Born in Vietnam, raised in New Orleans, Chef Tran first trained to become an engineer before diving into the culinary world. So what’s it been like, to move lock stock and barrel from sunny California to sultry Mumbai? “I couldn’t sleep when I got here, it’s so exciting – the sights, smells and people are so different. And yet when I go to Crawford Market or Sassoon Dock, it’s business as usual for me – pretty much the same as the way I would have bought things back home,” Chef Tran tells me of his initial days. This was also the time when he got to see an Indian wedding for the first time. “It was like being in Brazil, the drums pulsating… I just had to take a video,” says the chef who has worked with American culinary heavyweights Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong. He’s also no stranger to the celebrity culture, as his own Croft Alley in Los Angeles draws plenty of them for its housemade and seasonal offerings.
But a change in command in the kitchen, for diners, is almost like the sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster – they want something new, yet familiar. “It’s interesting that you compare it to a Hollywood franchise,” he says, “because while these movies might be years apart, the core remains the same – in these movies it’s about bettering our lives, and here the core is good food that offers nutritional value at a fair price. One of my first steps is to minimize the menu. Eating out is also about socialising, not reading menus! If that’s the best chicken we make, then it’s the only chicken we should do!”
Restaurateur Rohan Talwar, who has brought Chef Tran to India, was awed by his “dedication to the art of service and true craftsmanship…” and said that he’s excited for the diners of Mumbai “who get to experience Phuong’s simple, yet elegantly prepared food”. That Talwar has found a true artiste for Ellipsis is very apparent, but the Zen-like Chef is pragmatic in his approach. “If we look at cooking as an art, then I immediately compare Van Gogh who didn’t sell in his lifetime, and Picasso, who in contrast, sold everything! I want this food to go out to people. I’m not doing this for my ego,” he explains.
“The salads are much more composed now. Cold dim sums would be interesting and I just tried a mango salad. Anyone could do a mango salad, but I used some techniques from Vietnamese cooking for this one,” he says. And when Chef Phuong Tran speaks of technique, I take his word for it. You would too, from a man who learned them while travelling through Vietnam, and even Brazil. “I went up to lady who sold fresh pancakes from a cart in Vietnam and asked her if I could take over while she took a break. Those were my first steps in the culinary world before training under a chef in New York.” You have us excited Chef, you really do!