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Chef helps keep his culture alive while helping small farms

Charles Phan features local produce in Vietnamese cuisine.



At the Ferry Plaza Marketplace in San Francisco, energy, excellence and new surprises are around every corner. One of those special places is the Slanted Door restaurant, where you can enjoy Vietnamese cuisine with a fresh twist. Charles Phan is the man behind it all, and his journey here has been long and, at times, rocky.

In the mid-1970s, Charles, his parents and five siblings left their war torn country as part of the mass exodus by boat. They became lost and were rescued by a Malaysian ship that brought them to Singapore. They never made it ashore before being sent to a refugee camp in Guam. They finally found their ultimate destination, San Francisco, where Charles wasted no time finding work.

Taking full advantage of the opportunities before him, Charles opened the Slanted Door more than a decade ago, with modest aspirations

"Our goal when we first opened was that we sell 200 bucks a day, because that would just barely cover the rent," he said. "I was living at my mom's house back then and I didn't need any cash."

There's no worry about that any more, as a thousand people a day come and treasure modern Vietnamese food in a casual setting--though signs of this rich culture are indeed evident. The restaurant has gotten so big and so popular that Charles most often plays orchestrator of his 200-person staff, but once in a while he'll still fire up the wok for spectacular results! His success has come from several factors: hard work, perseverance and knowledge that to cook the best, you have to start with the best, including small family farmers.

"These are die-hard people who I trust and admire," he said. "Without them, I wouldn't know a thing about some of this stuff and because of them we can do what we do."

One of the farms that sells directly to the Slanted Door is Dirty Girl Produce, a diverse business based in Santa Cruz. There, farmer Joe Schirmer says the Slanted Door and Bay Area markets are incredibly important for his livelihood.

"You go to some communities and there's a lot of rock climbers or people that get on mountain bikes or whatever," Schirmer said. "In San Francisco and the East Bay, you have the foodies. They are a huge cult and their free time is all about food."

Joe sells 10 boxes of green beans each week to the Slanted Door during peak season. At $6 a pound, that's $1,000 a week in sales.

"Charles is the classic American success story," he said.

"I love my work," Charles said. "I have no complaints. I'm blessed to be here!"

For more information, visit www.slanteddoor.com and www.dirtygirlproduce.com.


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