MAEKAN & BYBORRE — Redefining Comfort: Céline Pham

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Interview & Photos by Eugene Kan
Video by Ralph Sarmo

Interview & Photos by Eugene Kan
Video by Ralph Sarmo

Comfort. It’s something essential to our lives.

The degree of comfort we experience can impact how we view the world around us. Comfort can take shape in a practical sense. Are we dry? Are we able to move freely? Are we confident about how we look?

Comfort can also apply psychologically. Are we comfortable with the challenge ahead and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s next?

In abundance, some would say too much of it creates complacency. Too little of it, and you’re unable to settle into a rhythm, because you’re only focused on reducing the discomfort.

For Men’s Fashion Week 2019 this past January MAEKAN and the BYBORRE team partnered on a series of conversations with new and old friends on this concept of “Redefining Comfort.” Our conversations were candid and casual with a special interest around the inspirations of pioneers and creators who are looking to put their stamp on the world.

In our third episode, we speak with chef Céline Pham, who shares her journey from her rise through the ranks in the traditional culinary world to her venture Phamily First. The agency, which started with her brother Julien, focuses on restaurant branding and strategy, as well as private dinners. By layering on intimate personalized dining experiences on top of a bedrock of meticulously prepared cuisine that frequently nods to their Vietnamese roots, Phamily First has become a defining influence shaping the Parisian food scene.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to WeTransfer, GORE-TEX, The Woolmark Company, and the whole BYBORRE team for making this series happen.

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

Eugene: How’s it going, Céline?

Céline: Super well. I’m a bit tired, but in a good way.

Eugene: Nice. So maybe for people that are unfamiliar with you, you can introduce yourself and what you do?

Céline: I’m a chef. I’ve done it for ten years, in Paris mostly. I don’t have any restaurants but I go everywhere in the world to cook.

Eugene: How would you define your food?

Céline: Actually I have a really really French cuisine base because I did a French cooking school and all the restaurants I worked in were French. Now, when I’m cooking for myself and for people I work with, I think I have Vietnamese inspired food but not by the products because I’m really conscious of the ecological disaster that of bringing stuff from Vietnam, like I really do balance Vietnamese cuisine with all flavors. I look for the perfect balance.

Eugene: What was the reason why you decided to leave the restaurant world?

Céline: A matter of timing. I feel that it was the right moment. It’s a really hard environment. People push you a lot. Like it’s super violent also, like verbally or physically and I never left Paris. I had this desire and curiosity to find the same balance that I find in cooking in my life too.

Eugene: How do you think your food changed after leaving working in a restaurant?

Céline: It changed a lot. It takes time to reconnect, I think. I’ve been evolving with other people and working for myself so discovering what I want to express with my cuisine. And it changed everything, I became more and more confident, my taste and so the creativity became limitless. I want to work more and discover other things. So the traveling lets me always meet new people and new techniques, new products.

Eugene: I think as of late a lot of people I’ve come to understand how challenging it is to work in the kitchen. I think you’ve you’ve seen it emerge more and more, the stories and whatnot. So I guess my question to you is the challenge of working in the kitchen, how important is it or is it not important to becoming a good chef, that discomfort?

Céline: A lot. I mean we can take my example. I began cooking like 10 years ago in the cooking school where people made remarks like: “Who’s cooking the rice? It’s Céline because she’s Asian.” Or really sexist remarks and stuff and then in my first restaurant the guys were really bad with me, like touching me and stuff. It changed everything for me because I became more myself and focused on the kitchen, on the cooking, and I became so focused that nothing could touch me. I became harder, harder with myself, harder with my colleagues and harder in my personal life.

I hear stories of people missing plates because they put too much salt and the guy will make you will drink a glass of super salty water to make you understand your mistake. It's almost torture and it's happening now. The weight of tradition. I mean for me it was a really masculine world. We call it a "brigade", it's really the code of the army: You have the chef, the sous-chef and you have to bend over the authority.

Eugene: Do you think that by virtue of having your personality change, is that something that you think a lot of people have to go through if they want to stay in the restaurant industry? Do they have to change their personalities if it’s not immediately sort of that hard nature approach?

Céline: Yeah, unfortunately I do. When I was doing this it was the rules. I hope it will change because you cannot change your personality that way. And now I’m trying to reconnect with my sense of friendship, family and stuff because you’re so focused on the professional point that you forget all the rest. I think who you really have to seek balance and not do anything in excess.

Eugene: It’s interesting because when most people think of the culinary world obviously they think of French cuisine, Italian cuisine etc., when you think of good food you think of those cultures. So there’s a very defined tradition around that culinary world. Do you think that because there’s such a strong tradition it’s actually more difficult to change that environment?

