Take Five with Chef Charles Phan, On His “Iron Chef America” Battle

Charles Phan battles on "Iron Chef America'' this Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

With his outrageously popular Slanted Door restaurant, three Out the Door eateries, Heaven’s Dog, and the Academy of Sciences cafe — all of them in San Francisco — it’s hard to believe Chef Charles Phan has time to do much of anything else.

But somehow the 47-year-old chef, who’s ethnically Chinese and a native of Vietnam, found time to go mano-a-mano and burner-to-burner with Cat Cora on “Iron Chef America.”

Filmed in July 2008, that episode finally will air 10 p.m. Nov. 8.

I had a chance to talk with Phan yesterday about his surprising appearance on the show, given his aversion to doing TV.

Q: Ahem. So, I was witness to you saying on a panel in San Francisco earlier this year that you hate being photographed and you hate being on TV. So what gives?

A: Yeah, I do hate it. (laughs) But I kind of have to do it, because it’s my work. The Food Network approached me about doing it. It’s a national show and a chance to show off Vietnamese cooking.

Q: How did it go?

A: It was fine. I didn’t get too stressed out about it. I did the show with my chefs from Slanted Door. Getting the food plated was a challenge. We usually don’t plate individually like that. We normally serve family-style. So we were out of our realm a little bit. But it was OK.

Q: What surprised you most?

A: The judging comments. The judges show up before the dishes are even done. They’ll make a comment like, ‘I don’t like peanuts,’ or ‘I don’t like flying fish eggs normally.’ It kind of sets you up. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter any more what you cooked if they don’t like flying fish roe. You’re kind of stuck. That was my issue with some of the judges.

Hopefully, they are just saying that for drama, but actually have more of an open mind.

Q: Since you know Cora already, did that make the competition easier or harder?

A: I don’t know her that well actually.

Q: So did everything go smoothly during your battle?

A: Some of the teams were just more freaked out than others. The team that filmed before us — I can’t remember who it was now — had a big explosion. Someone had put a fire starter right on top of the grill. It was bad.

Our team was pretty calm. The only drama was that one of my chefs got whacked by a camera. She was turning around and he was turning around. I’m not sure if they edited it out. Fortunately, she was OK.

Q: Are you a fan of “Iron Chef”? Did you watch the show previously?

A: Yes, I watch it. My wife and kids were in the audience when I did the show. They were rooting me on. You’ll hear three kids in the background, screaming.

Q: I know you can’t say what the ‘secret ingredient’ was. But can you say if it was an Asian one?

A: No, it wasn’t. Not really. It’s like saying chicken is an Asian ingredient. It’s not like it was black bean sauce.

Q: Are you glad they chose the ingredient that they did?

A: No. It was a tough one.

Q: On “The Next Iron Chef,” Dominique Crenn of Luce in San Francisco ended up having to cook with sea cucumber. She had never tasted it and never cooked with it before. She ended up making it into a dessert with vanilla pudding.

A: Oh my god.

Q: What advice would you have given her about sea cucumber?

A: My advice is that you just need to take your time and look at each ingredient’s attributes and expose them. With sea cucumber, it’s just a piece of muscle. It’s gelatinous. It’s slimy. It has some flavor, but not a lot. The classic methods are to cook it with chicken and ginger in a clay pot, or with abalone in a brown sauce. You have to braise it in a pressure cooker.

Q: Sounds like you wouldn’t have been fazed if that had been your ingredient to battle with?

A: Actually, I wouldn’t have minded. It would be hard to have five unique dishes using it. But you don’t have to do dessert with it.

Q: Would you do this show or another TV chef competition again?

A: Yeah, I think so. Although, given my schedule, I shouldn’t. One is probably enough. It was kind of goofy.

More: My Q&A last year with Cat Cora


More: My Q&A this year with Dominique Crenn

Print This Post


  • Well, that would be an IC:A that I’d actually *want* to see!

  • I have mixed feelings about IC–as Charles Phan says, I find it a little goofy! but I’d like to see him on it… hope he won but it sounds like maybe he didn’t.

  • Will look forward to seeing Chef Phan on Iron chef this weekend!

  • Can’t wait to see the battle.

  • Hey — If Charles and company are doing something with rice paper, then they’ll be rolling it up right. Anyone recall Mario Batali rolling up his rice paper roll? A tragic humongous mess. Thanks Carolyn!

  • I have my DVR set for Sunday! Chef Phan seems like a real guy even though he’s created an empire.

  • Great interview – so interesting to hear his thoughts, especially given his aversion to TV.

  • Great interview! Now I really want to see the episode, but since we don’t have Cable anymore, I’ll have to get a bit creative…

  • Funny that he hates TV cause I just saw him on a show (don’t remember name) where he and his kids go on a farm and learn about the produce. His kids are so cute and I thought he was great on TV! Hopefully, I’ll get to go to Slanted Door next time I’m in town.

  • Having watched Charles on panels and even having worked with him on one, I find that he is very much a natural in front of an audience. He’s just himself. I, too, wish that he’ll make more appearances, even though he considers TV ones a necessary evil.

  • Good for him for overcoming his aversion and just doing it!

  • Ah, what fun – I am totally rooting for him, and have to remember to watch the show tomorrow. I haven’t been watching a lot of TV lately, but this will certainly be on my list. Hubby’s sports will have to wait.

  • Now that the show has aired, all I can say is that I think the “secret ingredient” was a little unfair for a chef who specializes in Vietnamese cuisine. Surely, they could have come up with a better ingredient than that. Sigh.

  • what was the “secret ingredient”? So he lost?

  • (Spoiler alert in case anyone hasn’t watched it yet.)
    Ann: Yup, he lost. The “secret ingredient” was almonds, of all things.

  • No matter what happened concerning Iron Chef, I just wanted to comment on Charles Phan and his Restaurants. He is my son’s employer. My son shares a lot of the happenings @ the 3 restau. he works at; Out The Door, Heaven’s Dog and occasionally Slanted Door. He has nothing but praise for the organization, the food, and most importantly, his treatment as an employee. It’s an amazing place to work. It’s so good to hear such genuine praise from someone who experiences the establishments on a daily basis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *