Cuong Pham Elevates Humble Fish Sauce

Haunted by the staple of his youth, Cuong Pham gives up IT consulting to perfect his Red Boat Fish Sauce.


Cuong Pham decided to try his hand at fish sauce in part because the traditional factories had closed.

Photos by Megan Fawn Schlow, courtesy of Red Boat Fish Sauce

Growing up in Vietnam, Cuong Pham remembers the unmistakable taste of the fermented fish sauce from his uncle’s factory on Phu Quoc, the island famed for its production of that staple condiment made from the prized anchovies swimming offshore.

“I enjoyed that fish sauce in my mom’s cooking every day,’’ says Pham, 57, who now lives in Pleasanton. “That fish sauce was rich, pure and clean—salty at first, then followed by a sweet rich flavor and smooth mouth-feel.’’

It was in sharp contrast to the one-dimensional, harsh-tasting fish sauces he found in markets here, after immigrating to California to attend college. When he couldn’t find the haunting taste of the sauce of his youth, he took a bold step. He turned his back on the security of almost three decades as an engineer and IT consultant in Silicon Valley for Apple, Oracle, and Verizon to start his own fish sauce factory on that island in Vietnam.

Now, his Red Boat Fish Sauce, established in 2011, not only can be found on the shelves of Whole Foods, but in the restaurants of some of the country’s finest chefs, including Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb in San Francisco; Stuart Brioza’s State Bird Provisions and The Progress, both in San Francisco; Paul Qui’s Qui in Austin; and Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia in Louisville.

Like soy sauce is to Chinese cuisine, fish sauce is to Vietnamese and Thai cooking—a crucial seasoning ingredient that imparts delicious saltiness and potent umami flavor. It’s what gives nuoc cham, the ubiquitous dipping sauce for Vietnamese noodle salads and fried spring rolls, its delicious briny savoriness.

Red Boat’s fish sauce costs about twice as much as others. Unlike less expensive, mass-produced ones made with added preservatives, water, and fructose, Pham’s is made the time-honored way with only two ingredients: wild-caught black anchovies that are slowly fermented with sea salt in tropical wood barrels for a year before the resulting liquid is extracted.

Chefs have taken to it, using it in many ways that go beyond traditional Vietnamese dishes. Lee has used it to season aioli. Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant in Portland, Ore., has even flavored jalapeño chocolate truffles with it. Cosentino likes to feature it in a dish of squid, watermelon, mint, and Thai chili.

“I use it in many different dishes, whether to finish a dish or to balance a vinaigrette,’’ Cosentino said. “The quality is far superior. The flavor is complex and full, while still having a nice balance of fish to salt.’’

Ironically, it was on a trip to Southeast Asia for his high-tech job that brought Pham back to Phu Quoc for a visit. He was dismayed to find that most of the factories had closed on the island once renowned for its fish sauce.

Nowadays, he spends most of his time in Vietnam, overseeing production. Thirteen tons of anchovies are packed into every barrel. Only about 30 percent of the resulting first-pressed liquid meets his standards to get bottled for export.

The 40° N listed on the Red Boat label refers to the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of fish sauce. The more nitrogen, the higher the protein level, and thus, the greater the complexity of the flavor. No other fish sauce sold in the United States has a natural protein content higher than Red Boat’s (4 grams per tablespoon), Pham says.

At the request of chefs, Red Boat also started making a dehydrated version of the fish sauce. The resulting salt, the color of light brown sugar, is more concentrated in flavor but less pungent in aroma. Pham loves using it to season steaks.

In the coming months, he will produce a certified kosher version of both the fish sauce and the salt. Additionally, he plans to release a limited-edition Red Boat Chef’s Cuvee 2015, a fish sauce that has been aged for an additional eight months in bourbon barrels to lend added smokiness and caramel notes.

Even after moving to the United States more than 35 years ago, Pham says he always wanted to return to Vietnam in some way to pay homage to his childhood there. He never imagined it would be in such a delicious way.

He says, “I am so humbled and very proud to see chefs and home cooks, especially the older Vietnamese generation, appreciate the product—a product that was almost forgotten.’’

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