San Francisco-based chef Charles Phan has had plenty to celebrate this year. In May—almost a decade after opening—his restaurant The Slanted Door won the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant. And his latest cookbook, The Slanted Door, hit shelves this fall, filled with recipes for the restaurant's modern Vietnamese dishes, plus the signature cocktails and desserts for which he's known. (His first cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, earned an IACP award in 2013.)
So what makes Phan tick? A good set of knives, cilantro root and fried rice, among other things.
One professional rule every home cook should know: Taste your food and understand the reasoning behind each step. If the recipe asks you to brown the chicken, you need to understand why. For example, if you're making stock, browning chicken will coagulate the blood and help make the stock clear.
One professional rule every home cook should ignore: This is very specific, but don't cut a spring roll or an egg roll diagonally. It's so automatic; everyone does it even though the stuffing will fall out. You're supposed to cut it straight down—you don't see sushi cut diagonally.
Kitchen tool you can't live without: A good set of knives. I usually buy carbon steel over stainless steel—they're a little more finicky to take care of but much better knives. My favorite is the vegetable paring knife. It looks like a Chinese cleaver but half the size.
Secret weapon: One of my favorite ingredients is cilantro root, which is hard to find. It's like cilantro with more texture. I like to pair it with lemongrass and ginger to make a paste and use it on whole fish or rub it into pork.
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Favorite dish to cook at home: Fried rice. The trick is to use rice that has been cooked before, not new rice. Scramble an egg onto your wok—you literally have to smear the egg all over to create a film so the rice won't stick. Throw in sauce and whatever ingredients you have leftover in your fridge: sausage, green onion, bok choy. It's one-bowl meal that's fast, easy and hot.
Perfect day of eating around San Francisco: If it's a weekend, I would start with either dim sum at City View in Chinatown or brunch in the Mission at Foreign Cinema for its organic "Pop Tarts." Double Play is a good lunch spot—it's an old-school institution, with down-home dishes like meat loaf and pasta. I always see a lot of bus drivers and politicians there; it's good for out-of-towners. At night—and this is self-serving—I'd start with cocktails at my bourbon bar, Hard Water. On my day off, I don't always want to go to a restaurant for dinner, but I may go to a hole-in-the-wall where nobody knows who I am, like this Indian restaurant called Chutney in the Tenderloin. But for a visitor, if you have one meal in San Francisco, go to Nopa. The chef buys great quality ingredients, and the menu is ever-changing American food.
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