Culinary Frank: “There Are No Boundaries Between Cuisines”

Frank Pham on the marriage of different cuisines and finding one’s voice amid the crowd

You’re in bed at 10 PM, watching a knife mincing garlic and slicing pork while listening to the echo of the metallic blade hitting the wooden board. A moment later, the meat glistens in a viscous amber sauce on the stove, its sizzle amplified by the quiet space. A tingling sensation runs through the back of your neck to your spine, leaving you with sheer comfort and bliss. That experience is called an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) and that video is How to make pepper-braised pork from Culinary Frank, a YouTube channel with approximately 12 million views since its start two years ago.

A person holding a plate of food

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Vietnamese pepper-braised pork. Photo by Culinary Frank

The peaceful kitchen space belongs to Frank Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese chef and YouTuber living in suburban Melbourne, Australia. After receiving his diploma in Culinary Arts in Singapore in 2012, Pham spent a few years working in restaurants in the US and Vietnam before settling in Australia in 2015. Currently, he is the sous chef of the Plaza Tavern Bistro, operated by hospitality group ALH.

I spoke with Pham on a summer night (which was a winter morning in Australia). Like other workers in the hospitality industry, he was furloughed as Melbourne grappled with the second wave of COVID-19. Bespectacled and almost bookish, Pham may not fit into the box of tattooed-arm macho chefs you’ve always seen, but this is the man that has weathered the heat, grease and pressure of a commercial kitchen. Still, he gives a peaceful vibe that often transcends to us through the screen.

I honestly believe the line between cuisines is artificial. If you look closely at the techniques or ingredients, you’ll see there are more similarities than differences. Don’t limit yourself.

A person sitting posing for the camera

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Frank Pham. Photo by Culinary Frank

What brought you to cooking?

When I was younger, I cooked very simple dishes, such as fried eggs or instant noodles. My best friend, whose mother owned a food joint, liked to cook too, so he learned from his mother and taught me, little by little. I’m also influenced by my parents, who have very sophisticated palates.

I started cooking more often when I came to Singapore to study. My sister was busy working and didn’t have enough time for a proper meal, so I volunteered to take on kitchen responsibilities.

Tell us about your experience studying culinary arts in Singapore.

It happened by coincidence. I didn’t even know what “culinary” meant back then. After graduating from high school, I thought of going into hotel management, but my best friend suggested that I choose culinary arts – the same major as him – seeing that I loved cooking and watching Jamie Oliver’s shows.

At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy was one of the leading schools in Singapore at the time, and after one visit to the campus, I was mesmerized by the instructors’ skills and state-of-the-art equipment. My perception about cooking changed after the first round of interviews, which was more of a mental prep talk for aspiring chefs. Not everyone who loves cooking could become chefs, because of the long working hours, pressure and heat in the kitchen. Despite all of that, I pressed on.

What I also liked about the experience at the school was its holistic approach to culinary education. During the first three months, we learned about front-of-house services, such as how to set a table, carry plates and serve wines, before stepping into the kitchen. When it came to cooking techniques, there was no heavy emphasis on French cuisine. Instead, the curriculum included Malaysian, Chinese and Thai instructors, who taught us about their respective cultures, history and cuisine. 

Having had exposure to different cuisines and cooking techniques, what do think makes Vietnamese food special?

The exposure certainly allows me to have a fair comparison between different cuisines. Chinese cuisine has a long-standing history with a lot of dishes emphasizing freshness, with fewer uses of vegetables and herbs. On the other hand, Vietnamese cuisine stresses balance. From what I understand, our ancestors used to have five colours on their dining table to represent the different ingredients that went into making the dishes. The combination of meat, vegetables and herbs has made our diet healthy and wholesome. Gỏi cuốn (summer roll) is a perfect example: there’s a little bit of carb, meat, vegetable and herb in one bite.

A plate of food on a table

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Vietnamese braised chicken in coconut water. Photo by Culinary Frank

How has learning and cooking various cuisines affected your cooking style?

I believe every chef has his or her own style. My motto is “There are no boundaries between cuisines”. When making thịt kho tiêu (pepper-braised pork), I realized that Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect harmony between Chinese and French cuisines. The ingredients are close to those of Chinese dishes, but the technique is French-like. In the old days, our ancestors used banana leaves to cover a pot of thit kho (braised pork) to make the meat moist and impart a mellow aroma into the dish. The French have a similar technique called cartouche, which involves creating a parchment-paper lid for braising to allow evaporation and keep the meat submerged. There must be some exchanges of knowledge and culture there, and that gave us a perfect and unique dish, something we could call our own.

This is also something I would like to tell young people who seek my advice for culinary schools. They ask why I work in a Western restaurant, but still, cook Asian food on YouTube. I honestly believe the line between cuisines is artificial. If you look closely at the techniques or ingredients, you’ll see there are more similarities than differences. Don’t limit yourself.

A picture containing indoor, cup, table, food

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Using parchment paper as a lid for pepper-braised pork. Photo by Culinary Frank

The video style that you had at first is very different from what is on the channel now. When did you decide to follow the ASMR style? Why?

Creating ASMR cooking videos is my channel’s theme; it’s something that makes me very relaxed and comfortable. When I first started with just a phone, I followed the Tasty style (famous for its time-lapse overhead shots), but I felt everything happened in such a hurry. I couldn’t understand the story behind the dish or the person who was making it. There was no respect for the food and the creator.

Subsequently, I paid more attention to the scene, with an artistic setting and background. Eventually, I settled on ASMR because it made me completely at ease. Creating videos was a good break for me from the long hours and stress of working as a chef.

What message are you conveying in your videos?

The main message I’d like to tell people is that cooking is not difficult, as long as you enjoy the process. You have worked hard the whole day, and a meal is when you can recharge and enjoy yourself, why rush through it? Eating is an indispensable part of life.

I would like many students and families in Vietnam to change their misperceptions about cooking. Being a chef is not a blue-collar job. It’s an art and a craft that requires training and practice.

What is your motivation when sharing your videos?

The first motivation is for self-improvement. Each video is a fond memory of mine. After all the hard work in cooking, setting the scene, arranging the angle and editing, I feel happy watching the videos.

The second motivation is that I want to become a good influence on young people. I would like many students and families in Vietnam to change their misperceptions about cooking. Being a chef is not a blue-collar job. It’s an art and a craft that requires training and practice. In France, Spain or Japan, chefs are well-respected, and we should treat culinary arts in Vietnam with respect too.

A hand holding a sandwich

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Banh mi with pork belly. Photo by Culinary Frank

What is your advice to other aspiring YouTubers?

If you don’t try, you’ll never know. You have to fall and make mistakes to succeed. Keep on trying and creating content, and naturally, your voice will develop. Recently, a YouTuber in Vietnam was accused of copying Liziqi, a Chinese personality famous for her secluded life close to nature. I think it’s unfair to judge the Vietnamese channel because everyone is different in their own way.

I myself have been inspired by a Japanese channel named Peaceful Cuisine (by Ryoya Takashima) and I’m not shy about that. From his videos, I picked out what worked for me and combined it with my philosophy to turn the inspiration into something mine. Everyone needs a role model or a teacher. If that role model or teacher doesn’t come to you, you can always learn from them, even from afar.

Any plans for opening your own restaurants?

Definitely, when I gain more experience and maturity. My restaurant will reflect my cooking style and family-oriented approach to dining. Eating good food should be a relaxing experience that everyone can afford and identify with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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