It's 5 o'clock on a Saturday and Duc Pham, owner of Blossom Vietnamese Restaurant, is opening a bottle of Sancerre. “Around this time, I always like a nice glass of white wine for a little lift.” It's a well-deserved reward, which helps him maintain some sanity while juggling his DTLA and Silver Lake restaurants and prepping the newest addition to his mini-empire, a third Blossom in Chinatown.
This particular day started at 7 a.m. and included driving out past Rosemead to pick up egg noodles, then hauling some Danish teak tables and chairs he collected from a shuttered restaurant. The noodles are for the restaurant's popular mi trung thit kho pork belly dish.
The furniture replaces a long communal table in Blossom Silver Lake's atmospheric, downstairs dining room, and will serve as reservations-only seating for a new family-style chef's menu concept featuring special off-menu dishes, which Pham will cook himself, such as a whole baked sea bass served with traditional fixings and rice papers for wrapping.
Pham is something of a jack of all restaurant trades — owner, chef, bartender, interior designer, handyman — but he says he's happiest when he's in the kitchen.
Born in Vietnam as the youngest of nine siblings, Pham grew up in Anaheim and learned to cook by helping his mother get dinner on the table. They grew their own herbs and vegetables, which were used in the family's traditional Vietnamese recipes. Bun rieu, or crab noodle soup, a recent addition at Blossom, was a weekend treat at home because of the amount of work that goes into it — a labor of love that produces a bowl fragrant with seafood and swimming with vermicelli.
A stint at Oxford ignited Pham's love for classic literature and ultimately contributed to his start in the restaurant business 14 years ago. Then an advertising account executive for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, he quit to help his sister open Chinatown mainstay Via Cafe.
After five years, the siblings realized their philosophies had grown apart. Propelled by a quote from Rainier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Pham asked himself “in the deepest darkest hour of the night” what was his purpose, what would make him happy. Following his passion for good food and good wine was the answer — and so, the family's second restaurant became his.
The DTLA Blossom opened in March 2006. “There never was a business plan or concept. I built the space myself, cut and stained the wood for the tables — never without a bottle of wine as my company. I guess I'm kind of old-school that way.”
As downtown's population exploded, so did Pham's business. He's now building an expansion that will include a wine bar to match the one at his 2-year-old Sunset Junction location. He also recently took over Via Cafe from his sister and morphed it into a third Blossom, which will open next week in time for the annual Chinatown Moon Festival.
“I never made the choice that I want to be different than any other Vietnamese restaurant,” he says. Instead, Pham has crafted his own thoughtful ode to a well-lived life by combining the things he loves in one space, curating everything from the stylish Herman Miller bar stools to the impressive wine list. “I wouldn't sell a dish, I wouldn't share a wine, I wouldn't put anything on my menu that I don't enjoy myself.”
Pham's wine cellar consists solely of bottles that excite him — and even boasts legends of California wine (Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle) marked up less than elsewhere around town. He began learning about wine by compiling notes in his head with every glass he drank, developing a sense memory for aromatics, body and color. Two years ago, he started courses at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and is headed toward a sommelier certification. “I love the age-ability of wine. The flavor is always shifting, growing, maturing.”
The same could be said for Pham himself. “I'm such a learn-as-I-go person — whatever it is I want to learn, I learn it and do it. We have to always approach newness and embrace it.”
To that end, Pham is working on finally adding bánh mì to Blossom's menu. The sandwich's absence was due to Pham's insistence on quality — his requirement for daily fresh-baked bread had proved logistically challenging. When his plan to train in an authentic bánh mì shop in Vietnam was derailed by his hectic schedule, Pham sent one of his cooks instead. With her expertise, and a new hoodless oven being installed downtown for baking their own bread, bánh mì will become a menu staple in the near future.
Pham also hasn't found time yet to perfect any Vietnamese desserts to his satisfaction. For now, the Silver Lake location offers a simple alternative his Australian wife makes called golden syrup pudding — a pillowy, steamed cake made with raw cane syrup, which looks and tastes like a delicious hybrid of sticky toffee pudding and a Twinkie.
Pham stokes the fires of inspiration among his team by immersing them in the culture of fine dining. He took nephews James and Chris, who help manage Blossom, on his yearly culinary expedition — which included a trip to Copenhagen's Noma — and his cooks recently joined him for an epic dinner at Providence. They take company retreats to Napa. And his staff has asked him to teach wine education classes as well. “I think we're getting better at what we do. We're progressing.”
The story of how Pham's family emigrated from Vietnam gives some insight into the joie de vivre bubbling in his soul. His family was among the millions of refugees who escaped by boat after the Vietnam War in the late 1970s.
Pham remembers being at sea when a dangerous storm descended, battering the boat with massive walls of water. There weren't enough life vests for everyone, but his grandmother, a devout Buddhist, said they didn't need them — they'd pray for protection. (According to Pham, the legend went, if you were in trouble at sea and prayed hard enough to the sea god, his two companion fish would carry you to safety.)
After a terrifying night, Pham awoke to a calm sea; he swears he saw the fins of two large fish traveling on either side of the boat, then they disappeared. The boat was taking on water, so they had to abandon ship and swam to an island off Malaysia. They survived on that beach for a month, living in leaf huts, eating what Pham calls the “Earth's potatoes” and whatever fish they caught until they were finally rescued by a U.S. Navy ship.
“It was the best time of my life on that island,” Pham says. “Everything after that — everything now — is just a bonus.”