What's Your Weekend: Chef Minh from Beachwood Cafe

Photos courtesy Tony Byrd

Taking over a neighborhood institution is never easy, especially a mile up Beachwood Canyon, where the lack of other dining options means the locals are sure to notice. Last year, the old Village Coffee Shop space changed ownership after several decades, and fell into the waiting arms of Patti Peck (formerly of Edendale Grill) who dubbed her new venture Beachwood Cafe. The place was long overdue for an interior reworking, and the menu of chunky chicken salad sandwiches and basic flapjacks needed an overhaul as well. For the space, Peck chose Barbara Bestor, whose previous works around Los Angeles had garnered a fair amount of attention. When it came to the food, Peck decided not to man the kitchen herself, and turned to Minh Phan (aka chef Minh) to build from scratch, while still keeping some of those comforting basics the neighbors had come to rely on.

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We sat down with chef Minh recently to discuss food trends and her approach to fresh ingredients. What we found was a neighborhood that's giving Beachwood Cafe a second look, and a future for chef Minh that seems brighter than ever.

KCET: Where did you first start cooking, and what ultimately brought you to Los Angeles?

Chef Minh: My first memory of cooking is peeling mountains of potatoes for my mom. My mom is a great cook and homemaker, and I was a Gloria Steinem feminist, so I wanted nothing having to do with slaving in the kitchen. That all changed one inspiring summer spent at "The Park." a magical place outside of Portland. The Park began in the late '60s as a commune of budding artists, filmmakers, architects and activists. Our dinners would start around 3-4pm and end past midnight, gathered close to the fire pit, passing dark chocolates and port. Multiple courses, cases of wine, buying directly from farmers, sneaking trips to Powell's to flip through cookbooks.

After some exploration, I enrolled at the Cordon Bleu. I geeked out at school, but soon found my days in a real kitchen more meaningful. I worked with and followed Chef Daniel Holzman (of Meatball Shop fame) from Axe to his future ventures which lead me back to the Bay Area, Portland, and New York (where I previously did my undergrad), to hone my skills, before landing back in L.A.

KCET: You describe your cooking as balanced and enjoyable without being overwhelming. Does that mean L.A. is nearing the end of its 'salt and fat' period?

Chef Minh: I don't think it's the end at all, but rather complementary. My cooking is yin to the unctuous, usually salty and fatty, "nose-to-tail" yang. Salt and fat find delicate partners in fresh produce, which L.A. is bountiful in.

As my menu is produce-centered, I aim for clean, deft, and scrupulous flavors by picking what's in peak season, layering interesting combinations, generously using herbs and spices, asking how each individual element and consequently the dish can be elevated. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

My parents are originally from Northern Vietnam which attracts me to lighter flavors of northern regions (Scandinavia, Japan) because there is restraint, letting one's palate work harder, have more clarity. Northern regions of an area tend to be sparse with choice (due to cooler weather). With those limitations, one really appreciates the first strawberry, the first orange, the first mangosteen, the first asparagus. One also becomes adventurous with what else is edible - pine, bark, wheat, wild greens that can withstand frost. So, yes, I am crazy about produce! That said, I am not a vegan nor vegetarian. I love meat and like to use it responsibly with the same ethos: honor what we eat, be cognizant of its dymanic ecosystem, and help not only preserve it, but let it thrive.

Be it produce or protein, my rubrik for all dishes is: saltiness, sweetness (rounded), acidity (brightness, clarity), bitterness (pepperiness, astringency), umami (richness, mouthfeel). This is nothing new. What is different is I search out interesting ways to add acidic and bitter flavors. Adding acid can be as simple as squeezing a lemon or a splash of rice vinegar, but I actively find new ways to incorporate acidic flavors - fruits as tamarind, yuzu, buddha's hand (its floral zest is unmistakable) as well as fermented and pickled foods. Pickling and fermenting is something I do often, but consider myself a novice at -- there is so much to learn and explore in the vast world of food preservation.

KCET: After consulting on the menu at Beachwood Cafe for over a year, you're still in the kitchen. What has drawn you to stay all the way up in the canyon?

Chef Minh: I'm an urban girl, but I often look to find my oasis within it. Beachwood is exactly that oasis. When I first drove up to the restaurant to meet Patti Peck, I felt like I time traveled to a quieter, simpler time, all within the backdrop of the Hollywood sign. There are a lot of strollers and kids, people know each other, neighbors gossip, there are not one, but two community associations, and a community orchard. It's great! When we first opened, there was some resistance to what I was cooking. I am so thankful Patti was so supportive. Indeed, we had some long talks about what suits the community versus my personal ambitions to serve interesting, fresh, modern food. I remember my first dinner menu where Patti, knowing the community better than me, took a marker and crossed off 99% of it, simply stating, "We need more familiar things." Humbling. I went back to the drawing board and even then, the menu was met with opposition by diners. We've since found many happy mediums.

It's been almost a year and the restaurant is coming into its own, hopefully hitting our stride in the kitchen, able to stretch our wings further, especially for dinner service. I still strive every day to meet the community's needs while keeping food exciting and interesting, hoping we reach out to destination diners who will drive the exact one mile up the hill to our magical oasis.

KCET: Since you're so focused on fresh vegetables and in-house pickling, where do you head when you need a really great haul of bok choy?

Chef Minh: Hollywood Farmers' Market. Specifically, the Yasutomi Farms stand. The Pico Rivera-based, family-owned hydroponics farm produces some of the most beautiful Asian greens. I also head to other local markets: Barnsdall, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Atwater, Larchmont. I love the Santa Monica market, but it's rare for me to get out there.

KCET: When you're not manning the kitchen, what sort of things do you find yourself getting into on the weekends in Los Angeles?

Chef Minh: I have Mondays off which seems to be when other restaurants close as well. I grab good friends and we chow. Options are inspired by the latest reviews from Jonathan Gold, or Facebook/Twitter/Instagram posts by friends about yummy, new places. I try to head to places and support early. Lately, I'm fond of Sqirl, Sycamore Kitchen, and the new Guisados in Echo Park. After a full belly, I try to catch a residency at the Echoplex, Satellite, Silver Lake Lounge or a late showing at the Vista or Downtown Independent. If I can squeeze it in, I watch the sunset from Elysian Park or Barnsdall Art Park.

As the Lunar Year approaches, I'm honoring my Vietnamese heritage by hosting a Tet Rice Cake (Bánh Chưng) making session. I invited a group of power women, for a lack of better description, since I admire them all, including Chef Diep of Good Girl Dinette and Cathy Chaplin of Gastronomy Blog. This event is spearheaded by Chef Diep, who somehow twisted my arm into hosting the event at my Echo Park Compound (it's not really a compound). We plan on making cakes (a long, laborious process that involves smoking pork belly, pestling mung beans by hand, and fanning an outdoor fire), making pickles to go with the cakes, playing Tet Parlor Games, drinking cocktails by mixologist Tien Tran, and eating whatever Chef Diep and I can gather from our respective kitchens. Hopefully, this event will begin a new workshop/pop-up series I plan on launching to the public, later this year.

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About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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