All photos courtesy of Thai Phi and Pink Bellies

Resy QuestionnaireCharleston

20 Questions with Pink Bellies’ Thai Phi

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In the Resy Questionnaire, we play a game of 20 questions with the industry folks behind some of our favorite restaurants. What’s your most memorable restaurant experience? Your favorite food movie? What restaurant would you want to time-travel for?

In this edition, we talk to Thai Phi, the chef-owner behind Pink Bellies, a food truck-turned-restaurant that delves into Phi’s Vietnamese childhood recipes (his family hails from Saigon) with more than a twist or two.

The Resy Questionnaire

1. Favorite thing you’ve ever cooked?

Favorite thing I’ve ever cooked is the Vietnamese family meal we did during a pop-up series at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company. It was filled with dishes I grew up eating at my grandma’s house in Saigon. Everything was centered around rice with complementing dishes like pickled mustard greens, pork soup, fermented coriander cabbage, braised annatto seed shrimp, crab omelette, whole fried fish, and jasmine tea.

2. Kitchen tool or equipment you couldn’t live without?

I love my Robot Coupe with all the attachments. It’s made my life so much easier.

3. What pantry items would you bring on a desert island?

Definitely oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar.

4. What’s your favorite place to get fried seafood in Charleston?

The fried seafood platter from Dave’s Carry-Out on Morris Street is unmatched. There’s deviled crab, scallop, whiting, shrimp, and steak fries to boot. It’s perfectly fried every time! Make sure to ask for extra tartar sauce.

5. Favorite cookbook?

All of my recipes come from my family so I don’t read too many cookbooks. But, my absolute favorite restaurant book is Restaurant Success by the Numbers, by Roger Fields. There are so many wonderful nuggets of information for restaurateurs.

6. Your drink of choice?

Cà Phê Sữa Đá! It’s Vietnamese iced coffee that is seemingly as strong as rocket fuel.

7. Favorite food movie?

Is it cliché if I say Chef with Jon Favreau? They did such a wonderful job capturing all the details that chefs love most about food.

8. Your ideal dinner party guest, dead or alive? 

Anthony Bourdain, hands down.

9. What restaurant industry person do you admire the most?

I really admire David Chang. How he grew Momofuku into a company something beyond just a restaurant is truly inspiring. His Momofuku Toronto restaurant really influenced our architecture at Pink Bellies.

Photo by Mike Ledford, courtesy of Pink Bellies
Photo by Mike Ledford, courtesy of Pink Bellies

10. The greatest restaurant experience of your life so far?

I truly crave for the moments when my cousins and I would eat street food in Vietnam. When it’s hot and steamy out, motor bikes are whizzing by, you’re sitting on these plastic stools, and you’re smothered in smoke from the outdoor grill. It’s so immersive.

11. Your greatest professional achievement?

Definitely sharing my culture and food with people who have never experienced Vietnamese food, and then them coming back for more.

12. What single dish best describes your personality?

Garlic noodles. Just like them, I grew up in the Bay Area within a Vietnamese diaspora. It’s a laidback, iconic dish that has you wanting one more bite.

13. If you could go back in time, which restaurant would you dine at?

Nakajima in Tokyo. I would wait in line all day for their sardine set again.

14. Your favorite meal from childhood?

The bánh mì đặc biệt from Sing Sing Sandwich Shop in San Francisco. The combination of mayo, pâté, pork belly, chả lụa, crispy cucumbers, Maggi soy sauce, đồ chua, and cilantro on a crisp baguette resonates with me deeply.

Photo by Jonathan Boncek, courtesy of Pink Bellies
Photo by Jonathan Boncek, courtesy of Pink Bellies

15. Your wish for the restaurant industry?

For things to normalize, such as supply chains and workforce. Also, for more casual restaurants to open, with food cooked with love.

16. What do you wish you did better? What do you do well?

I wish I was able to balance all of my work a bit better, to wear my jack of all trades hat well. Not only am I the chef, but I am the sole operator, and I also do our accounting, marketing, dish washing, and everything else that’s needed.

And I cook really well! But as of late, I’ve been so busy opening the restaurant that I haven’t been able to give it as much time as I would like to.

17. If you could eat through a city for a day, where would you go?

Tokyo. I spent a week there and felt like I barely scratched the surface. Even the food at the 7-Eleven is utterly delicious. Everyone takes so much pride in their dishes.

18. The one thing you can’t resist splurging on when you go out?

Whenever I visit a new city, I usually spend one night in where I binge order from five to eight restaurants on DoorDash and UberEats. I’m a stalwart for Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants.

19. What do you value most in restaurants?

The love that chefs cook with. It’s something that’s hard to measure, but easily felt and tasted.

20. It’s your last meal on earth, what are you eating?

Whatever my aunts are cooking in grandma’s kitchen in Saigon. Usually something with rice, soup, veggies, and some braised meats. It’s simple and is everything to me.