Duy Pham, exec chef of Epernay, on being super-obsessed with gadgets
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This is part one of my interview with Duy Pham, exec chef of Epernay; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
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.