Tho Tran can remember cooking even as a teenager in a Thai refugee camp. Born in Vietnam, Tran would watch his mother, memorizing the careful cadence of her movements as she weighed out ingredients.
“Everybody can cook, but the key is pacing,” said Tran, who recently joined Phobulous as its new chef. “It’s like a science, and Vietnamese is different from all other [cuisines].”
Tran comes to Phobulous after seven years at Monsoon, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with branches in Seattle and Bellevue, and menu items infused with French and Northwest flavors. At Monsoon, he served as a sous chef, managing cooking staff and tasting each dish before it left the kitchen for a customer’s table.
But Tran traded that in for the cozy atmosphere and slower pace of Phobulous.
“To be honest with you, [working at Monsoon] was easier than here because here, I have to manage the whole kitchen. Everything I do is by myself. Of course, I have people helping here. But all the meat, the soup, I have to cook because consistency is key,” he says. “That’s what makes a restaurant successful.”
At 14, Tran left his family and Vietnam to serve in a minor camp in Thailand. The move was a risky one, but his parents wanted a better life for him. Many young Vietnamese men disappeared into communist labor camps when they turned 18, some never to be seen again. Tran heard horror stories of those encampments from friends – stories of fatigue and a single bowl of rice a day. Thailand offered some sliver of opportunity. Young men could be sponsored by the church, relatives or Westerners interested in adoption.
After about eight months, an uncle helped the church sponsor him and Tran took his leave. In 1989, he left for California.
“Somehow I learned to live independently. I came here by myself, like a refugee,” Tran recalls. “I came through Thailand to work and was lucky to have survived.”
He found work in the kitchen of a Vietnamese restaurant outside of Oakland. After several years in the Bay area, Tran moved to Seattle looking for a change.
The menu at Phobulous is the collective influence of Tran’s childhood and his many years of experience in the restaurant industry.
“I took what I learned from most restaurants and from my mom because I wanted to keep it true to the Vietnamese tradition,” he said.
Tran plans to make several changes to the menu in the coming months. He prides himself most on the freshness and high quality of his ingredients. Tran also notes his careful attentiveness. While most Vietnamese restaurants cook their pho broth for six to eight hours, Tran says he does so overnight to draw out the flavor of the bone marrow. Meat is marinated and allowed to sit, and Tran insists on overseeing every menu item to ensure consistency.
And while his new gig at Phobulous presents a very different pace from Seattle’s scene, the restaurant culture is just as strong on the Island.
“You can see here it’s a small community, but there are a lot of restaurants,” says Tran. “I really like it here.”