The Slanted Door Returns to OpenTable: Charles Phan Shares His Wit + Wisdom

charles phan

James Beard Award-winning Slanted Door is the quintessential modern Vietnamese restaurant and is frequently ranked by Restaurant Business magazine as one of the top 100 independent restaurants in America. Originally the restaurant was located in the Mission District but moved to the San Francisco Ferry Building and quickly became an anchor tenant. The stunning space features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Bay, a full bar, and a carefully curated wine list and has spawned several spinoff restaurants.

The visionary behind it all is Charles Phan, a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef. He was born in Vietnam of Chinese descent, moved to the U.S. with his family in 1977, and opened Slanted Door with support from his family in 1995. Inspired by the likes of Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe, Phan seeks out small purveyors and the best ingredients, local when possible, often organic, and always sustainable. His audacious goal now as it was then is to continue to change the public perception of not just Vietnamese food but Asian food in general. His career has been marked by twists and turns, successes, and the ability to bounce back from failures. Through it all, the Slanted Door stands as a testament to his perseverance.

Vision is everything.

“You retain people because you share the same vision, and they share their vision with you. You still have to pay them, but it’s not just [about] money. It’s about fulfilling their needs—if they learn something, have opportunities to grow, all those things allow you to keep them. If they are bored, eventually they will hate their job.”

Restaurants aren’t just about food.

“You have to bring more than food to the table—the ambiance, the design. People want to come to a gathering place. When you eat out, you have a social experience. Even if you don’t talk to people and just sit at the bar, it’s still social.”

The tip system doesn’t work.

“We have to look at tip wages and how we pay our workers. We need to start having a dialogue in this country about why we tip, so more people understand what’s wrong with it. You don’t tip your mechanic. Tipping is not good for anyone. You should tell workers how much they are going to be paid.”

Solve problems by breaking them down.

“My background in architecture helps, not just in design, but it also helps me break down problems to solve them. I approach design or cooking or financial problems by prioritizing the same way you do in architecture. It helps to visualize things.”

Expanding means opportunity.

“One of the good things about expanding is more opportunities for you and your staff. We have  staff that wants to move to Las Vegas, so we’re opening something there.”

Have a niche.

“You just have to pick your corner that you specialize in and then, if people like it, that’s good.”

Change, but don’t change everything.

“The diner wants something new but something old, too. You need to do both. If people waited two months to get in, they‘ll get upset if their favorite dish isn’t on the menu. I like that people are more aware of the product and more experimental in terms of what they are trying. I couldn’t sell whole fish twenty years ago, but now, in the last ten years, it’s not a problem.”

charles phan

Don’t be afraid to try new things.

“If I didn’t explore, I would know what would work. Not everything succeeds; sometimes that’s just what happens. Just because something doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean it’s a failure. At the cafeteria we ran at the Academy of Sciences, we served a lot of people with sustainable meat and vegetables at a fair price and we set a new standard for museum food. I didn’t get along with the owners, so it was more of a divorce than a failure.”

#MeToo is a wake-up call.

“You have to create a harmonious environment and see how people are being treated. It’s not just about women; it’s about power, workers’ rights, people having a place to go and vent their grievances.”

Let HR handle it.

“Years ago, I got advice from Danny Meyer to start an HR department. I didn’t understand it at the time, I thought—I’m not a big corporation. But sometimes you don’t even know you have a problem. Sometimes employees don’t feel comfortable telling you as the owner when there’s a problem.”

Take a step back.

“You should always step back now and then and take a longer view. Take a bird’s eye view and see what’s happening. You can’t bury yourself in the kitchen.”

Find inspiration.

“Sometimes my inspiration isn’t from the food world—it could be an artist or life in general, traveling, seeing other things. But also I go to Napa and dig a hole or work on a project or just read the newspaper. Seeing the crazy tragedies, it invigorates me to do more.”

Staying still is not an option.

“You have to look at every problem and not be afraid to make decisions and changes. It’s not poker; don’t be all in. You can always change. Often it will be, “I’m not going to change because I’m afraid it won’t work.” Look at problems from every angle and see your own stereotypes and biases. We make decisions differently, but sometimes what helps me is talking out loud with my peers. When you say things out loud, you come to different conclusions. Sometimes just step away. Not doing anything is not an option.”

Don’t compromise on quality.

“The trends come and go, but we don’t compromise on the food. Don’t compromise on anything else.”

Think more about your people.

“In the past, I thought about the customer and farmers and now I think more about my people. Someday it will end and you won’t be here; you have to think long term. When you have people on board for a long time, you have to start planning. How will they all retire?”

Talk to your colleagues.

“Sometimes you regurgitate it in your own head and you don’t see the forest for the trees.  I love sitting down with other restaurateurs and telling them how I would approach the problem.”

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