Podcast: Season 4, Episode 5

“I'm a huge Mama's boy, no shame in that!

Picture of Grace

In our first intergenerational podcast interview, we speak to Peter Pham and his mom about their shared love of cooking, their family stories, and their history. As a professional cook, self-taught baker, and current operator of Phamilyeats, Peter is finding meaning and joy in feeding others. Chock-full of nostalgia and real talk, Peter gives us a glimpse into how a descendant of Vietnamese refugees has ended up running a patty and pot pie shop. Admittedly he is still navigating his relationship with his own Vietnamese background - but one thing is for sure - Mama's cooking is something that he always has a hankering for!


Check out www.phamilyeats.ca and get your patties today.


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Episode Transcript


Anika

Welcome back to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I’m your host Anika Chabra,


We are having so much fun this season learning about all the ways that our community documents. Coming off the heels of speaking with someone as vibrant as Marel Alameny, a creative storyteller who understands the confluence of all the parts of his culture and history, it is important for us to recognize that not everyone has fully understood the role that their backgrounds play in their present sense of self.


People are at different points in that journey and maybe dabbling with whatever small connections they can see or feel, and at Root & Seed we believe their story is just as valid as the ones whose link is strong, firm and resolved. Why? Because nostalgia is one of the biggest and most visceral feelings we, as humans can feel and nostalgia can come from something as big as an annual family celebration or as fleeting as the smell of your favourite childhood meal.


With all that said, today we get to introduce you to a special human, Peter Pham. Owner of restaurant, Phamily Eats. Admittedly, Peter is still navigating his relationship with his background as a descendant of two parents who fled the war in Vietnam. But after speaking to Peter and really listening to his story, we’ve realized that by tapping into nostalgia by way of food that he grew up with, he is in fact creating a connection that is lasting and worthy of documenting.


We thought we'd let Peter introduce himself and a special guest.


Peter

I’m Peter Pham, I'm the chef, owner and operator of Phamily Eats, and we specialize in Jamaican-inspired homestyle patties and pot pies.


Anika

Tell me a little bit about your family, you've got your mom beside you. We'll talk to her in a second, but tell me a little bit about your family.


Peter

So let's see, it's a family of five boys and one of the reasons why she's beside me is because I'm a huge mama's boy, no shame in that. That's what happens when you grow up with four brothers. You're trying to fight for attention and my mom was always in the kitchen, so that's where I would spend most of my time. Helping her out, sweeping the floors, setting the table, doing that kind of stuff.


Anika

Peter, why don't you introduce your mom now that we're chatting with her too.


Peter’s Mother

Anika, I'm very shy you know. If you asked me to do anything in the kitchen, I could do anything. But for talking, no, not me.


Peter

This is the other half of Phamily Eats. She helps me out through the week, if it wasn't for her helping me out I don't think I'd be where I am today. She's very handy in the kitchen, she's been cooking for most of her life and I just love having her around. It's kind of like a dream come true for me and I'm sure for many cooks as well, just to have their mom helping them out or just spending time cooking. So, I'm very fortunate to have her here.


Anika

Fortunate does really feel like the right word for it. This actually made us think back to after Season 1 of our podcast, we had a few Instagram lives with chefs and they spoke about how cooking with family is just such a treasure, and how physically documenting it is hard because it’s all about touch and the in the moment experience. Mama Pham really has built a reputation for herself in the kitchen, not only is she known for her Vietnamese dishes, but also her lasagna! That’s what happens when you move to a new country, you keep a bit of the past and merge it with the influences of your new surroundings. So we decided to dig into that and find out how a descendant of Vietnamese immigrants opened a patty shop! Peter takes us through that next.


Peter

A little backstory, I did mention I was a cook. I cooked professionally for five years and when I started I had this really romantic idea of becoming a chef. Maybe owning my own restaurant one day, but the longer you're in the industry, you're just like, wow, this is a lot of work! I don't have what it takes, I don't like managing that many people and I just want to make delicious food. So along the years, you get beaten down because the hours along, you're sacrificing time from family or your loved ones for little pay, so I kind of got lost in the sauce. Drinking and substance abuse is very common in the industry.


I lost my way through that whole process and the tipping point for me leaving the industry is just realizing like, okay, if I do become a sous chef or a chef, I'm going to get paid like $40,000 a year while working 80 hours a week. So that realization plus the passing of one of my older brothers really put things into perspective for me and showed me what really mattered. And to me, family is all that really matters. Take care of the ones you love and spend more time with them. So I took a break from cooking, I went into hard labour doing construction and demolition trying to find myself again. Somewhere along those years, I really wanted to recreate my mom's chicken pot pie. So obviously I couldn't. It's just never the same trying to make something your mom makes and in doing so I made my own pot pie. I created my own recipe and I was happy with it. My wife really loved it, she said it's better than my mom's. To me, it's not because there's the nostalgia factor with it, but maybe objectively it does taste a little better.


