In his new tome, Charles Phan dishes out the stories and recipes from The Slanted Door empire.
Every self-respecting food enthusiast knows the story of Charles Phan, the intrepid entrepreneur who came to San Francisco in the ’70s as a Vietnamese refugee and now runs the city’s iconic The Slanted Door restaurant empire. It’s not uncommon to hear members of the food cognoscenti bragging about the shaking beef they ate at the original location, when it was a “hole in the wall” on Valencia Street in the ’90s. But the restaurant’s biggest fans probably don’t know that Phan’s father was also a serial entrepreneur, who ran everything from an ice cream business to a sewing shop in Laos. Or that, decades later, Phan was so floored by Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit to his restaurant that he still doesn’t remember whether he ran the legendary presidential white credit card. It’s these untold stories, put to paper in Phan’s humble voice, that make his new book The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food ($28, Ten Speed Press) impossible to put down.
From his teenage days as a busboy and bar-back in Chinatown, ordering soufflés for his friends before senior prom, and his years as “the food guy” at the University of California, Berkeley, to the moment he “picked up the phone, specified his terms and conditions and hung up” in order to negotiate his lease at the Ferry Building, the book reveals that—for Phan—the makings of greatness in the restaurant industry were there all along.
Of course, The Slanted Door is a cookbook, too. And some of its most poignant moments unravel through recipes. Above the ingredient list for his spring rolls—of which he currently sells 80,000 a year—Phan reveals in the book, “If my mother hadn’t made them, I’m not sure I would have had the inspiration, or the confidence, to strike out on my own with a restaurant.”
The chef is just as apt to credit his restaurant family, handing off narration to his wine directors, his architect and his bar director Erik Adkins—all of whom have worked with him for over a decade. But The Slanted Door’s most touching revelation is written between the lines: Phan had a “crazy dream of showcasing Vietnamese food in a world-class setting,” he writes in the book, and he inspired his partners to believe in that dream, too. As architect Olle Lundberg writes of the pre-build-out Ferry Building address, “You could just sense that this would be the place.”
Written by Carolyn Alburger.