Chef Profile: Viet Pham of Ray’s & Stark Bar

The chef at LACMA’s signature restaurant counts his family and Kris Morningstar as inspirations

While there are many Kris Morningstar fans in Los Angeles right now—especially since the opening of Terrine, where the chef dazzles Angelenos with California brasserie dishes—the roll of number-one fan goes to Morningstar’s former sous chef Viet Pham, who took over at Ray’s & Stark Bar at LACMA when Morningstar exited last year.

Pham’s professional career officially began with Morningstar hiring him at Casey’s Irish Pub Downtown the day after Pham’s birthday in 2006, just a short time after his graduation from Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. When Morningstar instructed him to be at the pub by 7:00 a.m., Pham showed up at 6:30 a.m.

“I dedicate my career to [Morningstar]. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at,” says Pham. “He’s one of those old-school chefs who push you to the limit and makes you great. There are no boundaries. If you fail, you succeed, as long as you’re doing.”

But Pham’s journey started even before that. His family—especially his grandmother, mother, and sister Trang—also played important parts in his path to chef-dom. Pham recollects growing up among his immediate and extended family of twenty people in two small houses in the San Gabriel Valley. While Pham was born in the SGV, many of his family members were recent refugees of the Vietnam War who had few resources. However, the crowded conditions weren’t all bad for Pham. In fact, because of space constraints, efficiency was mandated, particularly when cooking meals

“Every day was like a dinner party,” explains Pham. “Everyone contributed to cooking, but my grandmother was the executive chef.”

Pham’s mother was a big influence in the kitchen, too. Sometimes on the Ray’s menu, you’ll even find dedications to her in the guise of pork meatballs cupped by clams and puddled in fish sauce or in his oxtail ravioli dish called “Mama Sauce.”

However, if it wasn’t for Pham’s sister Trang registering him for culinary school after a fateful Thanksgiving dinner in 2004 when he lamented how miserable he was with his computer engineering job, there likely would be no chef Viet Pham.

When I asked Pham which direction he’s taking Ray’s now that he’s at the helm, it’s unsurprising that his answer touched on family and heritage.

“Putting my Vietnamese background in my cooking—some noticeable, some not too much,” he says. “Big umami flavors. Lots of fresh herbs. I really love dashi soy right now. I use it to make butter glaze.”

Of course, Pham will always have a place for his mentor Kris Morningstar on the Ray’s & Stark Bar menu, too. Just ask for the frites or agnolotti.

redarrow Ray’s & Stark Bar, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-857-6180