New 'Phocumentary' Will Explore Origins of Pho and Vietnamese Culture

Pho enthusiasts: there's a new pho documentary in the works–a “phocumentary,” if you will–and in it creators Freeman Lafleur and Curtis Bell will use pho as a means to explore Vietnamese culture and cuisine. The phocumentary will attempt to trace the origins of pho and highlight the resilience of the Vietnamese people, in which some started pho businesses to create a new life after escaping their homeland during the Vietnam War. Of course, Orange County's Little Saigon is featured, as well as other areas in California with large Vietnamese populations. Lafleur and Bell are currently hosting a Kickstarter to raise more funds for their film and, curious about where they're planning to take the project, we sat down with them to learn more.


How and when did this project start? What inspired you to start this documentary?

Freeman: I was living in Orange County and eating a lot of pho. Once, I started joking with someone about doing a pho documentary but then I started looking more into it and realized there could be a cool story there that we could tell. In January of this year, I contacted Curtis about this idea. I wanted somebody with more culinary knowledge than I have and could bring a different viewpoint to the project. He was of course really excited to be part of this project and that's how we started. For the past couple of months, we've been shooting in Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, and other places.

What aspects of pho will this documentary cover?

Freeman: We're really trying to find out a couple of things. Pho is interesting because it mirrors the history of Vietnam where Vietnam has gone through changes and so has pho. We're trying to trace the origins of pho because there's a lot of confusion of where pho comes from, and we're finding it's a hybrid of French and Chinese influences. We want to expose people to the greater Vietnamese culture and cuisine because pho can act as an entryway into it.

What places have you visited to record your documentary and why did you choose them?

Freeman: For us, Orange County was an obvious first place to start because it has the largest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. We knew there was a lot of Vietnamese influence in Orange County and that there was a lot of people we could talk to. We could get a jumpstart on our ideas, validate them, and figure out more questions. We went to San Diego also because it has a lot of Vietnamese influence and because Camp Pendleton is where Vietnamese people came during the Vietnam War.

Curtis: As far as we realized, Camp Pendleton is the root of a lot of Vietnamese in America and where they went from there; the cuisines and businesses followed. Camp Pendleton was a natural starting point and we went up north to other parts of the country where there are Little Saigon districts. Depending on how the Kickstarter goes, we'll go to more of these cultural centers around the country.

Freeman: One place we want to go is Texas because it has the 2nd largest concentration of people outside of Vietnam. And we're going to Vietnam, too. In June we're spending time there starting in Ha Noi and going down the country capturing stories.

Can you tell me about your experience recording your documentary in Little Saigon?

Freeman: What struck me about Little Saigon was that it's like another world–like a little Vietnam within America. You almost forget that you're in California. The people are just the nicest people we've ever met. I just love the laidback culture and the stories we're learning from people of how they came to the United States from Vietnam. There are stories of leaving on aircraft carriers or on a boat with thousands of people or going through an underground tunnel into thailand. Those stories sent chills down our backs. If you've never been to Vietnam, Little Saigon is the closest way to gain an appreciation of the Vietnamese people.

Curtis: In Little Saigon, it gave me more understanding of where the Vietnamese came from and where we're there going today. You can tell they're very entrepreneurial and ambitious. Almost every family seems to own a business, and that's what created Little Saigon.

From your research, who are the people behind pho restaurants? What are some of their stories?

Freeman: We spoke to the mayor of Garden Grove, Bao Nguyen, and he told us his mother came over when she was pregnant with him. She escaped Vietnam through a tunnel into Thailand. Another one was a gentleman we had met with in San Diego. He came over when he was 15 and had to leave his brother and mother in Vietnam. He and one of his brothers escape and his father was in the South Vietnamese military and stayed behind. There were a lot of families being split apart not knowing if they would see each other again. He said that, when he left Vietnam, that's when Vietnam was no longer considered his home.

Curtis: That's something with this documentary we wanna be mindful of. We're stepping into some really emotional stories of the people we're talking to and we don't want to hurt or offend anyone. There are some wounds that aren't completely heal.

What are some qualities that make a bowl of pho extraordinary?

Freeman: For me, I have a rating system when I eat pho. The broth is the most important element. When some people don't have a good experience their first time eating pho, it might be because the broth wasn't as good as it can be. I love this restaurant in San Diego called Pho Hoa. i also love Pho 45 in Orange County because their broth is really rich. And then the freshness of the ingredients is the second most most important thing. The third thing that's important is the atmosphere of the restaurants.

Curtis: I agree that Pho Hoa was a game changer for us when we went there and tasted their broth. But there's also a place we've gone to in Denver called Pho 95 which will be featured in the movie as well. For me, the quality is always about the broth first and foremost. I look for the richness, the mouthfeel, the complexity, and flavors. You can tell if they've used better ingredients for the broth by the complexity of the flavor. Some of them will use concentrated things that will make the broth seem flat or over-salted; it's kind of like comparing fresh soup to instant ramen. it's also the clarity of the broth that matters. Everything else seems to be similar as far as meats go and whatnot. But the freshness of the ingredients are very important. As far as what's my favorite style is it used to be rare beef but I think that's because i learned to eat pho with American kids who didn't know the more adventurous things like tripe and flank. Now I look for good flank, brisket, and tendon.

Final thoughts?

Freeman: We want to make a project that answers some of the origin questions and shows the evolution and where pho is heading next. We want to make a good film that does this subject justice for both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese.

Curtis: We want to do it right. We want to make sure we tell this story as thoroughly as possible because we know people are going to be critical of this. From the surface it doesn't seem like a deep topic but, once you get into it, there's a lot of debate.

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