When Ky Phan and her older sister, Kim, were little girls in southern Vietnam, they would pretend they had their own food stall, and Ky was always the chef. The river that ran through their village meant there were plenty of plants for them to use — her thinly cut leaves became “noodles.” The flowers she decorated were used in her “noodle salad,” and the clay their town is known for was rolled into “rice balls” and wrapped in banana leaves.
“When we were growing up, weddings or banquets that were happening, there wasn’t a catering company that would come in to cook. Everyone who lived in the village would get together and cook. All of the aunties and moms, everybody gets together, and they cook for three or four days,” Ky Phan says. “As kids, we just grew up around that and would just see that happening. … We were just making dishes and pretending that we were doing what they were doing.”
It was good practice for helping their parents in their family restaurant after they had immigrated to the United States in 1994, feeding her curiosity with food and building on the skills that led the sisters to open their Crab Hut Restaurants and Kingfisher Cocktail Bay & Eatery. This week, the creativity from their kitchens will be on display during the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s “Chew the Scene” gala, which celebrates Asian and Asian American culture in the kinds of stories that are told through food. The event begins at 6 p.m. Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, featuring off-menu tastings from more than a dozen restaurants.
Ky Phan, chef and co-owner of the restaurants, took some time to talk about how her family’s stories and her personal experiences show up in the food being prepared for this week’s event. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: What kind of restaurant did your parents have?
A: My parents had a Chinese and Vietnamese food restaurant. It was more of a fast food/fast casual concept, very similar to Panda Express. It was called Panda Rice; they inherited the name from the previous owner, and we had that restaurant for about eight years when I was 12 years old. First, I started out dishwashing, helping my parents after school, cutting simple things. I was more interested in the kitchen, so I liked going into the kitchen and helping my parents that way. I also served. We had a small menu where we served pho and other Vietnamese food, as well. We just did everything as a family. When there was quiet time, we would sit down and do our homework together, and when it was busy, we would get up and serve customers. It was very informal.
Q: Did you train as a chef?
A: I did not train as a chef. A lot of my cooking comes from my dad helping me, teaching me. He was trained. When we first came to the states [from Sa De, Vietnam in 1994], my aunt and uncle had a nail salon in Texas. My dad didn’t want to do nails. It wasn’t his passion. He was in the Vietnam War, but he fought with the American side. After we lost, he was placed in a concentration camp. They called it a re-education camp, but it was basically jail for about five years. When he was in jail, he was cooking already, but when he came out, we applied to go to the United States under the HO program [the Humanitarian Operation was a subprogram of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Orderly Departure Program to help Vietnamese refugees who were emigrating from Vietnam, according to The Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University]. That allowed us to emigrate to the U.S. and we stayed in Texas because our family was in Texas at the time.
We eventually moved to California because my dad wanted to have more job opportunities. He wanted to become a chef, so he wanted to learn from the bottom, up. He was a dishwasher at a Chinese buffet place for a very long time. From there, he learned how to work on a wok. He learned knife skills, and he basically learned everything. He was working at multiple restaurants here in San Diego until he opened his own. Most of the discipline I learned, I learned from him. I also love to read, so I read about French cooking techniques. I read different cookbooks, and I love watching what people do. When I was growing up, one of my friends would do papaya salad in front of the supermarket after school, so while I was waiting for my sister to pick me up to go to the restaurant, I would be at supermarket with them, helping shred papaya and learning how to do that. I was just very curious about food, in general, so I loved learning about it. I love learning through working and staging and seeing how other people do things, but I never went to a formal culinary school. I’ve learned through other people and tried to hone those skills.
Q: What dishes are you planning for “Chew the Scene” and what inspired/influenced these dishes?
A: This year, for Kingfisher, we’re doing a Rocket fuel, so it’s a different take on the Vietnamese espresso. Vietnamese coffee is a super strong coffee, so just taking a drink of this will get you going like a rocket. For the food, we’re paying homage to our Louisiana/Cajun roots, and we’re doing a seafood gumbo. Rocket fuel is a fun thing for us to do; the gumbo, we’re just paying homage to our restaurant, Crab Hut, which is a Cajun and Louisiana-inspired restaurant. When I first came to the U.S., we lived in Texas. That’s how we got our first step into Southern cooking, so we just wanted show another side than in previous years [at “Chew the Scene”], so we’re doing something warm. Every year at “Chew the Scene” has been kind of cold, so I just think something warm and comforting, hearty, like gumbo, will satisfy everybody.
We’re using lots of different types of seafood, we’re staying true to the original cooking style, but we will be adding some herbs and some spices that are very Asian influenced, so you can taste that in the spices and in the herbs. We have some basil, lots and lots of garlic, and then we have our secret blend of spices that we use, so we don’t really tell people what those are. One of the things that will make it very different is that we love to use shrimp heads, so you get a full seafood flavor.
Q: What kind of story/experience are you planning to share through the dishes you’re presenting this year?
A: I think the story, for us, is there really is no one perspective of looking at something. Cultures are always crossing, cultures are always growing. For us, we came from Vietnam to Houston, Texas, we started eating Southern food. Then, we took that and we made it in our taste profile. Food, I feel, is very transitional and in a constant state of evolution. By doing this, we’re just showing that it doesn’t have to be gatekept; it’s very fluid and it’s interpreted by the people. I think it’s just our way of showing that food is ever evolving and always changing, and it’s fun.