Berkeley Bites: Tu David Phu, Saul’s Delicatessen

by Sarah Henry on August 20, 2010 · 31 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,food businesses,restaurants

What’s a nice, young, tattooed Vietnamese boy from West Oakland doing as the top chef in a Jewish deli in North Berkeley?

I’m so glad you asked. Tu David Phu wanted to take a break from working the stoves in Bay Area fine dining establishments, his resume includes stints at The Peasant and the Pear in Danville and Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay.

So he decided to try his hand in the front-of-the-house at Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in the Gourmet Ghetto.

He liked managing the floor and dealing with customers, but it wasn’t long before he found himself keen to get into the kitchen. Owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman liked Phu’s ideas for improving the food, so back behind the stoves he went.

As regular knows, Saul’s is not your typical deli. The esteemed eatery turns out pastrami sandwiches, blintzes, knishes, celery soda, and matzo ball soup just like grandma used to make — only without the high-fructose corn syrup, canned soup stock, and pasty white bread. The staff at Saul’s pride themselves on keeping it authentic and close to its Jewish roots, while serving slow food made from local, seasonal ingredients.

Phu, 25, embraced the restaurant’s sustainable sensibility. He has a butcher’s background, California Culinary Academy training, and steeped himself in the flavors of a cuisine he says he fell in love with, doing field research in taste tests of classic dishes at several L.A. delis, studying the ingredients and methods of traditional recipes.

Phu’s parents come from an island off the south of Vietnam called Phu Quoc, famous for the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce, though island eats more closely resemble Cambodian and Thai cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh fish, local produce, and grill cooking. Not that Phu realized that growing up. He just thought his parents, both accomplished cooks, made traditional mainland Vietnamese cuisine.

You can catch Phu at Saul’s for another few weeks. In mid-September, he’s off to try his luck in Manhattan in a low-level slot at the high-end Daniel, named one of the ten best restaurants in the world not long after it opened.

I chatted with Phu this week at Saul’s the day after he returned from a stage (try out) at Daniel.

Since your father also worked in the food business did he encourage you to follow in his footsteps?

Not at all, in fact he discouraged me. My dad worked as a fish grader. He told me it’s hard, you’ll work long hours, they’ll make you cry, and you’ll never earn enough money to feed your family. So far three out of four of those things have proven correct. But I like to say if I wasn’t a chef I’d be a failure. It’s what I do, it’s in my blood.

What do you say to customers who complain that a chef with a Vietnamese background can’t cook authentic Jewish food?

I understand why they might question me, I’d feel the same way at first about a non-Vietnamese person cooking the food I grew up with. It did hurt a bit at first. But when you show people the love you have for a cuisine and explain why you prepare something the way you do, they usually come around. I have tremendous respect for the Jewish cuisine. The Jewish people are really one of the only groups I can think of that have held onto their cooking traditions wherever they may live in the world. I mean, matzo ball soup is matzo ball soup. You have to make it with matzo crackers, it’s not like you can make it with semolina flour.

Delis are known for their loyal clientele — are there any people of note who frequent Saul’s?

Food writer Michael Pollan, comedian-monologist Josh Kornbluth, and the guy who plays Monica’s dad in Friends, from L.A. [Ed's Note: Presumably Elliot Gould.]

Our vendors — and that’s really important to me — that the people who sell us their food also eat here, and the young people who work the farmers’ market stand, are all regulars.

What do you think you’ll miss about Berkeley food when you leave?

I’ll miss Acme Bread, just their regular baguette, it has such a great crunch. And I’ll miss the quality of our produce. I’m sorry, I’ve been to the farmers’ market in New York City and its just not the same. Chefs there like to say that West Coast chefs think we’re so hot but it’s really just the quality ingredients we have to work with that makes our food taste good. But you have to know how to handle those ingredients with care and bring out the best in them. I’ll also miss the fresh fish from Monterey Fish Market. I just don’t think that a fresh rock cod sourced from local waters tastes the same once you ship it across the country.

Do you see yourself returning to the Bay Area after a stint in the Big Apple?

Absolutely, my heart belongs here and I plan to return on a regular basis to Saul’s; we’re going to start smoking our own meat and I want to be part of that.

Ideally, I want to spend a couple of years in New York and then come back and open my own restaurant. I’d like to serve Vietnamese food like the dishes I grew up with, not so much the wok style of Vietnamese cuisine that [Slanted Door chef] Charles Phan has popularized. I want to introduce people to the kind of Vietnamese food that is more similar to Cambodian and Thai cuisine.

(Photo Tu David Fu: Stephen Loewinsohn; Food photos: Courtesy of Saul’s)

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on The Bay Citizen.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl August 20, 2010 at 12:03 pm

This guy really gets around. I’d say all his experiences are setting him up for a big successful future. And he’s right, matzo ball soup, after all, IS matzo ball soup, no matter how you slice, er, spoon, it.


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I agree, Sheryl, with David’s diverse background he’s likely to turn out food with eclectic influences.


