Franky Pham loves recreating the food memories he has from his childhood. And he wants to share his mum and his grandmother’s traditional cooking with us. Lucky us!
Tell me about your background in food.
I started when I was 16 years old. For some strange reason I always food quite interesting. I guess I had a pretty modest background, growing up in the west.
Good food though!
Great food. I think being first generation Australian, we didn’t grow up with too much. Mum has always bee a phenomenal cook but she wasn’t always around, so Monday to Friday was any quick meals but on the weekends mum used to throw out some awesome traditional Vietnamese food. I think for me, the fondness came form the fact that it brought the whole family together, even if it was only foo nr day. It was fascinating. One of my earliest memories is mum popping me up on the bench and me just peeling spring roll wrappers for her to roll them. It’s like babysitting in the kitchen. I guess that’s where the fascination came from.
As a 16 year old, coinciding with needing a bit of extra cash, I found myself in the kitchen washing dishes like most chefs these days we all started in the sink. I think that’s where the addiction came from. It was a seafood restaurant on Southbank. It was called the River Seafood Bar and Grill. That was aeons ago. 16 years ago, I guess. I’ve been here there and everywhere in between; a lot of Italian food.
I guess with this whole St. Cloud thing, and going back to my roots came from four years ago when I moved back to Vietnam for two years and opened up two restaurants in ten months. I was working with NGOs, non-government organisations, to help street kids and kids that had been rescued from sex traffickers. Pretty hard stuff. But a lot of it came down to the ethos that it was better to teach these kids to fish rather than giving them a fish; so that they can work in the growing hospitality industry over there and they can help themselves and their family.
I guess working though so many restaurants through the years, all roads always lead to where my heritage is from, which is Vietnam. I actually don’t know if I’m answering your question very well.
You are, you are. But is it fusion here; is it an Australian or European take on Vietnamese?
My training is European. But when I was over in Vietnam, it was an intense retraining in the old ways; how mum used to cook when she was growing up, how she was taught by grandma. It’s still quite, for want of another word, quite primitive over there, quite basic. It hasn’t needed to change for so long. Fire still has the same outcome as it did back in the day.
Here, it’s literally my take on the food I grew up eating.
What part of Vietnam is your family from?
From the deep south. A place called Vung Tao. It’s about 2 ½ to 3 hours scooter ride from Saigon, or you can take the speed boat, which takes about a hour. It’s quite accessible these days. It’s a coastal town known for the traditional dish which comes from that province, and only that province; banh khot, which we have on the menu, they’re like little pancakes, very similar to the banh xeo which is the large one.
What we do is literally my take on all the food I grew up eating. Really traditional approach. The plate-ups are definitely different. We can’t serve things on plastic all the time. (laughs)
When people come in, do they need to know that? Do they need to know there’s a way to eat your food?
The way the Vietnamese eat is very component based so they usually have something salty, they always make sure there’s a green, sometimes you’ll have a soup, so each part is a component and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand and hopefully our staff are extending that to the patrons. You need sweet and salty with rice and greens; it will all balance out.
Is there room for movement in the menu given the traditional nature?
We can. I guess for me…I’ll use the caramel pork as an example because it’s one of our most popular dishes and it’s also the most traditional. In Vietnam, it’s served with a hard-boiled egg and they cook that in the stock, I’ve always found the richness and the butteriness of a soft-boiled egg is a little more well grounded, especially for mouthfeel. And I’ve put crackling on there because who doesn’t like crackling? And also, the Western palate doesn’t always like gelatinous, whereas south-east Asia always loves anything that is gelatinous, anything that is chewy on the palate. Whereas the Western palate hasn’t always embraced that. So, for me, I don’t want to bastardise it too much but also we need customers through the door. For me, it’s a little bit of give and take.
Has your mum tried your cooking?
She has. And it was probably the scariest day in my life, I’d say. She has and she loves it, which is good. But it’s hard to tell because she has always been a very supportive mum. She has critiqued me before and I still call her to ask about methods and so on. I think for her to know that this has come from her and my beautiful memory of her and growing up, I think it makes it her pretty proud.
Can you get hold of all the ingredients you need?
We can. Our approach is to use as much local produce as we can. Clearly there is no fish sauce in Australia, no one is really producing making good quality fish sauce but for us, if we are going to use a product we can’t get here, our fish sauce is from Vietnam, and it’s extra virgin fresh pressed fish sauce. It isn’t as salty, you can taste the fish. It’s subtle and not as obtrusive on the plate. If we are going to use something that’s not from Australia, it has to be good.
Tell me a little bit about your mention of the “saintly hands of benevolence” on the menu.
It’s a little bit of a nod to what we do. Saints are a little bit religious, but our approach is that we are vegan and vegetarian friendly, we’re gluten friendly. At the end of the day for us, growing up Buddhist myself, we had one day a week when we were vegetarian. Being vegetarian for that one day, makes a difference. And Buddhists don’t eat onion or garlic; things that make you sweat and lose water. The identity of Vietnamese food is brought in through Buddhism; Indians brought it over with the spice trade and we have our own little ode to that. We’re not mad religious people, but it’s part of it.