Mention the name “Chef Charles Phan” to any savvy San Francisco gourmand and you’re sure to get an enthusiastic nod of recognition. Charles’ restaurant, The Slanted Door, has been a well-loved fixture of the Bay Area food scene for over twenty years.
But Phan is hardly the typical celebrity chef—he downplays his success as a restauranteur and champions simple, straightforward, yet flavorful food above all else. “Although I have a growing family of restaurants,” he says, “I consider myself a glorified home cook.”
A child of war-torn Vietnam who found a way to combine the time-honored culinary traditions of his homeland with ingredient-driven Northern Californian tastes, Phan’s journey has led him to become a pioneer of contemporary Vietnamese cooking—and even landed him a prestigious James Beard Award along the way. As an exclusive partner of The Slanted Door, Munchery is proud to share his journey with you.
From South Vietnam to San Francisco
In 1977, the weary Phan family touched down in San Francisco, exhausted from a two-year-long escape from the tumultuous aftermath of the Vietnam War. Newly arrived and speaking little English, America was an alien place to fifteen-year-old Charles Phan. He’d been born in Da Lat, a city in the south-central highlands of Vietnam, in 1962. But after witnessing the chaotic fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnamese forces—followed by a harrowing boat ride to Guam and a stint in a refugee camp of 400,000 displaced souls—he was more ready to embrace his new home.
With ten hungry mouths to feed in their cramped San Francisco apartment, Phan’s parents made considerable sacrifices to provide for the family. Says Phan, “Both my parents worked two jobs, so I cooked out of necessity, mixing my mother’s traditional Vietnamese recipes with new American ingredients.”
Phan had grown up watching his mother delight in cooking, often experimenting and iterating until she’d captured the perfect flavor. Her inventive approach and mastery of refined French techniques enlivened even the simplest of Vietnamese dishes—and broadened young Charles’ culinary sensibilities. He began to see cooking not just as the act of preparing a meal, but as a sacred experience.
Around this time, a high-school-aged Phan began watching Jacques Pépin, the acclaimed French chef who preached the importance of technique on his long-running PBS cooking shows. Pépin provided Charles with a deeper understanding of his mother’s French-inflected cooking style and planted a seed of inspiration in young Charles’ mind—to one day become a chef. Some three decades later, Phan got the chance to thank Pépin in person; “I saw him [in 2010] and told him that I probably wouldn’t have a restaurant today if it weren’t for his show.” But for young Charles Phan, that reality was still many years—and several career changes—away.
The Winding Road to Restauranteur
Despite his blossoming passion for food, Phan attended the University of California, Berkeley to study architecture, a major that allowed him to express his burgeoning creativity and to work with his hands. Jobs came and went—he was a janitor, a self-taught fix-it guy, a contractor. After college he worked in his family’s garment business, designing clothing for their storefront in Berkeley. Always entrepreneurial at heart, Phan was able to parlay his business experience into an opportunity to ride the ‘90s tech wave, and he spent the next few years working in software.
But the love of cooking instilled in him by his mother never left—and the seed of inspiration planted years ago by Jacques Pépin had taken root. He decided to quit the software business and open his own restaurant.
Revisiting One’s Roots
Phan’s first foray into the restaurant world was to be a Vietnamese creperie—a natural extension of his mother’s French-Vietnamese culinary influence. But when the lease for the creperie fell through, Phan was forced to make a decision: He could give up, or he could dream even bigger.
Between jobs in the 1990’s, Phan returned to Vietnam for the first time since his family had fled. Says Phan, “It was a reintroduction to the country’s cuisine, its fresh herbs and pungent sauces. I remember staying at a hotel in Saigon and ordering their shaking beef. The meat was as tough as leather, but the flavors were perfectly balanced. I knew it would be an amazing dish if it were made with premium beef.”
And so, armed with renewed enthusiasm and about sixteen credit cards volunteered by his supportive family, Phan set out once again to open a restaurant. He already had a vision for the food—to take the recipes he knew and loved from his childhood and elevate them to new heights of quality and sophistication. “That was the kind of food I wanted to serve at the Slanted Door,” Phan says. “Fresh. Flavorful. Simple. Homestyle Vietnamese food that showcased California’s terrific produce.”
The Slanted Door Opens
Founded on this simple yet revolutionary vision, The Slanted Door opened in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1995. It was the first of its kind to marry traditional Vietnamese cooking techniques with the distinctly Northern Californian culinary culture laid down by pioneers like Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe—a culture that made local, organic, and sustainable ingredients the star of every dish.
Patricia Unterman, longtime restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, vividly remembers Phan’s innovative approach to the restaurant business. “[When he first started out] he had never cooked professionally, and, just as a dedicated home cook would, he made everything from scratch,” she says. “In 1995, when the Slanted Door opened, Hmong and Vietnamese farmers were just starting to grow vegetables and herbs for both homes and Asian restaurants, selling them at farmers’ markets where Phan shopped. He was also seduced by Western vegetables, which he prepared in breakthrough ways with Vietnamese herbs… In keeping with his hunger for excellent ingredients, Phan began seeking out chicken, pork, and beef raised on small farms to use in his traditional preparations.”
The Slanted Door spent nine years in the Mission, steadily building acclaim until it soon became one of San Francisco’s most coveted reservations. In 2004, just before receiving a prestigious James Beard Award, The Slanted Door moved into a larger space in San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building. There, amid crowds of hungry patrons and stunning views of the bay, it remains today.
These days, when he’s not running between his various restaurants, Chef Phan still cooks for his family. Now he has the help of his own children, who are learning, like he did from his mother, how to appreciate a home cooked meal made with fresh ingredients and care. Phan has watched American food culture shift drastically since The Slanted Door’s inception, but he now feeds a population that’s even more appreciative of what he originally set out to offer: delicious, ingredient-driven dishes made with unparalleled quality, authenticity, and innovation.