One of my first food writing gigs was an interview with Viet Pham after he announced his plans to open Pretty Bird (multiple locations, prettybirdchicken.com), which he now operates with his wife, Alexis. Five years and four locations later, Pretty Bird has become Utah’s preeminent fried chicken destination.
Though you’d think co-owning four extremely popular local restaurants would be enough to keep anyone busy, Chef Pham has put his culinary competition chops to the test on Food Network—most recently, he will be one of the competitors on Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions, which kicked off its fourth season on February 19. Considering that it’s Pretty Bird’s five-year anniversary on top of his decision to go head-to-head with chefs from all over the country, I thought checking in with Chef Pham would be a good idea. What’s one more thing on his plate, anyway?
A quick word about Pretty Bird for those who have not followed the fried chicken sandwich wars as closely as I have. It was the first locally-owned Nashville hot chicken spot in town, and since it first opened its doors, we have seen an enormous uptick in the number of fried chicken restaurants along the Wasatch Front. For better or worse, if you’ve enjoyed some fried chicken from a restaurant that opened within the last three years, you’ve got Chef Pham to thank.
Before cutting his teeth in the restaurant business, Chef Pham was born in Malaysia, and spent his formative years in California. His involvement in our local food scene came at Forage, before it closed in 2016. Forage was one of the first local restaurants to experiment with molecular gastronomy; you never quite knew what you were going to get, but it was always a good time. During his time at Forage, Pham was accepted as a contestant on season nine of Food Network’s Food Network Star, and he has dabbled in competitive, televised cooking since—he is one of the few chefs who can brag about beating Bobby Flay on an episode of Iron Chef America.
Despite his numerous appearances on Food Network, Pham chuckles when I refer to him as a “celebrity” chef. “At the end of the day, I’m just a chef,” he says as we chat via Zoom. I’ve always been fascinated with these competitive cooking shows—the strategic thinking and the speed of execution, combined with the nagging thought that you could chop off your own finger on national television boggles my mind. “It’s really a competition against yourself, though,” Pham says. “You’re still trusting your own instincts and cooking how you would cook in the kitchen, only 20% faster.”
For those unfamiliar with how Tournament of Champions works, the contestant roster is divided into coastal brackets, and Pham is one of the West Coast competitors. As the show progresses, each chef works their way through their own bracket, until it becomes a showdown between the West Coast and East Coast champs.
It’s an impressive list of talent—Pham’s fellow West Coast competitors include Antonia Lofaso, Brian Malarkey and Jet Tila. Though it’s a competition, the contestants have been supportive of everyone in their bracket. “We’re all on this group text, and every day I get supportive texts about contestants opening restaurants or celebrating other life events,” Pham says.
Regardless of the supportive atmosphere, the fact remains that competitive cooking shows are designed to test the limits of a chef’s abilities—which is what makes them attractive in the first place. Knowing the difficulties that a show like this throws at a chef, however, made me curious about Pham’s strategy going into this tournament.
“I think one of the most important traits you have to have is confidence,” Pham says. “I’ve learned not to second-guess myself and stick with an idea—the first idea that pops into your mind is usually the one you should run with.” Based on this backstage look at how Pham prepares himself for the heat of competition, it’ll be fun to root for our local chef as he competes—regardless of the outcome, it’s great to have Pham repping for the Beehive State.
Outside of competing on nationally televised cooking shows, Chef Pham is looking for ways to give back to the community. “Restaurants are always stretching themselves thin, but you have to get to a point where you can give back,” Pham says. “I’m to the point where I want to start giving back.” About a year ago, Pham was diagnosed with lymphoma and, though this struggle has ended on a positive note—he confirms that he’s practically cancer-free—the time he and his wife spent enduring the process has put him on the lookout to contribute to cancer research efforts through the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Though it’s always fun to have a local chef start making national waves, there’s such a grounded and positive side to Pham’s personality that it makes you believe you can succeed at whatever you put your mind to. He and Alexis have made Pretty Bird into a success, and they’re very good at what they do, but they seem to lack the air of superiority that lesser humans would develop under the same circumstances. Whatever comes next for Chef Pham, we’ll be rooting for him.