Duy Pham Epernay 1080 14th Street 303-573-5000
This is part one of my interview with Duy Pham, exec chef of Epernay; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
epernaylounge.com We're boat people," chuckles Duy Pham -- but he's dead serious. Born in Saigon, Pham snuck out of Vietnam with his father, uncle and aunt in 1979, burrowing in a boat until they were picked up by a Malaysian ship and relocated to a refugee camp, where they waited more than a year for sponsorship to come to America. "It was tough times," recalls Pham, today the executive chef of Epernay. "My family was upper-class, and my dad had a lot of businesses, but the Communists had taken over, and Vietnam was never going to be the same again, so he sold everything he had and promised us that we'd move to America for better opportunities."
For Pham, that second chance eventually resulted in a culinary career. "My grandmother had a noodle house and an escargot farm in Vietnam, and once my dad and I moved to Colorado, he was sort of forced into learning how to cook, and I was his guinea pig," recalls Pham. "I got to see him perfect his cooking skills right in front of my eyes, and I started to develop a palate so I could critique his cooking."
And then he began cooking on his own, securing his first job as a prep cook at fifteen at the now-shuttered Le Petit Gourmet Catering. "I kinda hated that job to start with, because all I was doing was peeling and dicing a ton of carrots and potatoes," remembers Pham. But he was quick with a knife -- much quicker than his sidekicks, and that attribute didn't go unnoticed by his chef. "I'd clear the prep lists before everyone else, and the chef was impressed, so he started to teach me how to actually cook, and he really pushed me," going so far, he says, as "telling my dad that I should pursue this career because I had a natural-born talent for cooking."
Pham fought it, though. "What I really wanted to do was be an architect and design buildings," he admits. Nonetheless, he spent three summers at Le Petit, and when his chef left, so did Pham, who was hired as a pantry cook at the long-gone Normandy, a top-tier French restaurant. But it wasn't an easy transition. "I was so green at the time; all I really knew how to do was prep, and I remember running out of croutons and not having the slightest idea of what to do, so I crumbled up a bunch of crostinis, and then promptly got hell for it," he admits. Still, his chef, Robert Mancuso, a culinary Olympic gold-medalist, saw a spark in Pham, and the self-described "green" cook slowly began to find his way. "I became a sponge and had a lust for learning, and the more I learned, the better I got," Pham says.
Mancuso was "anal, strict and incredibly meticulous, and that really rubbed off on me -- it's the endless pursuit of perfection, and while I'll never reach it, I'll never stop trying," says Pham, who exited the Normandy with a diploma that read "Robert Mancuso's School of Low Self Esteem." He "graduated," he quips, with honors. Mancuso was headed to Vail, but Pham wanted to stay in Denver -- and he wanted to work for a chef of Mancuso's caliber, which led him to Tante Louise, another long-gone French restaurant, owned by Corky Douglass and cheffed by Michael Degenhart...now the chef de cuisine at Epernay.
Pham started as a line cook, inching his way up to a role as Degenhart's right-hand man until Degenhart left to open the now-closed Rue Cler -- and that's when Douglass catapulted Pham to executive chef. "I was hesitant and scared to take on such a big role -- I had such low self-esteem -- but through a lot of convincing from Corky, I decided to give it a shot," says Pham. The accolades came pouring in, and Pham became a household name in industry circles.
After several years at Tante Louise, Pham branched out, opening Opal, followed by the Luna Hotel and then a stint in Florida. He showed off his knife skills at Sushi Den, where he was the executive chef until he packed his knives -- and his bags -- and journeyed to Pueblo, where he opened his own restaurant, Fifteen Twentyone. Citing personal reasons, Pham walked away from that venture after four years to settle back in Denver and open Epernay, a huge restaurant and lounge with a very small kitchen, from which emerges some of Denver's most exquisite food. "Even with our limitations -- no hood, no fryer, no grill -- what we're able to pull off is really remarkable," says Pham, who in the following interview explains why he'll never cook in another chef's kitchen or look to a cookbook for recipes.
