On the Line: Michael Pham of Anchor Hitch

Anchor Hitch was not only one of my top five restaurants last year, they are one of our featured restaurants for next month’s OC Weekly Fresh Toast event. With an updated menu and a weakness for tasty delights, my subject for this week is the ambitious Michael Pham.

What was your inspiration for the new menu? Thematically, what did you try to do with these dishes?
I tried to create a more approachable version of our famous menu, while still highlighting the talent that exists within my kitchen. We wanted to focus more on the product itself and simplify the dishes in a more minimalist way. In South Orange county, the clients know what they want, and we are learning to cater to that specific palate.

What seafood do you like to eat most?
A freshly shucked oyster with a bottle of Sriracha is my favorite thing. It embodies what seafood means to me. You’re consuming part of the ocean. . . .the actual salt water and a creature that’s completely evolved to live and consume harmoniously within its ecosystem.

How does Southern California (and being from Fountain Valley) affect your culinary viewpoint?
It’s the foundation for my understanding of cuisines. Southern California is the catalyst for me to effortlessly traverse different food cultures. Growing up here, you’re introduced to so many different flavors. Being here made me well rounded, as well as adventurous in creating.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
That the party never ends. It’s true. Going through a full day, it’s hard to wind down. A lot of chefs have a healthy appetite for continuing through the night.

Your best food find:
Mil Jugos in Downtown Santa Ana. People go for the arepas, but you should definitely try the empanadas, too. I like the ham and cheese one and the carne damachada (shredded beef). Adding a dollop of their spicy green sauce— heavy on the cilantro and the peppers— makes anything delicious.

What is your restaurant experience?
I went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu before joining the kitchen at The Foundry on Melrose under Eric Greenspan. I also spent time in the kitchens at Melisse and Providence, and I opened my own restaurant, Savory Burgers & Tapas in Fountain Valley, when I was 22. After spending time at Providence, I went traveling throughout Asia, and then went into the test kitchen for what would become Anchor Hitch.

Tell me about your travels throughout Asia.
The first time I went I took a fellowship and was introduced to more Westernized kitchens. I felt like I was learning techniques from books older than what I learned in culinary school.

The second time, I left the professional kitchens to explore the street vendors. I offered vendors I was impressed by to work with them and cook for free. They taught me so much. One of my vendors would let me go grocery shopping for her, and I would watch her cook.

I traveled through Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. I absorbed a lot of what Southeast Asia can offer.

Where was your most recent meal?
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Their regular glazed donut is delicious. I love watching them get made fresh and hot off the line. I could eat a box by myself if they were freshly made.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Work with whole fish and know the source of your product. There’s a lot of malpractice in the industry right now, and sustainability is also a huge issue that needs to be of concern. On top of that, working with whole fish, you have more control and understanding of what you’re working with. Working with just the cuts, you don’t have the true appreciation for that fish. As far as cooking it goes, a nice, hot cast iron pan is the way to go.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
The hardest request we had recently was a vegan and gluten free option. In a lot of our seasonings we have some amount of gluten. I gave her roasted vegetables, but the dish turned out to be pretty awesome. We grilled heirloom baby carrots with asparagus, purple potatoes and Romanesco broccoli. It ended up being quite a beautiful dish.

What did you study in school? Did you always plan on being a chef?
I always saw myself as an artist. I went to OCC, but didn’t know what I was going to do. Getting out of high school, I was doing graphic design. I pursued it for a little bit, and I also dabbled in some business prerequisites. I also took a ton of psychology and philosophy classes. One day, though, I decided to go to culinary school and I never looked back. I had found my calling.

What do you prefer to be doing when you’re not at work?
When am I not at work?

Favorite meal growing up.
Chinese sausage, rice and a sunny side up egg. When I was younger, I was obsessed with breakfast foods. And a common dish we had was Chinese sausage with rice. I was in love with egg yolk  too, so the combination of the salt from the meat, the starch of the rice and the richness from the egg was, and will always be, perfect.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
Sitting in the back of a moped going through the streets of Vietnam. I was two or three years old, but I remember this very vividly. My dad was driving, and I just remember the scent of barbecued meat permeating my senses.

Last thing you looked up online:
I was looking at knives. I have my eye on a Takeda gyuto chef’s knife.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
A Big Mac. I crave it. I dream about it. But halfway through the burger I feel like death.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
The importance of building a trustworthy partnership. That’s the one thing that is the most difficult, but also the most critical.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m a goofball. People think I’m really serious, but in reality, I’m funny. And kinda sensitive.

Anchor Hitch is located inside Union Market Mission Viejo at Kaleidoscope. 27741 Crown Valley Parkway, (949) 226-8949; www.eatanchorhitch.com.

Check out Anchor Hitch and the rest of OC Weekly’s featured restaurants, bars and vendors on March 25. Visit the event page for more information.

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