And I started selling that. That was the first product that I started selling through friends and family and coworkers. And obviously, it's hard to know what you're worth unless you put yourself out there. So I was selling my pies for like $5, like really big pies and everyone that was buying was like, this is too cheap. So that was the first product, I started getting into kombucha, I really loved kombucha. It was like a nice alternative to pop. I did that for a year, I really loved it, but my stomach couldn't take it anymore. I started getting really bad stomach pains. So I went through kombucha, I made fried chicken almost every day for three months, I made Chinese barbecue, like the char siu, the barbecue pork. So, I went through a lot of things before I actually landed on the patty and come the pandemic, if it wasn't for my friend that asked me to teach her how to make patties, I would've probably never come across patties. So we did the zoom class, I'm doing it alongside with her going through each step, seeing which step I could remove, improve on and voila made the patty and I instantly fell in love. I get the question a lot. Why patties? Like, why did you choose patties? And now I say, I didn't choose patties, the patties chose me.


You don't get to choose the things you love and that's kind of how it came about. My chef's brain kicked in, every week I started making patties, improving the process, teaching myself how to make dough and how to make really tasty fillings. So today it's been a little more than three years of me making the patties and I'm still finding ways to improve on it, but it was week after week, day after day, just making patties over and over and over again. And that's when I realized, I love doing this. I love making food. I love making tasty food for people and I realized I was doing it on my own terms and that's when I kind of fell in love with cooking again. That's what brought me back to my first love if you will cooking.


Anika

That's so great, and tell me what it is about the patty that you think is resonating with people right now. Outside of the fact that I know it's delicious.


Peter

I think there's a significant patty culture because I think it's ingrained in the Toronto culture. It's everywhere, you grew up eating them in school and school cafeterias, corner convenience stores. It has such a huge significance in the food scene in Toronto which kind of says how powerful the Jamaican or the Caribbean culture is in the city. It's everywhere, everyone knows everyone can pick their favourite Caribbean joint, everyone has their favourite patty shop and I think that's why it's so special because it's ingrained in the culture.


Anika

Do you have any memories of having patties yourself growing up?


Peter

Absolutely, my mom would take me to this math center called Kumon and there's a convenience store right around it. So I would always try to scramble for change wherever I could. It was like maybe two, I don't know, a dollar fifty at that time. You just need to find six quarters and you get yourself a meal so those memories always going for patty after the math extracurriculars. It was like, oh, I don't need to ask my parents to buy this. I just need to find change and I could buy on my own and it's one of those things that you kind of have independence purchasing stuff.


Anika

After hearing Peter’s origin story, we can’t help but think that his search for nostalgic food, his mom’s pot pie and then a childhood favourite in patties is what motivated him. While clearly going through a rough patch experiencing loss, he was searching for his place in the world and he was able to anchor in part to what’s familiar and dear to his heart.


At Root & Seed we believe that knowing your roots empowers you to become who you are truly meant to be and we see this so clearly with Peter. Taking a childhood favourite, the patty, a prominent food in Toronto culture in the 90s and that for Peter also signaled a sense of independence as a child.


Knowing that growing up with access to different cultures was significant for Peter we knew we needed to know how he understood his relationship with his own Vietnamese culture and how that has evolved over the years.


Peter

I definitely am exploring it more now. More so in terms of the people, like the culture to me because I'm a cook, that's how I like to explore other cultures is through their food. I feel like that's a perfect representation of where they're from, how they got there and I love food. Like food is my religion. So I would explore Vietnamese culture through the food my mom makes. It's funny because I never really liked Vietnamese food as a kid, but now that I'm older in my twenties, it's the food that I want to eat all the time. As a kid, your palate isn't as developed so you can't really appreciate the effort and flavours as a kid or at least from my perspective.


Anika

Next, we wanted to hear from Mama Pham. Her family first landed in Montreal from Vietnam because her father was fluent in French. Did you know that Vietnam was under French colonial rule during the 19th and early 20th centuries, so French was the official language? Anyway, her family opened a restaurant with no experience other than her mother’s recipes. This means generationally, we know that’s where Peter’s entrepreneurship and culinary skills came from, but we wondered why Mama Pham ended up in Toronto and more importantly how she met her husband, Doctor Pham.


Peter’s Mother

I met my husband because my brother-in-law was a doctor too, but he was in New Zealand. So my brother-in-law tried to move to Canada, but by the time he submitted to move to Canada, they changed their policy that foreign doctors had to redo their credentials again. Even though he came from New Zealand which is a Commonwealth country he had to do it again. So he arrived in Montreal, he couldn't speak French, he couldn't find any Vietnamese doctor that he knew. So he came to Toronto and asked someone, do you know any doctor in Toronto? So another brother-in-law said, I know him in Toronto, so he introduced him to my husband and that is how I met him.


