How chef Charles Phan learned to cook from his mother and aunt – Advice Eating

As Mother’s Day approaches on Sunday, SFGATE asked Bay Area chefs how their moms influenced their culinary upbringing. Keep an eye out for more features this week through Sunday highlighting the maternal mentors of some of the region’s most well-known restaurateurs.

Ever since he was a child, Charles Phan has had a penchant for the lavish. Raised in Da Lat, Vietnam, the Slanted Door chef recalls getting excited when his aunt Ah Nueng cooked soy-braised pork belly with ginger and star anise, a classic Cantonese dish.

“I liked it when she did the really complicated dishes,” Phan said. “One of them was pork belly, which went through three stages of cooking.”

He recalls that his aunt – who he thought was the best cook in his family – blanched the pork belly in boiling water, then fried it and finally soaked it, adding a sauce made of tofu, oyster and soy sauce, star anise and ginger. His parents and aunt were all Chinese but fled to Vietnam in the 1960s, so home cooking in the Phan household spanned both countries.

“The pork belly is soft and tender, it’s very juicy,” he recalls.

Chef Charles Phan prepares a #3 banh-mi sandwich for CP at Chuck’s Takeaway on April 21, 2022 in San Francisco.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Phan still describes himself as a “glorified home cook,” though he’s become a strong San Francisco restaurateur since opening the Slanted Door in 1995. These rumored amateur culinary skills have served him well, from opening numerous restaurants across the Bay Area to publishing two cookbooks to several nods from James Beard. He credits the women in his family—his aunt and mother—for teaching him everything he needed to know about food.

“I just remember hanging out with her in the kitchen,” he said of his aunt. “…You pick up these little things, like the hand that grasps the cornstarch.”

When Phan was about 5 years old, his parents, who were busy running their general store, sent him to live with his aunt in Ho Chi Minh City. During this time, he began helping where he could, watching her movements and sucking her way around the kitchen.

The interior of Chuck's Takeaway, a new takeout restaurant from Charles Phan, in San Francisco on April 21, 2022.

The interior of Chuck’s Takeaway, a new takeout restaurant from Charles Phan, in San Francisco on April 21, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“I watched her cook a lot,” he said. “You’re learning these basic things, and there’s not much to explain. I mean, that’s why I wrote my first book… because it’s kind of ingrained in you, those basic things like you never steam anything unless the water is boiling.”

He remembers his mother, Quyen Tran, who also cooked, although she was very busy with the work – from traditional Vietnamese recipes to making her own yogurt. But when the family of 10 immigrated to San Francisco in 1977, a 15-year-old Phan started cooking more regularly. It was out of necessity as his parents both worked two jobs.

Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP?•s No.  3 B‡nh m” Sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, California on April 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP?•s No. 3 B‡nh m” Sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, California on April 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP?•s No.  3 B‡nh m” Sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, California on April 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP?•s No. 3 B‡nh m” Sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, California on April 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chef Charles Phan takes a bite out of a CP?•s No. 3
Chef Charles Phan takes a bite out of a CP?•s No. 3 “B‡nh m” sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, California on April 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Charles Phan does his CP #3 banh mi. (Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

“My aunt didn’t really work because she was a bit older, so she stayed home and cooked,” Phan said. “I started taking on more chores to help with the cooking.”


Phan’s newfound cooking skills were put to the test in 1978, shortly after the Phan family moved to SF.

“I was trying to integrate family into US culture, so I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” Phan said. “The fun part was that my mom started making curry as a backup plan, just in case the stuff wasn’t edible. They didn’t like the look of that turkey.”

He cooked the entire Thanksgiving holiday meal from an issue of Gourmet magazine, from the filling to the apple pie to the oven-baked bird. His family didn’t like that. Today, however, Phan’s family relies on him to cook every holiday meal, from Christmas through the Lunar New Year – so it seems they’ve come to his kitchen.

Phan cites his upbringing, peppered with the lessons he learned from watching his mother and aunt in the kitchen, as all key ingredients that made him the chef he is today.

“I think having that whole flavor ingrained in my head helped me quite a bit,” he said. “Because when I opened Slanted Door 27 years ago, I knew exactly what I was going to serve. Even as someone who had never cooked before [professionally] before…I had complete confidence it would work because these recipes were proven.”

Eventually, Phan’s childhood memories had a major impact on the menus at his restaurants. His forthcoming new restaurant in Marin, Moonset, will offer a dish inspired by the crispy noodle stand behind his mother’s shop when he was growing up in Vietnam. Additionally, the Slanted Door’s signature peanut sauce is his mother’s recipe. Someone gave her a tip on how to do it one day while waiting at a bus stop in the Mission District.

Chef Charles Phan holds up a photo of a salted Thai chilli oil at Chuck's Takeaway on April 21, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Chef Charles Phan holds up a photo of a salted Thai chilli oil at Chuck’s Takeaway on April 21, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Jars of preserved lemons created by Charles Phan at Chuck's Takeaway on April 21, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Jars of preserved lemons created by Charles Phan at Chuck’s Takeaway on April 21, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

“She came home and tried it and it was just amazing,” Phan said. “… That’s how it used to be: If you found out that someone could do something and you asked for it, you were taught it.”

Phan’s aunt has since passed away, but his mother still lives in San Francisco. He often cooks for her at family gatherings. In the meantime, the chef has also raised three of his own children, to whom he tries to pass on his cooking skills. For a while he didn’t think any of it really stuck. But since his kids are grown and going to college, he’s been surprised.

Chef Charles Phan poses for a photo at his takeaway restaurant Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco on April 21, 2022.

Chef Charles Phan poses for a photo at his takeaway restaurant Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco on April 21, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“All of a sudden, my son started texting me questions like, ‘What temperature is the oil for the chimichurri sauce?'” Phan said. “… I started to goad him, what’s the matter, now you suddenly want to learn to cook? He said there is a girl who likes my food.”

Perhaps one day Phan’s son will ask him how to make pork belly braised in soy and he will pass his aunt’s recipe down to a third generation.

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