Celebrity chef Mai Pham brings spice of life to Girls’ Day Out

Armed with a host of time-honored family recipes from her native Vietnam, Mai Pham went out on a limb and opened Lemon Grass, the first Vietnamese and Thai restaurant in Sacramento, California, in 1989.

“No one could understand what I was doing. Customers would come in and ask for sweet and sour sauce. It was two years before they stopped asking for bread.”

Vietnamese cuisine sits well with gluten-free lifestyles by virtue of the fact that Vietnam culture is not wheat-based. It is also one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, based on fresh herbs, meats and spices.

Celebrity chef Mai Pham is one of two keynote speakers at Girls’ Day Out on Saturday, Sept. 17.

The one-day event, from 7:30 am to 4 pm at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, is hosted by Baptist Health and WJCT Public Broadcasting. Tickets are $40. Register at 2016girlsdayout.eventbrite.com.

Chef, cookbook author, food columnist, Food Network contributor, and entrepreneur Pham gave up a journalism career to follow her passion for Southeast Asian cuisine. To open Lemon Grass, Pham leaned on recipes passed down from her mother and grandmother.

“Nothing was written out. I did it all from memory,” said Pham, who was 19 when she and her family fled South Vietnam.

Starting from scratch

“We came here with just the clothes on our back. We lost everything overnight. I always point to my parents and our personal story as the motivation that steered me toward what I’m doing today.”

“Vietnamese is not a cuisine where you take a lot of spices and ingredients and cook them for a long time. We are a quick-cook style of cuisine,” added Pham. Her American husband calls Vietnam the ‘Tuscany of Asia’ because “the food is very natural, very simple and easy to understand.”

Pham said Vietnamese cuisine “is all about fresh herbs and different sauces.” A popular dipping sauce, known as Nuoc Cham, consists of fish sauce, garlic, vinegar and lime. “You sprinkle it on like a vinaigrette,” she added. “It’s not thick or creamy. That’s the Vietnamese way. Everything is very light, simple and aromatic.”

During “Girls’ Day Out,” Pham will host a cooking demonstration on Vietnamese spring rolls made with rice paper. “It’s sort of like Vietnamese sushi,” she said. “It’s very healthy, clean and fun to make and very easy to do if you pay attention to a couple of things.”

Pham didn’t yet aspire to be a celebrity chef or a restaurateur when she attended college in the U.S. in the early 1980s on a Scripps-Howard journalism scholarship. But cooking was always a way to share her heritage with others – one meal at a time.

“It allows me to weave my background into my work and make Vietnam a talking point,” she added. “Years ago, I never saw this happening. I didn’t connect the dots. But running a restaurant teaches you a lot about life. I feel gratified that people are interested and curious about Vietnamese food, its flavors and its culture, and they want to make it part of their lives.”

Register now for Girls’ Day Out and don’t miss Chef Mai Pham’s presentation and book signing.

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