Mai Pham, like many Vietnamese
in the United States, was transplanted across the Pacific
Ocean after the fall of Saigon in 1975. As it was for most,
the passage was traumatizing for her. Her career in food
has eased some of the trauma so that now she feels gratitude.
"Cooking has allowed me to express myself, and to reconnect
with my country and make peace with Vietnam. So cooking
sort of became a soul-searching experience. To be able to
run a successful business while satisfying your soul is
a real blessing."
She opened LemonGrass
in Sacramento, California, a restaurant that draws continual
praise, not to mention a
clientele that is willing
to travel from the very food-conscious city of San Francisco
for its Vietnamese- and Thai-style food.
Through her food at her
restaurant and her two books, she reaches back. If we are
not the guardians of these traditional foodways, I'm afraid
they may not be around for the next generation, she says.
Much of my cooking and writing is about preserving and celebrating
the wonderful richness of the culinary traditions of Vietnam
where I was born, and of Thailand where my family lived
for many years.
As a leader of Culinary
Institute of America tours to Asia, as well as in the courses
she teaches at the CIA, Greystone, Mai stresses traditional
methods and authentic ingredients. Always, she stresses
the importance of roots. "If professional chefs are
aware of the importance of tradition, we have a better chance
of preserving these cuisines. Many chefs want to be innovative.
But there is something very essential and foundation-building
when you embrace the cooking of your mother or grandmother,
or a centuries-old recipe."
Pham's books include:
Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table
(HarperCollins, 2001). Selected as part of the “best
cookbooks of 2001” lists of The New York Times, The
Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking (Prima Publishing,
Mai Pham is a regular columnist
for The San Francisco Chronicle, and recently launched a
line of foodservice products, Mai Pham’s Lemon Grass
Kitchen. Her awards include:
• International Association of Culinary Professionals
(IACP) Bert Greene Award for Excellence in Food Journalism
• Association of Food Journalist’s Award of