Anyone who’s sunk their teeth into one of Phu Tran’s crispy pork eggrolls will be surprised to learn that the 24-year-old never touched a stove professionally before he opened RiceWorks last year. But just because he’s never worked the line in a restaurant kitchen or taken a culinary class doesn’t mean that he lacks background. What Tran knows about cooking was largely passed down by his parents and a network of close family friends whom he refers to as uncles and aunts.
Tran’s mother, Kelly Tran, has worked at both Baguette Deli and Pho Tam, but no longer cooks professionally. His stepfather, Quyen Doan, developed the Chinese menu at Pho Tam and has also logged time at Orient Express. One “uncle” owns Pho Tam and another mans the grill at Kyoto Japanese Steakhouse. Still none of these were the biggest culinary influence in the young chef’s life.
“All the things I’ve learned started with my father,” said Tran.
The tricked out former Ore-Ida truck in which Tran now spends his days was outfitted by his father Hau Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, in 2001. At that time, the business was called Asian Cuisine and the truck was mainly used for catering private parties. As a teenager, Tran helped his dad with organization and even handled customers when the truck rolled up to all-night raves.
The mobile eatery was something of a side project for Tran's father, who also worked at Kyoto and Tepanyaki Japanese Steakhouse. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and the truck ended up as a permanent fixture in the driveway of his home.
In August 2010, Tran’s brother, Hai Tran, proposed getting the truck back in working order and hitting the streets. RiceWorks set up shop near the WDS Global Call Center and within two weeks’ time had paid off Tran's investment.
Tran’s menu consists primarily of a few teriyaki items, some tempura dishes, fried rice, yakisoba and egg rolls close enough to his father’s recipe that people who had them back in the day comment on the similarity. He enjoys having the freedom to take creative risks, and has recently been experimenting with fusion cuisine. Tran is confident about the food he puts out but modest at the same time.
“I don’t do anything spectacular,” he said. “When it comes to serving food, that’s 100 percent love. That’s what my dad taught me.”
What is your favorite guilty pleasure food?
I have a soft spot for oatmeal cream pies.
How do you take your coffee?
I prefer a Vietnamese style coffee—extra strong coffee mixed with condensed milk to flavor, served iced.
What foods do you loathe?
I absolutely can not stand pig or cow intestines, whether they are stuffed, fried or even in soups. I've tried every version with no success.