Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Iron Chef" Contestant Viet Pham Inspires Us

My first Chew and Chat column for the Standard-Examiner http://www.hersutah.com/story/utah-restaurateur-gets-cooking-iron-chef serves as a pep talk for those of us who lost jobs in the recession.  Pick yourself up and get going, because success may be just around the corner.
Case in point: Utah chef Viet Pham lost his job at the Provo restaurant Spark in January 2009. Now on Jan. 6, he's competing against Bobby Flay on the Food Network's "Iron Chef." He made it to the finals of  "Extreme Chef" last fall. He and his business partner, Bowman Brown, were named among Food & Wine magazine's Best Young Chefs in 2011 and were nominated for a James Beard Award as well. 
When I interviewed Pham, he told me getting fired was a blessing in disguise.  His culinary philosophy simply didn't mesh with that of Spark's owner.  
But Pham wouldn't have gotten anywhere by wallowing in misery or going home to California, where the economy was even worse. Instead he and his sous chef, Bowman Brown (who had also been fired) opened Forage, a small high-end restaurant  in downtown Salt Lake City.

I met the two chefs in the spring of 2009, when they were still working on getting Forage up and running. It sounded like a unique concept for Utah: serving just one fixed-priced, small-plates meal each night, with the menu changing every day based on what was fresh and in season. But  I wondered if it would fly, because it was pricey for cost-conscious Utah. Also, our winters make seasonal cooking a lot more difficult than, say, California. So they were building their own greenhouse to raise their own produce.
I think the restaurant's success is due to the partners' creativity and hard work, as well as Viet's flair for promotion.  And, there's wisdom in thinking small. Offering one fixed-price dinner keeps quality high and wasted food low, as opposed to a large menu with many options that may not get ordered.
Viet's story is inspiring to me, because I was also laid off from a job that I loved, along with many of my co-workers. At the time, I was told, "You might have had skills and talent that were worth something at one point, but they aren't anymore." 
I'll admit, I spent some time wallowing. But I also decided to used my "worthless" skills and talents to write and photograph a cookbook. It's been rewarding to see "Soup's On!" all the way through to publication. I've loved hearing from people who enjoy the recipes from my cookbook, especially those who usually avoid the kitchen because they fear cooking it too much work.  
Likewise, I've really enjoyed hearing from my former co-workers who have found other jobs where their "worthless" skills are well-used and appreciated. We may not be on the Food Network, but we are picking ourselves up and finding  "life after layoff." 

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