Califonia Bountiful

Sacramento chef stays on top of new dining trends

When it comes to dining trends, Asian cuisine is one of the hottest around.

When it comes to dining trends, Asian cuisine is one of the hottest around. But as one Sacramento restaurateur shows, you don't have to travel to a foreign land to find some of the best ingredients.

When it comes to Thai and Vietnamese cooking in California, there is probably no one who knows more about it than acclaimed author and chef, Mai Pham. Mai is the chef and owner of one of Sacramento's most popular restaurants, Lemon Grass. Mai and her family came to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She received a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and went on to work as a television reporter. In fact, she was the first Vietnamese-born TV journalist in America. But in 1988, she found her true calling and decided to follow her passion for cooking by opening the Lemon Grass Restaurant.

Mai has managed to stay on top in the ultracompetitive world of Asian cuisine by doing what she does best--cooking with only the freshest ingredients. Because it has a large Asian culture, plus soil and terrain that are similar to Vietnam's, California is the perfect place to grow produce that reminds Mai and her family of home. At an Asian herb farm in southern Sacramento County, Mai finds exotic vegetables and herbs that will eventually go into many of the dishes she will serve that same night at her restaurant.

Over the years, Mai has become a respected and well-known expert on Southeast Asian cuisine. She has written for several national publications on the topic, as well as teaching cooking classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. She is also a consultant for several food organizations and has written two cookbooks, The Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table and The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking. Mai says that once people develop an interest in the country's food, they soon will become interested in the history and culture of the land as well.

For Mai and her father, Xuan Pham, the food they serve is a way of educating others. They both believe that sharing authentic dishes from their homeland is a way of sharing the rich tradition of Southeast Asian cultures. Mai says that because of California's great diversity and ideal climate for growing just about anything, it will always be a leader when it comes to defining trends in dining. She says nothing pleases her more than seeing the dishes that she grew up with show up on mainstream menus and become food that we all share.

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