Chef Tu David Phu. Photo: Elazar Sontag

To many Americans, Vietnamese food is the stuff of hole-in-the wall dives, where plastic bottles of Sriracha and hoisin take the place of centerpieces on the tables. Dishes are identified from big floppy menus labeled with a combination of numbers and letters, and you gasp in shock if your bill for two is more than $16.

This is not the scene you’ll find at Ăn, Chef Tu David Phu’s nine-course Vietnamese pop-up dinner series.

And Phu asks that you stop telling him how much you love pho and bahn mi when he says he cooks Vietnamese food. “This is Vietnamese food, not the Vietnamese food the rest of America knows. It’s the Vietnamese food my parents gave me and cooked for me. I’m not cooking authentic food. There’s too much food in Vietnam to call any one dish authentic.”

Phu is on a mission to do more than serve up fancy food at his $70 pop-up. Ăn means “eat” in Vietnamese, but this dinner is about listening and eating. In fact, if you want to enjoy the truly exceptional menu at Ăn, you’re going to want to listen to the stories Phu shares at this meal. Tall, buff, and covered in tattoos, Phu might seem at first glance to be the prototypical 21st century chef. But he’s really as much storyteller as chef, talking at length to the full dining room before heading back to the kitchen to serve every course.

It’s important for Phu to be able to talk to diners as he cooks. And pop-up dinners are the perfect way to do that.

“Especially because I’m cooking with Vietnamese ingredients, things people have never seen before — like Vietnamese peppercorns, Vietnamese fish sauce, the stuff my family makes. I want people to eat it and understand it, not just eat it,” Phu said. “I want them to know that it was made with these two hands and the recipe was my auntie’s recipe. So they can understand the palate. Because at the end of the day we can all agree taste is subjective. When you’re stepping into my realm, I want to explain to you why my taste is subjective in this way.”

Over the course of the meal, Phu does more than introduce the ingredients and techniques used to create each dish. He shares the memories and attachments he has to each one.

Miyagi oysters with ponzu glaze and Hodo Soy tofu. Photo: Elazar Sontag

There was usually fish sauce in the house where Phu grew up in West Oakland, and his family back in Vietnam owns a fish sauce company. But once in a while, he tells us, when his mom ran out of the condiment, she would exchange it for ponzu, a tart Japanese citrus soy sauce that filled the part. For his first course at Ăn, Phu served steamed Miyagi oysters brushed in a sweet ponzu glaze and topped with a little mound of tofu from Hodo Soy.

Most of Phu’s fondest memories of cooking come from days spent in the kitchen with his mom. “I used to be a fat kid. I used to eat all the time, and because I was hungry my mom let me chill in the kitchen and explain to me why I couldn’t eat food right then and there. I learned the appreciation of patience, I learned how to taste through my mom’s palate.”

It bothers Phu that the dishes his parents made aren’t on Vietnamese menus and lots of American diners don’t even know they exist. “I don’t feel like anyone has taken the bull that is Vietnamese food by the horns and said, ‘This is Vietnamese ingredients. Enjoy it, you’re gonna love it.’”

Chesnut-filled steamed bao with black truffle (left) and Vietnamese fish cakes. Photo: Elazar Sontag

For the course, we tuck into bao, steamed buns with lightly fermented dough that’s sweet from the coconut milk mixed into the flour. Whole tender chestnuts are the prize in the middle of each bun, and they’re all topped with slices of pungent black truffle.

Next Phu brings out fish cakes made from a recipe his auntie gave to him before she passed away. “You can criticize everything but this dish, it’s personal,” Phu said when introducing the course. A few people laugh but Phu seems serious.

Chả trứng hấp, a steamed duck egg meatloaf with Chinese sausage, mushroom and mung bean noodles served in a cracked open egg shell. Photo: Elazar Sontag

After that, we’re brought chả trứng hấp, a steamed duck egg meatloaf with Chinese sausage, mushroom and mung bean noodles served in a cracked open egg shell with a little spoonful of spicy chili paste over the top.

Next, course five is a small bowl of mouth-cooling soup. Growing up, Phu’s parents always put a poached egg in the pho, so this dish has a delicious runny yolk ganache resting at the bottom of the bowl.

The first main course is trout caviar and a generous piece of lightly poached Maine lobster over pearl tapioca in a rich sauce Américaine.

A liberty duck leg is the last savory course. Two streaks of sauce — charred shallot butter and a hoisin amber in color and intensely seasoned with a blend of sweet spices — line the plate.

Trout caviar and poached Maine lobster over pearl tapioca. Photo: Elazar Sontag

Phu studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco in 2004. After culinary school, he picked up the techniques and style of Bay Area cooking while working in the kitchens of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and Gather. And at such restaurants as Quince in San Francisco, The Breslin and Gramercy Tavern in New York, he learned the art of gastronomy from some of the best chefs in America. But only now at Ăn, preparing and cooking everything himself, is Phu finally creating the food he’s always wanted to share.

It first occurred to Phu that he could expand beyond American diners’ understanding of Vietnamese cuisine when he worked as Suzette Gresham’s sous chef at Acquerello in San Francisco. “She wanted people to see and understand the complexities of Italian cuisine, that it was more than one province, more than just pizza, more than just pasta. Thirty years later she had two Michelin stars,” Phu said.

But his two most influential mentors don’t have two or even one Michelin star. Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman own and operate Saul’s, a Jewish deli in Berkeley where Phu once worked. “The way they felt about Jewish food was exactly how I felt about Vietnamese food… If I’m finding parallels in my own venture, imagine if everyone else did. It put my mind in the right place,” Phu said.

Phu hopes the flavors at Ăn are familiar to older Vietnamese diners, even bringing them back to the street markets they enjoyed as kids growing up in Vietnam. “I’m always going to keep things simple and stay away from all the foams and the dots that I learned in fine dining.”

Liberty duck leg with charred shallot butter and hoisin sauce (left), gold-flaked tofu with spicy ginger syrup at Ăn. Photo: Elazar Sontag

Still, Phu’s years in fine dining has made its mark. For the final course, a waiter comes around to pour warm spicy ginger syrup over bowls of gold-flaked tofu made moments earlier.

At Ăn, Phu treats every guest like an adopted relative. He hopes this attitude will bring Vietnamese cuisine the attention and respect it deserves. At least in this dining room, it seems it already has.

The next Ăn pop-up in the East Bay takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, July 30 at The Golden Stateroom, 4033 Broadway (at 40th), Oakland. [This dinner is now sold out.] Chef Tu David Phu will also join forces with chef Nora Dunning for Hawker Center: Asian Street Food, a Singaporean and Vietnamese 10-course pop-up dinner on Aug. 12 at Drip Line, 1940 Union St. (at 21st), Oakland. Tickets are $50. More dates and times are available for his San Francisco dinners. Find more information and buy tickets to his upcoming events here.    

Elazar Sontag is a writer from Berkeley, California dividing his time between the Bay Area and the Hudson Valley. He is the author of “Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories,” a book about home cooking and food cultures. Find Elazar on Instagram @e_zar.

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