Kerry August 20, 2010 at 12:46 pm

“explain why you prepare something the way you do…” I think when people know your food story, they are more receptive. thanks for the insight into the thoughts of this talented chef, Sarah. I wonder what he will miss most about Berkeley other than the food?
Kerry´s last [type] and connection- continued


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Good questions, Kerry, I’ll have to add that one to the mix for future profiles where the subject is skipping out of town.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. August 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Would that I had the cash right now for a meal at Daniel – I’ll be in SF in early October and even though Phu won’t be in the kitchen, I might not be able to resist a meal at Saul’s.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Fried Pickles at Bronx Ale House


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Hi Casey, Nice to see you here. Will you be in SF for BlogHer Food? If so, I look forward to meeting you there. Perhaps we can grab a bite to eat — I’m thinking street cart eats, though, nothing to rival restaurant Daniel!


Ruth Pennebaker August 20, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Love the comment that if he weren’t a chef, he’d be a failure — that strong sense of having a calling. Excellent interview.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Remember the House of Death


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm

A calling — that’s exactly what I thought Ruth when David made that comment.


MyKidsEatSquid August 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Great interview. Reminds me of my favorite sushi joint in Michigan. The best sushi and the chef wasn’t from Japan, he was from Mexico.


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Go figure, MKES.


The Writer's [Inner] Journey August 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm

When we drive up the coast next time I want to try this deli – great interview. Sounds like a great spot with a great chef.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The Journal Diaries Begin- Stephanie Stiavetti


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Meredith, let me know when you’re coming and what you like to eat. I’ll give you a list of places to swing by, if you like.


The Writer's [Inner] Journey August 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

I will. Thanks in advance!
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The Journal Diaries Begin- Stephanie Stiavetti


Susan August 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Another great interview! I have to admire how diverse his culinary interests are.


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I agree, Susan, especially when you consider, of course, the French influences in Vietnamese cooking as well.


Dianne Jacob August 21, 2010 at 8:12 am

Perfect lede, Sarah. Enjoyed the piece.


Sarah Henry August 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Why thank you, Dianne. Glad you liked it.


Alexandra August 22, 2010 at 3:06 am

It is so exciting to see all that is going on at the forefront of the food movement, and I know I will always find it here. California leads, the rest of the country follows, and you report on it, Sarah! Phu may be right that SF chefs have more choice from the farmers’ markets as starting place for their creations. It will be interesting to see what he says after working in NY for a while. I would hope chefs in California would take a stand against genetically modified foods. Have you heard any such rumblings out there yet?
Alexandra´s last [type] ..NRTA Gets Website Lesson &amp Hears Green-Wellfleet Plan


Sarah Henry August 24, 2010 at 9:27 am

I think many chefs aren’t big fans of genetically modified foods and they make a stand by the food they choose to buy, cook, and serve.


Alisa Bowman August 22, 2010 at 7:32 am

Funny–I’m Jewish and wouldn’t begin to know how to make most of the typical dishes. I never thought about how we assume that people of a certain culture can cook the foods of that culture. Interesting to think about.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..No- Honey- We Don’t Need to Talk


Sarah Henry August 24, 2010 at 9:28 am

I like that you bring a different take on this topic to the discussion, Alisa. Thanks for your perspective.


Kris Bordessa August 24, 2010 at 10:59 am

I love that you’re tracking down dining establishments both with an interesting story and a sustainable bent. And – celery soda??
Kris Bordessa´s last [type] ..On My Honor- Hawaii’s Roadside Stands


Sarah Henry August 25, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Thanks, Kris, and yes I can confirm that celery soda is made from scratch at Saul’s.


Stephanie August 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Wow, I’m sorry I missed this spot when I was there last week! Sounds like it would’ve been a worthwhile trip.

For the record, I am Jewish and I’m pretty sure I’ve never had matzo ball soup made with high fructose corn syrup or pasty white bread in either the broth or the matzo balls. Remember, matzo ball soup was invented because of Passover – no bread of any kind allowed. The canned broth might show up at some non-Jewish establishments, but there isn’t a Jewish deli around that would dare serve canned broth.
Stephanie´s last [type] ..Broccoli Cheese Soup


Sarah Henry August 25, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Hi Stephanie, Thanks for chiming in. I probably should have been clearer in the sentence that you reference above. I meant that the folks at Saul’s don’t use HFCS in their sodas, canned chicken stock in any of their broths, or pasty white bread on their sandwiches.

You’ll have to come back and visit so you can taste for yourself!


Stephanie August 28, 2010 at 9:04 am

I will definitely come back. I missed the sourdough at Acme Bread, too! My hosts weren’t foodies. But next time, I’ll come prepared!
Stephanie´s last [type] ..Healthy Snacks for Kids


Lisa August 25, 2010 at 10:17 pm

I didn’t understand what Phu meant when he said that the Jewish people held onto their cooking traditions no matter where they lived. If he meant kosher laws, I’ll go along with that. But “Jewish” cooking is heavily influenced by where Jews live. Tunisian Jewish cooking is very different from Hungarian Jewish cooking, etc. An Iraqi Jew wouldn’t recognize a pastrami sandwich or Eastern European matzo ball soup. Jewish cooking has definitely changed depending on where they lived.


Sarah Henry August 25, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Ah, leave it to my well traveled friend to raise this point. I think Phu meant kosher laws but also that some — though certainly not all dishes, as you note, cross cultures.

The folks who run Saul’s make the very point you do, Lisa: That “Jewish” cooking can mean a lot of different things to different people, depending on where they live. And the restaurant tends to incorporate the cuisine broadly and include recipes reflective of different regional Jewish foods.


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