Robert Lam, Vietnam-born model student-turned-chef, is proud that he once got kicked out of a class at the Culinary Institute of America – a class on Asian cooking, at that.
Butterfly, Rob’s 150-seat Embarcadero restaurant has a young, almost cult, following. Butterfly can barely keep up with the calls for reservations. Lam’s cooking stays as close to his roots as possible. His take on fusion is not a melting-pot style, where everything is equal and doesn’t stay true to anything.
“Being a Chef to me is about being a mom, right? It’s about bringing the kids home and feeding them, making sure they’re happy, their homework is done, their shoes are tied. It’s about nurturing. You want to make sure everybody who comes in here leaves feeling like mom took care of them.”
– Robert Lam, Executive Chef
He calls what he does “Asian within Asian,” pulling from Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditions. He traces his devotion to true flavors to his mother, who opened a Vietnamese restaurant, Vien Dong, in Garden Grove outside Los Angeles when the family landed in Southern California after the fall of Saigon. He was only 4 at the time.
Lam’s father became the first Vietnamese to hold office in the United States when he won a seat on the city council of Westminster (Orange County). His brothers and sisters became “dentists, marine biologist, engineers – and me, I went into the restaurant business, not exactly what was expected,” he says, chuckling.
He wanted to cook, but his parents said no. So Lam was sent to the University of San Francisco, where he majored in American history. “I tried to flunk out so I could go to culinary school,” he reports, but his parents cut him a deal; If he would finish college, they would send him to culinary school. Finishing college, he now admits, was the right thing to do. But he headed straight for New York and the Culinary Institute of America as soon as he could.
Moving back to the West Coast after graduation, he cooked to high praise at Brannan’s Grill in Calistoga. When Butterfly came up for sale, Lam decided to “swim in the big pond,” and bought it. The dream that was stoked in his mother’s kitchen, the skills he learned there, the hunger he found at culinary school and the streak of rebellion that informed it all have found wings at Butterfly.
I met Rob over a decade ago when Butterfly first opened. He was the first Chef to volunteer his time when back in 2002 I delivered breakfast to military moms. He is a chef with much heart, much passion and mad skills in the kitchen.
Chef Rob’s story is an inspiring one.
“Five Tasty Questions with Chef Robert Lam”
1. Being a Chef to you is about…
It’s about being a mom, right? It’s about bringing the kids home and feeding them, making sure they’re happy, their homework is done, their shoes are tied. It’s about nurturing. You want to make sure everyone who comes in here leaves feeling like mom took care of them.
2. In the soundtrack to your culinary journey you have one song, one artist, what would it be?
It sounds crazy, and he’s dead, but Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” has influenced me, because don’t let yourself forget that time is precious. You have one chance to do it right and he died at a young age; hopefully I don’t, but yah that’s the one.
3. If not a Chef, in a second life you come back as something else, what would you be?
I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I do. I’m a Chef, but truthfully I’m a glorified housewife; I cook and I clean.
4. What is your biggest joy outside of the kitchen?
My two girls Clarissa and Erica are 9 and 10. They keep me on my toes. They push me to create better food because, soccer, ballet and all that stuff they do is just expensive.
5. At your last supper Chef, you can have a couple of guests, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you eat?
That’s so hard. I would love to say Buddha but there’s no incarnate and I heard the Dali Lama is a vegetarian so forget that. You know I’ve always loved Peter Tosh, because he was an original gangster and he would bring a lot of weed. The last supper would be something my mom created which is a pho dish, but more importantly it was a dish we had at breakfast and it was us being together and it wasn’t even about the food it was just us being together. I don’t know what the last meal would be, but as long as I’m with good people it’ll be fine.
Liam: Can I be there?
Chef: I’d love for you to be there!
Liam: Tasty answers, Chef Rob Lam. You’re the best brother.
Smoked Salmon and Strawberry Salad Rolls
Yields 8 rolls
1 pk. large Rice Papers
1/2 pk. Rice Noodles, blanched
1 pt. Strawberries, sliced
1/4# Smoked Salmon, sliced
1/4 bu. Cilantro, cleaned and rough chopped
1/4 bu. Mint, cleaned and rough chopped
2 heads Butter Lettuce, cleaned and rough chopped
Method: Get a bowl of warm water large enough to soak the rice paper in. Working one paper at a time, dip the rice paper into the water and let drain on a cutting board. Make sure you run your hand over the paper to get even distribution of water. This should make the rice paper soften up like a really thin tortilla. Working like you are making a burrito, place one layer of smoked salmon down, top it with some slice strawberries, top that with the herb and butter lettuce mix, and finish it all with a layer of rice noodles. Roll it up and let rest for fifteen minutes before slicing. Serve with a classic Vietnamese Nuoc Mam sauce.
Nuoc Mam Sauce
1 C. Lime Juice
1 C. Fish Sauce
1 C. Sugar
3ea. Garlic, minced
1/2 T. Ginger, minced
2 T. Siracha
Method: Combine all ingredients and taste. Reduce the amount of Siracha if it is too spicy. You should get a flavor balance of sweet, spicy, and sour with the aroma of garlic and ginger.
(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)