Céline: Yes, I think it’s a weight of tradition. I hear stories of people missing plates because they put too much salt and the guy will make you will drink a glass of super salty water to make you understand your mistake. It’s almost torture and it’s happening now. The weight of tradition. I mean for me it was a really masculine world. We call it a “brigade”, it’s really the code of the army: You have the chef, the sous-chef and you have to bend over the authority.

I began cooking like 10 years ago in the cooking school where people made remarks like: "Who's cooking the rice? It's Céline because she's Asian." Or really sexist remarks and stuff and then in my first restaurant the guys were really bad with me, like touching me and stuff. It changed everything for me because I became more myself and focused on the kitchen, on the cooking, and I became so focused that nothing could touch me. I became harder, harder with myself, harder with my colleagues and harder in my personal life.

Eugene: Yeah. So I’m curious, knowing that that world is so regimented, what happens if those structures changed and it was a little bit more free-flowing and liberal. Do you think the food would change or the culture change?

Céline: I think it’s happening right now and I don’t know if it’s in a good or bad way. I’m really asking this question right now because I’m working with people more conscious of the limits of what people can do. It’s also a reflection of society, people want to work more freely and be more independent. So right now in the cooking industry there’s a lack of people that want to work and who don’t count your hours and stuff and the new generation wants it to be more fair, working an amount of time and be paid for it. I mean if I look at the salary in my first job as I worked 17 hours a day, I was €4 an hour and now you can’t do that, they check everything. In the past, they told me I have to learn, so I will work for free.

Eugene: So is there a difference between being lazy or just really challenging the system? So for example you did it. You’ve obviously made a career being a chef. So you know what is it within you that feels as though youbelieve what they’re saying is where the change needs to go, versus “I went through it and I think that it makes you a better chef.” I think that’s what’s always interesting.

Céline: I don’t think you need to do it, but not, as we say in French: burning the steps. You meet different kinds of characters and some of the people are just self-proclaimed chefs, but they haven’t gone through the process. The process can be like what I went through because it’s a really repetitive job and you have to be faster, you have to learn the process and then do it really well and then do it fast. But you don’t have to go through people yelling at you. I mean we we have to keep this this perfection with the process, but not with the violence of the people that abuse from authority. I think it’s just tiny changes that will make things better.

When it doesn't go well, it's not that it's too salty or not balanced, but it will be less special and maybe the connection is less. It won't change the dishes in a bad way, but when it goes well, it can push the dishes.

Eugene: What gets you excited about cooking for people?

Céline: The challenge of being super precise on the details.

Eugene: So you get excited about that?

Céline: Also working in the showroom and adapting to the places, meeting new people and guessing what they want and working together, it’s a challenge and I love it. It went super well and sometimes it doesn’t happen.

Eugene: What about when it doesn’t go well, what does that look like?

Céline: When it doesn’t go well, it’s not that it’s too salty or not balanced and stuff, but it will be less special and maybe the connection is less. It won’t change the dishes in a bad way, but when it goes well, it can push the dishes.

Eugene: Is there anything you don’t like about your job?

Céline: I can tell that now doing the long skills, I’m less and less patient.

Eugene: The long skills?

Céline: Yeah. Like sea urchins. I used to love doing this, it’s super precise, but it takes like five minutes to do one perfectly and doing one hundred didn’t matter for me before and now I’m less patient. I love traveling and meeting new people, but I went to Melbourne for the Melbourne food and wine festival and I was smashed by the jet lag. I couldn’t move at all.

Eugene: Yeah. One last question. Before leaving the traditional restaurant world and being your own chef. What did you think it was going to be like. And what has been the reality of being your own boss, cooking the food you want to cook?

Céline: I was so scared of all the accountancy things, doing an invoice to get to the clients and stuff because everything is going super well and at the beginning it affected my cooking because I was so stressed and now anything can happen, I’m super chill and calm because it’s not a matter of life. We can miss something on the dinner yesterday like the music or forget a bottle of wine or something. We can always fix it. In the rush of the cooking in a kitchen, every problem becomes a big problem, if I forgot to buy something it’s a big issue. Now I’m more relaxed, every problem has a solution because I’m less in the thing where customers all arrive at the same time. The rhythm is totally different and I have way more time to relax.

Eugene: Actually one last question because I noticed, one thing that’s nice about being in the restaurant or just cooking in general is that you can always change things as you go. It’s not like you’re creating an iPhone and every change needs to be established, you can’t really change from iteration to iteration but for example you cook two dinners and on the first night it might look like this but on the second night it can be the same dish look differently. So how do you approach the ability to kind of always change and make modifications when it comes to cooking because it’s almost like continual opportunity to improve? How do you look at the ability to make things better with each thing you do and it’s such a simple change whereas like you know if you’re going to build a car like you can’t change something at the last moment?

Céline: You go with the flow. I always say to my teams: “It’s better than yesterday, but worse than tomorrow.”

Eugene: Just go with the flow. Cool, thank you!

I always say to my teams: It's better than yesterday, but worse than tomorrow.
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