Eric Johnson is the chef and owner of Stateside in Seattle. In advance of his one-day pop-up dinner at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on May 9, featuring his crispy duck fresh rolls and other tasty things, I spoke to him about how awesome Vietnamese food is to him as a chef, and why he decided to open up a Vietnamese restaurant after working in strictly French kitchens for over 20 years.
This story originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
I'm the guy who always went to the Asian grocery store and wanted to know what was in every single bottle of sauce and condiment.
I have strictly worked in French restaurants for 23-and-a-half years, at times under chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges. I guess I could have opened a French restaurant or a fine dining restaurant with that much serious French training, but what's the fun in doing something safe like that?
Vietnamese food is what I'm interested in right now.
At my restaurant in Seattle, called Stateside, I start with Vietnamese food as a baseline for my cooking and I take some liberties in Chinese and French directions. I went this route because it was all about learning and continuing my growth as a chef, and staying connected with Asia. I lived and cooked in a French restaurant in China for eight years. At the time that I got into cooking, French cuisine was what you learned. Fortunately for me, the building blocks of French cuisine are applicable to at least the basics for a lot of other foods.
As a cook and a chef, I think dining experiences are as important as work-based cooking experiences. When you work in a restaurant, the menu changes only so often, but going out to eat really exposes you to a lot more stuff culinarily. Living in Asia is what really drew me to learn more about Asian cuisines. I worked in a kitchen but I still tried to go out and eat Asian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. I just really tried to soak it all up while I was there. I almost didn't even move back to America. When you eat a kind of food that much, it really does become a part of who you are a little bit.
I'm working on a Vietnamese dish right now that uses sea cucumbers grown in the Puget Sound.
Seattle really prides itself in being a Vietnamese cuisine town. The Vietnamese population here is very large and people love their pho. Some people thought it was a little bit bold for wanting to open a Vietnamese restaurant that had things like crispy frog legs with lemongrass, chili, and a tamarind dip on the menu. However, the Seattle dining public is definitely keen on trying new things, so a year and a half later—knock on wood—people are still showing up.
The ingredients that are grown in the Pacific Northwest really lend themselves to Vietnamese cuisine. For example, I'm working on a Vietnamese dish right now that uses sea cucumbers grown in the Puget Sound. We haven't done salmon yet, but it is something that I've had in the back of my mind, since I go salmon fishing all the time. The mushrooms that grow here are even more amazing; I braise those in Shaoxing wine. I use Pacific Northwest-grown oysters for my popular steak and oyster tartare, too. I ferment my own locally grown mustard greens to use instead of the traditional capers.
I think it is so much fun recreating Vietnamese dishes that people aren't used to and trying to get them as perfect as possible. I love pho but there are a bunch of other Vietnamese-style soups that I like better, so it has been fun to explore those. Bún bò huế is one of these soups. Its lemongrass-y, porky flavor is really accessible for a lot of people. Canh chua cá is another one of these soups. It's a sweet and sour fish soup with a tamarind base. Bún riêu, which is a tomato-based crab soup, is another one of these other dishes. That particular soup is great up here because there is so much crab.
On the crab note, I must address something else. There is a segment of the population that thinks Vietnamese food should be cheap. Nonetheless, it is a really socially and economically ignorant thing to think that. People arrive at this conclusion from different angles, like, "Oh, if it cheap to eat in the country, it should also be cheap here." Well, we all know that the economics in Vietnam are different than what they are in the United States, so that is far from a valid argument. Sure, you can get a $6 bowl of pho but that broth has most likely not even been in the same room as a beef bone. The math simply doesn't work.
The food cost of our pho is 50 percent—we're not really making our margins on pho. We charge $11 for ours but we should really be charging $16 for a bowl, but people would go bananas if we did that. I think a lot of people are smarter than this, but there is still a percentage of diners who think this way. I don't read Yelp because it would make me pull my hair out, but I remember reading one that said something along the lines of, "Yeah, I just can't pay that much for Asian food."
One time, I had a Vietnamese woman ask our server, "Can I speak to the chef who is cooking my 'Vietnamese food?'" She used air quotes when she said Vietnamese food and spoke in a somewhat condescending tone. She came into the restaurant knowing that I wasn't Vietnamese and was obviously skeptical. I told her, "I'm glad you are here! I'd really like you try this food and here is my deal: If you don't like it, you don't have to pay a dime. Just give me a chance."
She loved it.
I love Vietnamese food, culture, and learning as much as I can about these things. In my mind, I'm doing this out of respect for something that I think is awesome. I'm not French, but nobody would blink an eye if I did open a French restaurant, right? I personally stand by my restaurant's versions of Vietnamese classics, and I'm looking forward to sharing it everyone who is open to it.
As told to Javier Cabral