Chef Tu David Phu, the son of Vietnamese refugees who grew up in an Oakland food desert, went the culinary school route and worked in the kitchens of such vaunted US restaurants as Chez Panisse, Gramercy Tavern, Daniel Boulud and Gotham Bar & Grill. But he had to unlearn a lot of what he absorbed to rediscover the value of his Vietnamese food roots—especially the skills and knowledge of his mother, a seamstress from the island of Phu Quoc.
At Near and Far 2022: Cool Ideas, Hot Food, Tu will give the talk “My Mother’s Cuisine: A Generations-Old Culinary Repertoire,” which recounts his journey from hot shot chef (he was on Top Chef in 2017 and helmed Gather in Berkeley) to food activist and entrepreneur—guided not by hustle culture but by his complex family heritage and mother’s innovative, frugal ways to make a delicious meal, developed as a survival tactic. No fishhead left behind!
Tu also co-produced an Emmy-nominated documentary about his journey—watch Bloodline before hearing him speak at the conference, to get the most out of what he has to say. He spent some time with us answering questions before walking his dog Chestnut, whom he shares with his Hawai‘i-born wife (and kim chee genius) Jean.
In Bloodline, viewers learn you grew up steeped in family food culture, yet you didn’t fully value what you learned from your parents, especially your mother, until after you did the whole culinary school thing. It is deeply moving. Any advice for aspiring cooks and food entrepreneurs here who might look to California and New York for inspiration, when they perhaps could mine their own Asian or Pacific Islander heritage?
Well, I would never shame the Ivan Ramens of the world, what they do is beautiful. But everyone comes from a beautiful story, if you don’t write it, who will?
You are a champion of circular economies—a system that eliminates waste and pollution, circulates products and materials at their highest value, and regenerates nature. Do you feel food entrepreneurs are, or can be, at the forefront of this concept?
We live in an economy where we try to quantify and monetize everything. It’s a way of thinking that is a complete disconnect from Mother Nature. Indigenous communities put nature first, while we quantify it—it’s very Manifest Destiny, Christopher Columbus, the global economy is based on it. What’s the word—anthropocentrism, where humans are seen as superior to nature.
Some farming friends taught me a lot about circular economy. I didn’t see it in other places like my mom’s generational wisdom. Mainly because I had implicit bias that stuff like that was word of mouth, and innovation needs to be proven in a lab. You learn things in school because they came out of a book or from your teacher.
To create change there needs to be inspiration in some shape or form, whether through art or music…in food, it starts with chefs and food producers. Everyone from Alice Waters to David Chang, they can really sway the economy and create global movement for people to want to eat, purchase, and live ethically with the ecosystems that we have. It’s a great starting point but I always make sure that I don’t give people short-ended answers, because we have to fight he bigger beast. The key is having legislation, encouraging our government representatives to pass bills that help fund regenerative, circular economies and support indigenous food makers and customs. At end of day we need to talk about resources—if they aren’t shared, it’s difficult to make an impact. I work with the city of Oakland to create change. I’m like [bleep] you Salesforce, [bleep] you Silicon Valley, you’ve extracted a good chunk of our community, what are you going to do for us? I want to get to the negotiating table.
For your family members, the very concept of socialism is probably repugnant, due to the horrors they lived through. Yet your dedication to circular economies and zero waste operations are in line with new, contemporary types of socialist systems. Do you see food and food industries as powerful ways to help move the dial toward a more progressive, equitable government, and how do you communicate about that with your parents?
It’s impossible not to be political when you talk about food. It’s all interconnected. You have to study politics, it illustrates how we eat. However, I was proudly a Toastmaster member, and if I learned anything from Toastmaster it was to know your audience. I try not to talk about politics, but it’s embedded in the stories and food.
