street food in the world! Enjoy a hands-on cooking class culminating in dinner served with wine and beer!