Chef Story with Chef Khai

When thinking about fine dining food, Vietnamese cuisine rarely comes to mind. However, Chef Khai, the owner and head chef of Khai in San Francisco’s SoMa wants to change that. He wants to expand people’s conception of Vietnamese food beyond pho and banh mi.

Chef Khai opened his restaurant Khai in December 2016 and it’s already making waves in the foodie scene. A fine dining restaurant that features Vietnamese food is after all, a rarity in the restaurant industry. He hopes that Khai will be the first Vietnamese restaurant to receive a Michelin Star.

Fresh Seaweed Salad with onions, mint, chili dressing, chopped peanuts and shallots. Photo by Anthony Thornton.

Chef Khai’s tasting menu mimics an Omakase (chef’s choice). He carefully curates his meals to illustrate a gastronomical adventure that plays with your senses. He draws from childhood memories and hometown flavors to design his tasting menu. Foodies are constantly amazed by his dishes because they look like French fine dining, but taste authentically Vietnamese.

“Customers are always expecting what’s gonna come next. What’s the next one? The next course always comes out as a surprise to them and even more surprising than the last… It’s satisfying. It’s beautiful.” — Chef Khai
Pan Seared Rack of Lamb with lemongrass, eggplant and scallion oil. Photo by MichaelMLe.com.

The Beginning

When asked where his love for food came from, it was no surprise when he said it started at home. Growing up with 11 siblings with varying tastebuds, Khai’s mother tweaked every single dish for her children. Seeing the love and effort his mother poured into her craft, he showed his appreciation by always being the first of his siblings to pick his food up.

When he was a young adult, he started working as an engineer. However, he would love cooking for people at home as a respite from his mundane job. After much deliberation, he quit engineering and started working for a relative’s restaurant as a chef. After five years of working as a chef, he moved to France to study culinary arts in Le Cordon Bleu.

Chef Khai had to work full time as a helper in a French home to pay for his exorbitant school fees. He cooked, cleaned and even babysat the family’s kids all while going to school. He lived in a separate studio next to their home with no bathroom. After two years, all that hard work paid off. He was the first Vietnamese American to graduate top of the class.

“I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I have no regrets,” Chef Khai said recalling his time in France.

Chef Khai preparing his Seaweed Salad inspired by his mom’s cooking. Photo by Anthony Thornton.

Burning Out

After years of being in the hospitality Chef Khai started to feel burnt out. He admitted that he came to a point where he felt like he couldn’t be creative with his food any more. This, along with other curveballs life threw at him, caused Chef Khai to close his popular San Francisco restaurant, Ana Mandara, and embark on a journey to Vietnam — back to his roots. Chef Khai felt like he needed to reconnect with his heritage — the culture, the people, and most importantly, the food. It was in Vietnam where Chef Khai participated as a judge on a cooking show that he found his fire again. He fell back in love with cooking through watching the young chefs compete on the show. With his passion reignited, he headed back to San Francisco with a vision: to be the first chef to receive a Michelin Star for Vietnamese cuisine.

Passion, Honesty and Love

“You need to be honest with your cooking. It’s just like any other form of art, if you are not honest in the process, the customers will know. The customers know better than a chef.” — Chef Khai
Chef Khai. Photo by MichaelMLe.com.

When asked what fuels his drive today, Chef Khai mentioned that being true to his philosophy keeps him creative and optimistic. Three main principles form his philosophy: passion, honesty and love. “No passion equals a meaningless life,” Chef Khai said. He also emphasized that, “You need to be honest with your cooking. It’s just like any other form of art, if you are not honest in the process, the customers will know. The customers know better than a chef.” Lastly, Chef Khai asserted, “You MUST enjoy what you are doing.”

So what’s next for this pioneering chef? We’re definitely optimistic about him receiving a Michelin Star for his Vietnamese cuisine. Definitely check out Khai if you’re looking for a different fine dining experience. The intimate setting of the restaurant stems from Chef Khai’s warm, friendly personality. He is often time seen mingling with guests always curious as to what they have to say about his food. So who knows, you could meet the man himself when you wine and dine there.

Special appetizer of the day Photo by Anthony Thornton.
Wild Matsutake Mushroom Paté with rice cracker, honey and Himalayan salt. Photo by Anthony Thornton.
Chả Cá Lã Vọng — Grilled fish marinated in turmeric served with fresh dill, herbs, crush peanuts, and rice noodles. Photo by MichaelMLe.com.
Wild Smelt Ceviche with pork belly, rice noodle, egg, green apple, herbs and peanut. Photo by Anthony Thornton.
Crab Sausage with shrimp, Matsutake mushroom and pickled julienned vegetables. Photo by Anthony Thornton.
Coconut Rolls filled with durian, coconut sauce, candied ginger and mint

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