The way I try to relate to people is not by taking political sides—I try to get people to relate to my understanding of the form of human decency. Same as when I have to talk about racism. I am inspired by James Baldwin, who talks about racism as the human condition and how it relates to Black identity. How there is a lack of human decency toward Black people. I try to do that with everything I do, especially related to social justice. Is it reasonable? Does it treat human beings decently? I have found hypocrisies in our political system on the left, right, and middle. But I guess that’s what our governing systems are for.
My parents both have PTSD. I found that I don’t speak to them about [the political aspects of food] because it’s triggering for them. I try to come from a place of understanding and listening. Because it’s only productive if the person you’re speaking to is willing to listen to you. Unfortunately I can’t do that with my parents because the frequency of trauma has been way too high and damaging. In that sort of aspect I have to ask myself, by having these conversations with my parents, am I being reasonable with them? Am I being decent? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not.
But I think that’s where the inspiration starts. That’s where people will create the narrative and start the movement.
What does it take to run a zero-waste kitchen? It sounds so hard. And why is it important for more food operations to embrace the concept?
I’m not a fan of the term—it’s kind of impossible to do. It’s unobtainable. As long as there’s a conscious effort to strive towards that concept, that is what is important. It is less about being zero waste and more about participating in a circular economy, and being regenerative. Everyone needs to participate, it’s the only way we can effect change.
What do you do with the organization Postelsia, which aims to foster a more sustainable seafood industry?
My skills as a storyteller and chef come into play to help them move sustainable seafood knowledge forward. We just did a campaign with a Japanese trade organization around efforts to sustainably farm Kagoshima yellowtail.
It sounds like on Phu Quoc, in cooking everything is utilized, even in flush times. In America, where throwaway culture is embedded deep, do you think it is possible to instill the kind of sense of value in even the smallest scrap as found on Phú Quốc? Or will it take a major disaster for a critical mass of people to finally reduce, reuse, recycle? In effect, finally care out of matter of survival.
It’s a quality unique to a lot of pre-industrial area generational wisdom. My parents existed in a culture where they grow things themselves. We come from a culture of disposal because we have somebody who can do that for us. We can get on Amazon five toothbrushes for five bucks, delivered the same day. That’s one aspect of it. In addition, Phú Quốc came from an era of war, [people from there] are victims of war. Because of that people appreciate and value life’s regular amenities on a daily basis to the extreme. For people to truly appreciate and fully use what they have, it’s going to take either a disaster or you can start growing your own stuff and be more connected to those things. If we can inspire people to do that we can go in the right direction.
I care for the unspoken for, the marginalized. That’s who I’m fighting for. The upper echelons, great if they are on board, but I the rest of the population of the world to have accessibility to the land.
Eater’s article on your banh mi pop up that you opened in fall 2019 in Oakland talked about how people balked at paying $10 for a sandwich, and you in turn highlighted how POC cuisines are expected to be cheap, regardless of the work and cost that goes into them, as well as the cost of paying food workers a living wage.
Right after that article came out, the pandemic happened and now people truly understand how thin of a thread it is for people to work in the hospitality industry. So in your face everyone who [criticized me] for wanting to pay my employees equitably.
It sounds like you are not involved with any restaurants or pop-ups at this time, yet successfully continue to build your culinary career. As we all know, the pandemic shined a light on the pitfalls of the restaurant industry. Any advice to young cooks about forging alternative career paths in food?
Per my banh mi pop up and other attempts to create a restaurant—I couldn’t find a formula that was economically viable in Bay Area. Now almost all my cooking is for nonprofits–I am channeling that for community purposes. I did a Juneteenth [event—the Black and Asian Solidarity Supper in Oakland] and we just did a dinner at Refettorio San Francisco, a food hub of the organization Food for Soul founded by Massimo Bottura. The first seating was for people who are housing- and food-insecure in San Francisco, who could come in and have a free, good, nourishing meal. Then the second seating is ticket buyers, who get the same meal. There are a lot of creative ways to cook for community. That’s where I find the most value, when I’m bringing community together through food.