How do you describe your food? I really can't, for the simple reason that my food changes in style to cater to the restaurant that I'm working for at the time. I'm very diverse. I can do European, American, Latin and Asian cuisines. One thing that remains the same, though, is that I try to use the best ingredients and apply simplicity and elegance to each dish.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, giving, carefree, creative, imaginative, skillful, technical, artistic, inspirational and refined.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Salt; foie gras; all shellfish; every kind of vegetable you can imagine (except bell peppers, which I hate); cheese; fresh herbs; everything citrus and anything exotic. I'm super-obsessed with finding new ingredients that I've never worked with before, and I like pushing and challenging myself and learning new things every day.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I can't live without my Vita-Prep, immersion circulators, induction burner, anything high-tech, or my antique utensils, like the ones my grandma used. But to be totally honest, my real obsessions are my knives, because there's nothing that you can't do with a good, sharp knife.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: When I had my restaurant in Pueblo, I worked with a farm called Country Roots Farm, where everything was organic and the farmers grew a lot of exotic ingredients like calves'-heart cabbage, Japanese turnips, chrysanthemum greens and amaranth greens. They also had fresh chicken eggs, and once a month we'd have a farm-to-table dinner where 95 percent of the ingredients were from their farm, including pork, turkey, rabbit, goat, chicken and lamb. I admit that I've always been obsessed with Colorado lamb.
One ingredient that you won't touch: For some reason, I just can't get myself to become a fan of bell peppers. I guess it's because I think that a pepper without spice and true flavors is like food without salt. Outside of that, I like to challenge myself and try to work with every ingredient possible.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see chefs focus more on the actual ingredient rather than on heavy sauces, which only mask a great product. I'd be a lot happier if I didn't see so many dishes with 10,000 components in them.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The terms "fresh" and "organic," because those are things that every chef strives to focus on -- and should focus on -- no matter what. I think it's our responsibility as chefs to find the freshest ingredients we can and use organic ingredients whenever we can, but to advertise that we do it seems kind of silly to me.
One food you detest: Sorry to sound like a broken record, but...bell peppers. When it comes to ingredients, even those I don't like the first time, I keep trying to eat whatever it is I don't like over and over again until I find something about it that I do like. But when it comes to bell peppers, the more I try them, the more I hate them.
One food you can't live without: Salt, because without salt you can't bring out the full potential of the ingredient. Like love, life would not be worth living. And rice, of course; I'm Asian, after all.
Most memorable meal in Denver that you've ever had: When Elway's chef Tyler Wiard was at Mel's Bar and Grill in Cherry Creek and he prepared a seven-course meal for me and a friend of mine. That was the first time in my young career that I had no criticisms whatsoever -- and my friend is still talking about this meal, even today.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own: Restaurant Kevin Taylor, because it's one of the best true fine-dining restaurants that still exists in Denver. It was one of the best meals I'd ever had when it first opened, and I went there recently, and it was still one of the best meals I've ever had. Love the Squeaky Bean, too, because Max MacKissock and his kitchen crew are always pushing the envelope, and their presentations are always spot-on, plus I also love their creativity. I also really like Hong Kong BBQ on Federal, because they have the best roast pork, duck and chicken, and my son really loves the shrimp dumpling soup. He makes me order it for him every other week. Just for the fact that it has consistent food for a reasonable price -- and it's open 24 hours -- I like the Middle Eastern food at Jerusalem. I also love Land of Sushi. It's a hidden gem, but the chef, Ben Liu, is, in my opinion, one of the best sushi chefs here in Denver, for the pure fact that he's really open-minded to new techniques and ingredients. The kitchen staff is always consistent, and the front of the house is extremely friendly, passionate and informative.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I wouldn't change much, except the exorbitant number of pho shops. We have what, like, ten million pho restaurants -- and, really, do we need another one? Don't get me wrong: I love pho as much as the next guy, but let's open something new and different that's not currently offered in Denver. I'll say, too, that we need to collaborate as a whole to continue to improve Denver's dining scene -- no one chef can do it alone. There are a lot of talented chefs here, and that's what makes Denver so great.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Creating lasting dining memories for our guests.
Favorite dish on your menu: My Colorado lamb tenderloin tartare, which benefits from classic flavors and ingredients but is presented in a contemporary format.
Biggest menu bomb: A squab dish, just for the fact that nobody is ordering it. I personally love squab because it's so versatile, hearty and flavorful, but unfortunately we just didn't sell enough of it to justify having it on the menu.
Weirdest customer request: I had a customer who wanted their cold smoked salmon well done. I didn't know what to do, so I just stuck the whole plate in the oven.
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Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: During a trip to Vietnam, I ate fruit bat and king cobra.