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Chef Tu David Phu's Brief But Spectacular take on the memory of taste


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John Yang: Vietnamese American chef Tu David Phu traces his culinary influences back to his family's unspoken history of war. He says food preferences often mirror people's perceptions of other cultures and prejudices.

Tonight, he gives us his Brief But Spectacular take on the memory of food, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tu David Phu, Chef: The physical sensation of eating something when it's delicious, it gives you like a physical, great emotional feeling.

And I think I held onto that for most of my youth because I think I would say I had a difficult youth. And I kept on coming back to the kitchen during that feeling. The kitchen space for me is a safe space.

My parents are refugees from Vietnam. They came over to the United States in 1975. And I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved to Oakland when I was about 2 years old. And in the community that we landed in, I found myself in a food-insecure community in a food-insecure household.

Given that my parents were immigrants, income was hard to come by. A meal on our tables in my youth was seldom seen. When I think of family meals that my mom cooked at home, I think of the bear chicken bone carcass that she got from the butcher shop because it was free.

Credits to a lot of our mothers in their effort to innovate dishes, to create recipes to nourish their family, to make things delicious, because that's what love is. There's so many different cultures where people like my mom, they're able to innovate in their own kitchens, right?

And there's no such thing as a authentic or a traditional stamp on any recipe. Authenticity is a feeling. Initially, I was cooking -- I was trying to cook traditional Vietnamese food. And then I ran into a wall, because you know why? Given that I'm a chef and I had all this training, I could never cook better than my mom or any other Vietnamese mothers.

And I had to come to that realization, because you know why? They have been cooking that way all their lives. It's in those moments where I started to cook my mother's food, opposed to traditional Vietnamese food. And it's there when I think people started to really connect with me.

In addition, because I was cooking my mother's food, I had to explain to people what I was cooking. And it was through those stories and explaining, this is what I had when I was a kid, and we had this neighbor who was Korean, or my father's a fishmonger, and he'd bring home lobster all the time, and this is an inspiration of that thought.

People really resonated and connected with me, because now it's not just about Vietnamese food. It's not just Vietnamese diaspora. This food, these recipes are about family. And I think that just creates a bigger spectrum to kind of welcome people to the table.

I'm not looking to connect with other people who look like me. Hopefully, by telling a narrative and story through food, people will see and connect with me through a human experience, not an Asian American experience.

My name is Tu David Phu, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the memory of taste.

John Yang: You can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at

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