Anika

Is it an introduction because I come from India, so it's a lot of arranged marriages. Did you fall in love? Is it a love marriage or an arranged marriage or somewhere in between?


Peter’s Mother

At that time, my two sisters had arranged marriages, but it was very strict at that time. So I saw my two sisters and I tended not to have a boyfriend. I was so worried about having a boyfriend. If you wanted to have a boyfriend you had to inform your parents otherwise you'd get into trouble. There was no introduction because at that time another family tried to introduce me to a doctor in Montreal, but I don't know, somehow I didn't want him, I didn't want to get married at that time. So when I came to Toronto to get stuff from my parent's restaurant, I met him because my sister went with me to visit her husband. So they were all together, my brother-in-law and my husband at that time. So at that time, my husband fell in love with me and I had no choice. I cannot say oh, he's my boyfriend. No, I have to ask my parents first!


Anika

Oh yeah, for sure. So there's no dating or anything like that. And then tell me, so your dad had a restaurant, then you moved to Toronto when you met your husband and then what did you and your husband do?


Peter’s Mother

I speak very fluently French in Montreal. I knew very little English so after I married him we moved to Kingston. I don't like Toronto and he doesn't like Montreal. So he chose Kingston.


Anika

Halfway in between!


Peter’s Mother

That's right. So after we got married I missed my family. He has no family here so every weekend I wanted to drive back to Montreal. I was going back so often I didn't have a chance to learn ESL. So I learned things when I had children, I learned from them.


Anika

Ah, we love a good love story and we were absolutely honoured that Mama Pham agreed to share with us. These are the stories that we know the Pham boys will listen back on in their mother’s voice as a treasure.


Now, back to the theme of food, we naturally decided to ask Peter a question from that category in our conversation tool. In deciding so, it struck us that the act of cooking is in fact “active” documenting, something we have been striving to accomplish with our platform versus the passive, end of life only type of family documenting. We asked Peter to answer the question, “What are some of the meal staples in your family?”


Peter

So there are a few hits. There's Bánh Xèo. It's a yellow Vietnamese rice pancake. It's crispy, people think it's egg, but it's actually coloured from turmeric and there's an assortment of vegetables and meats inside and you eat it like a taco. You use big lettuce, you wrap the crepe in it and you eat it as a taco. There's another one that we love doing, it involves your own assembly, summer rolls. You have your rice paper and you have toppings and you get to make your own. It's like a DIY night, but Vietnamese style. And then other, the third one that I really love, is called Bánh Bèo. It's a rice cake, it's very soft and fluffy with mung bean paste, dried shrimp sometimes minced meat. It's very, very simple and then you have the Nước chấm, the Vietnamese dipping sauce and you drizzle that all over and it's just a tiny little scrumptious one-biter, but there's a bunch of them on the plate. So those three are my favourites.


Anika

Oh, that's awesome and then are they for special occasions or are they just everyday types of dishes?


Peter

Yeah, it's whenever I visit! I'll tell her, "hey mom I'm coming over," and I never ask for anything specifically, but I can always expect something delicious to be made.


Anika

Somehow mom always knows.


Peter

It's a lot of work to prepare these things, but she loves doing it. Right, mom?


Peter’s Mother

Yeah.


Anika

That's awesome. Sounds like it's a very mutually respectful relationship between the two of you. You call yourself a mama's boy, but you know, she just loves to cook for you too and definitely feels like a reciprocal relationship, which is lovely and beautiful.


Peter

I think the whole point of cooking for people is that you want to cook for people who appreciate it and are grateful and that's something that I've learned to do too. It's not fun cooking for people who don't care. It's a whole experience for the person making the food and the person eating. So because I love it so much, she loves making it.


Anika

We couldn’t agree more, cooking for people who appreciate the effort and love involved in preparing food is so much more gratifying. It’s similar with the act of documenting. It’s likely not a thing most of us will do unless we feel there will be someone who will appreciate it, even eventually. So with that, we think Peter wins the prize as the most accidental documenter this season!


Perhaps without full awareness, by way of a sheer desire to imitate and replicate his mom's recipe and a childhood favourite he is fanning the flames and ensuring that they live through him and future generations. That's documenting to us! And who can resist the adoration and respect he has for his mom and the reason why Phamily Eats is sure to be a destination for people who have a hankering for good old comfort food.


Hungry for more? Next episode we are switching gears to chat with a genealogist. What we do at Root & Seed is considered the softer side of family heritage and we knew that our community would love to know and hear from an expert who can inspire a collection of facts and information to paint a full picture of family lineage. We can’t wait to have you listen to Theresa McVean next time.


Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and Edited by Camille Blais.





Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Edited by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN

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