Asian street foods and American quick-service are beginning to intersect as both consumers and operators become more sophisticated about global street foods. Chef Mai Pham is on the front lines, leading the industry into an exciting new world of more authentic flavors. Pham is known for her journalistic approach in educating the industry about Asian foods. The chef/owner of the widely acclaimed Lemon Grass Restaurant, she’s a guest chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America (cia) at Greystone and author of The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking and Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. Pham also regularly leads tours to Vietnam on behalf of the CIA and is the creator of Lemon Grass Kitchen products, a line of fresh-refrigerated soups and sauces manufactured by StockPot. Mai’s latest adventure, the new Lemon Grass Asian Grill & Noodle Bar, has taken her into the quick-service segment.
What does “quick-service” mean to you? To me, when I think of quick service, I think of three things—good food, quick food, affordable food. In much of Asia, we call this street food, and so obviously I see some interesting parallels here. In Vietnam and Thailand, where I grew up, street food vendors are real people, and they are a big part of your life. They bring their best recipes to the streets or markets, assemble them quickly in front of you, and they’d be the most delicious foods you’ve ever tasted. That’s because these vendors, whom I consider true master chefs, specialize in one or, at most, a handful of dishes. That’s all they do. When you cook the same dish day in and day out for 30 years, you become quite an expert at that recipe. So, when you want to eat the best of a dish in Asia, you want to head out to one of these food vendors.
In the U.S., quick-service has mostly been about convenience and speed. But I think that will change as the industry tries to improve their offerings to be competitive. Operators who can figure out how to deliver authentic flavors from Asia and other parts of the world—and do it well—will obviously be rewarded.
Who are some of the folks that you feel are doing the best job at delivering quality food quickly? I’m not an expert on this, but two concepts come to mind. I think Chipotle and In-N-Out are two examples of chains that deliver a consistently good quality product. They serve food that people can see, understand, and obviously appreciate. They process orders quickly, and their prices are affordable and, in both instances, the stores have good energy. In-N-Out uses fresh potatoes, and it reminds me so much of how the street foods in Asia use the raw ingredients at the point of preparation. I think their customers trust the food they get and obviously enjoy it.
I also think it’s interesting that In-N-Out resists the temptation of getting ahead of orders and pre-cooking and pre-wrapping hamburgers. At other similar chains, you place an order and someone grabs you a pre-made burger. I think customers value a hot patty sandwiched between cold, crisp lettuce and correctly toasted buns. If this dish was a street food in Asia, it would be done this way, and the hamburger would probably be the only item on the menu.
Having said that, I should add that there is nothing wrong with pre-making elements of a meal or even pre-cooking so long as it makes sense and so long as the manager or kitchen manager can really manage it. In reality, this is often an operational challenge. At my Noodle Bar, I serve this Vietnamese grilled pork with rice noodles dish. We can hardly keep up with this dish, and so I plate up the bowl with fresh herbs, greens, and rice noodles. When we have an order, we quickly stir-fry the meat then garnish the bowls. In this instance, it makes perfect sense because the noodles need to be at room temperature while the topping needs to be cooked to order. Plus, this is how it’s traditionally done in Vietnam.
Are there special considerations or changes you’ve had to make in delivering authentic dishes in your restaurant? Sometimes a dish might need to be reformatted so that the customers can get the full experience. For example, in the Bun Thit Nuong, or grilled pork with rice noodles with fresh herbs dish, the Vietnamese dipping sauce is served on the side and is meant to be added to the bowl. Years ago, when we served it this way, the customers often complained about the dish being bland because they weren’t pouring all the sauce (which is a very light dressing) into the bowl. So we changed the recipe and add sauce before sending the dish out. The dish is now one of our best-selling dishes on the menu.
Asian cuisine—particularly Southeast Asian—is not as forgiving as perhaps Mexican and Italian. The upside is that, maybe because of that, the cuisine is quite appealing. The flavors of Vietnamese and Thai cooking are vibrant and fresh in large part because the ingredients used are delicate, fragile as in the case of fresh herbs and aromatic roots. If you know and embrace this, you would, for example, hire cooks who will respect this nuance and be discerning enough to take special care of handling herbs and also be cognizant of the fact that dishes seasoned with fresh herbs tend to loose their aromas the longer you cook them.
Being cognizant of each step of a recipe is, of course, critical to controlling flavors, although it’s helpful to be selective of how you want to manage this process. By this I mean sometimes it’s worth looking at outsourcing part of your menu, especially if you run a high-volume operation. In the ideal world every chef would like to make everything in-house. I know I would but can’t. So, with some of my main entrees, I have outsourced the sauces and broths. By doing so and working with my manufacturing partners, I can spend more time on other operational issues and also on other parts of the recipe that definitely can’t be outsourced, like the actual cooking process and the finishing of a plate.
Years ago, when I first offered pho—Vietnamese rice noodle soup with beef or chicken—I quickly realized I couldn’t make it consistently at all locations. The whole process of simmering bones and spices took eight hours. In Vietnam, family members would take turns watching over this process. So, I went to StockPot, which had been making my soups for years and developed a broth base for pho. It’s a wonderful product; it comes fresh chilled so it has that made-from-scratch taste. It has certainly allowed me to serve delicious pho every day without worrying about the broth. I would rather spend my energy making sure the bowl goes out piping hot, garnished with just-cooked beef and paper-thin ginger and watch the customer’s reaction as the steamy aroma rises and embraces his or her face.
In Asia much of the food is prepared right in front of the customer. You’ve also done this at the Noodle Bar. Why this is important? In Asia, the street vendors cook everything in front of you mostly because that’s all they have—a stove, ingredients, a table with the cooking on one side and the customers on the other. I try to emulate some of that by making salad rolls and salads in the front. I think an exhibition kitchen can have some real entertaining value. I’d rather do that than rely on the interior design to wow the customer. If I had a hood system up front, I would do all the cooking there, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.