How chef Charles Phan learned to cook from his mom and aunt

With Mother’s Day approaching on Sunday, SFGATE asked Bay Area chefs about how their mothers influenced their culinary upbringing. Look for more upcoming features this week through Sunday that highlight the maternal mentors of some of the area’s most well-known restaurateurs.

Since he was a boy, Charles Phan has had a taste for the elaborate. Growing up in Da Lat, Vietnam, the Slanted Door chef remembers getting excited when his aunt, Ah Nueng, would cook soy-braised pork belly with ginger and star anise, a classic Cantonese dish. 

“I liked it when she did the really complicated dishes,” Phan said. “One of them was pork belly that would go through three phases of cooking.”

He recalls his aunt — who he says was the best cook in his family — blanching the pork belly in boiling water, then frying it, and finally soaking it, adding a sauce made with bean curd, oyster and soy sauce, star anise and ginger. His parents and his aunt were all Chinese but fled to Vietnam in the 1960s, so home cooking in the Phan household spanned both countries.

“The pork belly is soft and tender, it’s very luscious,” he recalled.

Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP's No. 3 banh mi sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

Chef Charles Phan prepares a CP’s No. 3 banh mi sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Phan still describes himself as a “glorified home cook,” despite becoming a powerhouse San Francisco restaurateur since he first opened the Slanted Door in 1995. Those supposedly amateur cooking skills have served him well, from opening numerous restaurants throughout the Bay Area to publishing two cookbooks to receiving several James Beard nods. He credits the women in his family — his aunt and his mom — with teaching him everything he needed to know about food.

“I just remember hanging out with her in the kitchen,” he said of his aunt. “… You pick up these little things, like which hand grabs the cornstarch.”

When Phan was about 5 years old, his parents, who were busy running their general store, sent him to live with his aunt in Ho Chi Minh City. During that time, he started helping out where he could, observing her movements and soaking up her way around the kitchen.

The inside of Chuck's Takeaway, a new takeout restaurant by Charles Phan, in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

The inside of Chuck’s Takeaway, a new takeout restaurant by Charles Phan, in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“I was watching her cook more,” he said. “You kind of learn this basic stuff, and there’s not a lot of explaining. I mean, that’s why I wrote my first book … because it’s kind of ingrained in you, these basic things, like you never steam something when the water’s not boiling.”

He remembers his mom, Quyen Tran, cooking, too, despite being very busy with work — from traditional Vietnamese recipes to making her own yogurt. But when the family of 10 immigrated to San Francisco in 1977, a 15-year-old Phan began cooking more regularly. It was out of necessity, as both of his parents were working two jobs. 

Chef Charles Phan prepares a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan prepares a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chef Charles Phan prepares a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan prepares a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chef Charles Phan takes a bite of a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan takes a bite of a C.P.?•s no. 3 B‡nh m“ sandwich at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Charles Phan makes his CP’s No. 3 Banh mi. (Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

“My aunt didn’t really work because she was a bit older, so she stayed back home and cooked,” Phan said. “I started picking up more chores, to help out with the cooking.”


Phan’s newfound skill at cooking was put to the test in 1978, shortly after the Phan family moved to SF.

“I was trying to assimilate the family into U.S. culture, so I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” Phan said. “The funny part was my mom started making curry as the backup plan just in case the stuff was not edible. They didn’t like the look of this turkey.”

He cooked the entire Thanksgiving feast menu out of a copy of Gourmet magazine, from stuffing and apple pie to the oven-baked bird. His family didn’t like it. Today, though, Phan’s family relies on him to cook every holiday meal, from Christmas to Lunar New Year — so it seems like they came around to his cooking. 

Phan credits his upbringing, peppered with the lessons he learned from watching his mom and aunt in the kitchen, all as key ingredients that made him the chef he is today.

“I think having all that flavor ingrained in my mind helped me quite a bit,” he said. “Because when I opened Slanted Door 27 years ago, I knew exactly what I would serve. Even as someone who had never cooked [professionally] before … I had total confidence it would work because these recipes are proven.”

Phan’s childhood memories also ended up having a major influence on the menus at his restaurants. His upcoming new restaurant in Marin, Moonset, will feature a dish inspired by the crispy noodle stand behind his mom’s shop when he was growing up in Vietnam. In addition, the Slanted Door’s signature peanut sauce is his mother’s recipe. Someone gave her a tip on how to make it one day while she was waiting at a bus stop in the Mission District. 

Chef Charles Phan holds a photo of a Salted Thai Chilie Oil at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Chef Charles Phan holds a photo of a Salted Thai Chilie Oil at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Jars of Preserved Lemons, created by Charles Phan, at Chuck's Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Jars of Preserved Lemons, created by Charles Phan, at Chuck’s Takeaway in San Francisco, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


(Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

“She came home and she tried it and it was just amazing,” Phan said. “… That’s how it was in the past: If you found out somebody knew how to do something and you asked, they’d teach you.”

Phan’s aunt has since passed away, but his mom is still living in San Francisco. He often cooks for her at family occasions. The chef has also now raised three children of his own, to whom he’s attempted to pass on some cooking knowledge. For a while, he didn’t think any of it really stuck. But since his children have grown up and gone off to college, he’s been surprised.

Chef Charles Phan poses for a photo at his takeout restaurant, Chuck's Takeaway, in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

Chef Charles Phan poses for a photo at his takeout restaurant, Chuck’s Takeaway, in San Francisco on Apr. 21, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

 “All of a sudden, my son started texting me questions, like, ‘What’s the temperature of the oil for chimichurri sauce?’” Phan said. “… I started prodding him, like what’s up, all of a sudden now you want to learn how to cook? He said there’s a girl that likes my food.”

Perhaps one day Phan’s son will ask him how to make soy-braised pork belly, and he’ll pass down his aunt’s recipe to a third generation. 

Next Post

Best Stuffed Potato Recipe Everyone Should Know, According to Chef

As an experienced chef and cooking instructor, I love this take on twice-baked potatoes.  This recipe calls for mascarpone and chives, but no milk or sour cream.  The side dish can be served straight out of the oven or made ahead of time.  Loading Something is loading. I’ve been a professional […]