Cooking a way to share her heritage, one meal at a time
Vietnamese chef gave up promising journalism career to follow her passion for Southeast Asian cuisine.
Johnny Woodhouse Published: 3/29/2018
Armed with a host of time-honored family recipes from her native country, Mai Pham went out on a limb and opened Lemon Grass, the first Vietnamese and Thai restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.
The year was 1989, and Pham (pronounced Fam) had a hard time finding the necessary ingredients to make such traditional Vietnamese dishes as “shaking” beef, chicken satay and braised catfish in a clay pot.
“There was a Safeway supermarket next door, so we talked them into ordering lemon grass, but they didn’t know that the most valuable part is the bottom, not the top, and they kept throwing the bottom part away,” recalled Pham in a phone interview.
“No one could understand what I was doing. Customers would come in and ask for sweet and sour sauce. It was two years before they stopped asking for bread.”
Luckily, the former TV journalist and one-time gubernatorial speechwriter found a small farmer south of town who agreed to grow the aromatic herbs she desperately needed to keep her one-of-a-kind restaurant as authentic as possible.
“And to this day, he still provides the restaurant with herbs,” added Pham, a former keynote speaker at the annual A Day 4Her in Jacksonville, a one-day event sponsored by Baptist Health and WJCT Public Broadcasting.
Chef, cookbook author, food columnist, and Food Network contributor, Pham gave up a promising journalism career to follow her passion for Southeast Asian cuisine. To open Lemon Grass, Pham leaned on recipes passed down from her mother and grandmother.
“Nothing was written out. I did it all from memory,” said Pham, who fled South Vietnam in 1975 with her family.
“When we first came to America, there was nobody here to help us. We lived in someone’s basement and were given $200 from the Red Cross.”
Pham remembers her parents riding a city bus to attend English classes in Washington, D.C. Her father, a former Vietnamese diplomat stationed in Thailand, lost everything when South Vietnam fell, including his government job and the family’s dream house.
“We came here with just the clothes on our back. We lost everything overnight. I always point to my parents and our personal story as the motivation that steered me toward what I’m doing today,” added Pham, who attended an American school in Bangkok, and co-hosted a public affairs radio show on Armed Forces Vietnam Network when she was only 16.
That experience heavily influenced Pham’s decision to pursue a career in journalism in the United States. After attending the University of Maryland on a full scholarship, she landed her first TV reporter job with an NBC affiliate in Albuquerque.
“When I arrived there, all the other stations came to do a story on me as the first Vietnamese-born TV reporter in the country,” Pham recalled. “Then I got recruited to work at a CBS station in Sacramento, which led me to writing speeches for then-California Governor George Deukmejian.”
Pham said her milestone moment as a political speechwriter came in 1988 when Deukmejian delivered a speech she wrote for the dedication of California’s Vietnam Memorial. A year later, she left politics to start her niche restaurant in the state capitol.
“Vietnamese is not a cuisine where you take a lot of spices and ingredients and cook them for a long time. We are a quick-cook style of cuisine,” added Pham. “My husband calls it the ‘Tuscany of Asia’ because the food is very natural, very simple and easy to understand.”
Pham said Vietnamese cuisine “is all about fresh herbs and different sauces.” A popular dipping sauce, known as Nuoc Cham, consists of fish sauce, garlic, vinegar and lime. “You sprinkle it on like a vinaigrette,” she added. “It’s not thick or creamy. That’s the Vietnamese way. Everything is very light, simple and aromatic.”
Pham never aspired to be a celebrity chef or a restaurateur when she attended college in the early 1980s on a Scripps Howard journalism scholarship. But cooking was always a way to share her heritage with others - one meal at a time.
“It allows me to weave my background into my work and make Vietnam a talking point,” she added. “Years ago, I never saw this happening. I didn’t connect the dots. But running a restaurant teaches you a lot about life. I feel gratified that people are interested and curious about Vietnamese food, its flavors and its culture, and they want to make it part of their lives.”