How the First Family of Fish Sauce Does a Holiday Feast
Cuong Pham, Apple engineer turned food legend, celebrates the holidays with seasonal recipes from The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook. Read on for celebratory recipes—and the stories behind them—from the Pham repertoire.
Cuong Pham uncorks a split of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon he bought at auction and pours a glass for his son, Kevin. They toast, swirl, and sip, assessing the glycerin levels, the color, the aroma. Cuong’s wife, Ann, and daughters Tracy and Tiffany join in the tasting and nod in approval. The family knows a thing or two about barrel-aged artisanal products: They own and run Red Boat Fish Sauce, the world’s premier manufacturer of the essential Vietnamese condiment.
It’s a clear day here on Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail and Cuong and the Pham family have gathered on the patio to celebrate any number of occasions worth toasting: It’s the tenth anniversary of the launch of Red Boat, Cuong and Ann just purchased this sprawling brick traditional on a hill ringed with oaks and boasting sweeping views of Napa Valley, and Cuong is about to embark on a new venture as a budding winemaker, the third career for this former Apple engineer turned food legend.
“Fish sauce and wine have a lot in common,” says Cuong. Not only are they both artisanal products that are aged in barrels, Cuong also points out that “they both are heavily influenced by terroir.”
The terroir of Red Boat fish sauce is Vietnam’s Phú Quốc Island and its surrounding waters, where the best black anchovies swim and where Cuong’s barrelhouse ages and ferments the product that helped bring the family to this celebratory moment.
While Red Boat was once the go-to secret ingredient for cooks and chefs who used it to boost the flavor of marinades, sauces, dips, and more, now it’s on the shelves of just about every grocery store in the U.S. And it only exists because Cuong missed the taste of home. Specifically the fish sauce he’d grown up with in Saigon, a briny concoction that gives umami-packed depth of flavor to countless dishes in the Vietnamese culinary repertoire, from the versatile salty-sweet dipping sauce nước chấm to caramelized lemongrass pork chops to rice-noodle salads scattered with herbs.
And, of course, today Red Boat is showing up in the dishes of the feast cooked by Diep Tran, the Los Angeles–based chef behind the lauded but now closed Good Girl Dinette. Tran is now Red Boat’s development chef and co-author of the forthcoming The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce, a compendium of new and classic Vietnamese recipes that serves as a master class in fish sauce cookery. All of the dishes served today are from the cookbook, so the affair is as much a book launch party as it is a holiday feast.
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In the kitchen, Diep is joined by co-author Tien Nguyen and various members of the family as the afternoon unfolds. Scallions are sizzled in oil, shrimp paste is packed around sugarcane to be grilled, a savory-salty-sour cocktail of fermented Meyer lemon and vodka is mixed, and the table is set. The centerpiece is a show-stopping turkey, a dish that Diep has been cooking since her days at Good Girl. It’s been brined in a marinade of ground coriander, fresh ginger, sugar, and, yes, fish sauce, then spatchcocked to roast evenly until gloriously bronzed and lacquered. It’s without a doubt the best roast turkey we’ve tasted in years.
Read on for celebratory recipes—and the stories behind them—from the Pham repertoire. Whether they’re classic or brand new, one and all they’re fresh, vibrant, and guaranteed to become instant classics at your holiday feast.