On the Line: Nathaniel Nguyen and Amy Pham of the Prince & Pantry, Part One
I continue our interview series with another tenant of The Hood Kitchen space. The Prince & Pantry is much more than a catering group, and Nathaniel Nguyen insisted I include one of his most valuable players, Amy Pham. This week, they juggle my questionnaire like pros.
Tell us about working out of The Hood Kitchen.
NATHANIEL NGUYEN: The Hood Kitchen is literally one of the best things that has happened to our business. I've worked in other commercial kitchen spaces before, and this one is head and shoulders above the rest. My favorite part is the on-site facilities management. It's amazing to have the ladies--Christie, Shelby and Emily--present to help with scheduling, ordering, receiving, coordinating, repairs, support, etc. You won't find that in any other facility.
How did you get started in food service?
AMY PHAM: When I was 15, I got a job at Baskin Robbins, where I worked with my best friends for a year. I just remembered how much fun I would have making banana splits, sundaes, ice cream cakes and shakes. Even back then, I'd put extra care into making the ice cream look even more decadent than it was. I worked many different jobs over the years, until I decided there's really nothing else I'd rather be doing, or that I'm better at . . . so I gave cooking a shot.
Most undervalued ingredient:
NGUYEN: Vegetables. I used to be a vegan, and therefore, I have so much vegetable love. In Vietnamese cuisine, you can easily enjoy more than 10 different types of vegetables in one meal. I love being able to enjoy a dish that simply highlights vegetables. We're starting to see that trend more and more now, but I would love to see it going even more mainstream.
What is your beverage of choice?
NGUYEN: My beverage of choice is Harmless Harvest raw coconut water from Whole Foods. It seriously reminds me of the fresh coconut juice I was able to get right on the beaches of Vietnam and Thailand. It's a pretty penny, but so worth it!
What services does the Prince & Pantry currently provide?
NGUYEN: Currently, we offer personal chef services, meal deliveries, cooking classes, dinner parties, full-service catering and dessert tables.
Favorite meal growing up:
PHAM: To this day, my favorite meal is bo chien bo, a Vietnamese feast with thin slices of beef and shrimp that we would cook on a griddle with lots and lots of butter. We wrap the beef and shrimp in rice paper and pack it full of fresh herbs, lettuce, pickles, pineapple, noodles and grilled onions--wrap and dip it in some fish sauce. Best part about this meal is the fact that it's always with the best company I could ever ask for.
Where did the name originate from?
NGUYEN: When I was younger, I was jokingly called a prince a lot. Being the eldest son in my family bears a lot of responsibility and honor. Wanting to pay homage to my family and culture, I paired that nickname with a staple of all great cooking: a well-stocked pantry. The rest was history.
Your best recent food find:
NGUYEN: I am obsessed with the yuk gae jang from Jang Mo Jip in Garden Grove. My roommate is Korean and took me there for its famous sullentang, but I opted for something different instead. It's this incredibly piquant broth, with taro stems, glass noodles and shredded braised beef, among other delicious ingredients. I've been hooked ever since.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
NGUYEN: Soft-poached eggs. Apparently, I'm pretty good at them. And fresh breakfast sausage. I love making sausage from scratch. Oh, and toast with nice, chunky preserves or jam. Extra toasted, please!
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
PHAM: Hot vit lon. The infamous duck egg! I loved it as a kid, and the aroma is fantastic, but I just can't get myself to eat it as an adult.
Favorite places to eat.
NGUYEN: I just got introduced to Taqueria Mexico off Springdale and Westminster, and I can't get enough of its 92-cent tacos. When I'm coming home from an event in LA, I always make it a point to stop in. There's always a line, no matter what time I've gone, and these cooks have incredible showmanship as well.
I also love Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa in Garden Grove. My aunt is the chef there, and she definitely taught me to learn and love the food of my culture. Out of all the stages I've done, working alongside her has been the most fun.
And then there's Sota Sushi in Corona del Mar. Sota is one of my mentors and has taught me so much about Japanese cuisine when I staged with him. His take on Japanese sushi is so unique. And ask for the fish ribs! Seriously. I won't ruin the surprise.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
NGUYEN: Ethnic grocery stores--Middle Eastern, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican. I have the world at my fingertips.
Your earliest food memory:
NGUYEN: My earliest food memory was when I tried cooking for the first time. I had just been let out of kindergarten for the day and was craving a snack. I cracked a few eggs into a glass, seasoned it very heavily with black pepper and mixed it up. That was it. I didn't even bother cooking it. I didn't eat it, though. Thankfully.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
PHAM: Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board to prevent it from sliding around. If your cutting board isn't steady, you're doomed to lose a finger or two.
What are the ultimate goals for the Prince & Pantry?
NGUYEN: I would really love to see a gourmet grocery store and market for the Prince & Pantry.
We hear there are cooking classes?
NGUYEN: Yes! If there's one thing I love more than eating and cooking--in that order--it's teaching! We post our schedule one month in advance on our website and host our classes at The Hood Kitchen space.
One food you can't live without:
NGUYEN: I cannot live without mayonnaise. A lot of people think it's disgusting, but my grandmother loves mayonnaise. We used to dip our chicken nuggets into mayonnaise before dipping them into ketchup when I was a kid. Definitely a comfort food to me, and it always reminds me of my grandma.
Where was your most recent meal?
NGUYEN: I just had a dozen cookies from Drive Me Cookie, a fellow client from the Hood Kitchen space. They're a food truck--or should I say van?--that bakes their cookies fresh on their truck! I swung by after work last night to show my support because I used to work on a food truck myself.
Strangest customer request (and did you do it?):
PHAM: When I worked at Baskin Robbins, this guy would come in every now and then and order a banana split . . . but he'd bring his own banana.
To learn more about the Prince & Pantry, please click here.