The Art of Pivoting with Chef Minh
An Interview with Chef Minh Phan
Owner & Chef of Puff + Porridge & Phenakite
Chef Minh Phan is truly a unicorn. A bonafide queen of the side hustle and a multi-hyphenate creative, Chef Minh is the chef/owner behind Porridge+Puffs in the Historic Filipino District and the newly formed Phenakite, an experimental fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles.
Before hitting the food scene, Minh Phan worked as an in-demand commercial director until her life hit a hard reset from a national crisis two decades ago. The 9/11 incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation – budgets were slashed as society reckoned with a harsh, new reality.
Following the crisis, Minh settled down in Portland at the peak of the farm-to-table movement and started to dive deep into the art of cooking. During this formative period, Minh decided to go to culinary school, embarking on a journey that has spanned 20 years of cooking professionally in Japan, Mexico, and Denmark; while working in marketing or film to fuel her passion for cooking.
“Los Angeles is my home. I gained my chops with nature while in Portland, a sense of structure and rigidness in New York, and a start-up spirit in San Francisco. But my creative spirit is LA – it’s the land of reinvention and where I feel the most creatively liberated.”
Her first food venture, Field Trip, started in the heart of Hollywood at the local farmer’s market. The organizers were at a loss on how to breathe life into a community space, which presented a perfect opportunity for Chef Minh to bring her unique approach to the farm-to-table movement to Los Angelenos. Once she got the green light, it was game on – negotiating with farm stands, buying ingredients in bulk, experimenting on the fly, and rigorously investigating the interplay between the food system and supply chain management. During these early days, Chef Minh solidified her foundational beliefs in reducing waste not only in landfills, but holistically in her business operations from labor to plastic use.
The original concept of exploring porridge came to her during these early mornings at the farm stands. Porridge presented an elegant solution to explore the relationship between ancient grains and liquid – using grains as a base and fermenting farm-fresh ingredients as toppings to minimize food waste and optimize her organic inputs.
When we think of porridge, it is typically consumed when you’re ill or the day after Thanksgiving putting all the leftover turkey bones to good use. Chef Minh was inspired by the notion of reimagining this timeless comfort food into a dish that wasn’t just an afterthought, but innovative in its own right. Chef Minh pitched the idea to the board of Social Economic Enterprise Los Angeles (in which she is now a member) – and at the time, the all-male board was not sold on the idea that porridge was worthy of the effort.
‘Porridge+Puffs was born from my reaction to everyone telling me no.’
Chef Minh went against the grain and launched the ‘Porridge+Puffs’ pop-up inside her own restaurant. One fateful afternoon Jonathan Gold came in and then came again 4-5 more times. The tide began to turn after his word spread and even after Field Trip closed its doors, Porridge+Puff remained strong due to a loyal following that continued to seek out her whimsical porridges and artfully-fermented farmer market ingredients.
“Follow your gut.”
Growing up as a first-generation latch-key kid, Chef Minh has a strong constitution for adapting to change and reacting quickly with a do-it-yourself attitude. Though adaptability is surely a superpower, it can be extremely challenging to lead a team during a crisis like the COVID pandemic.
“I’ve been leaning more into my art and my community lately. Taking the time to reflect before I react. I’ve realized that not everyone can move as quickly as I do. So, I’ve been investing in learning operational structure & using my muscle memory to inspire my team.
Back in March 2020, safety was super important. We reconvened in two days time after the news broke and in two weeks, everything was different. It was incredibly difficult for my team, who are generationally at different life stages than where I am now. I’ve seen the patterns and have lived through other crises before. But in hindsight, I should not have expected the same kind of resilience from twenty-something year olds experiencing burn-out under unprecedented circumstances.“
Having a long-term vision was absolutely essential, even when the business was taking it a day at a time. Stretched ultra-thin with the days longer and harder than ever before, Chef Minh had to fortify her 5-year plan and make time for herself, in order to lead her team to brave the storm.
“I’ve had to be more honest about my finances and how I value cultural and social capital. I had to slow down and be open to have people help me.“
It was under these critical conditions that PHENAKITE was born. Named after the rare mineral that evolves into a gem under pressure and in destructive environments, Chef Minh in collaboration with her close friends chef Niki and Carole from nnaka developed a concept to redefine the fine-dining experience with her unique flare.
This hidden gem is nestled in the B-corp certified coworking space, Second Home – an inclusive and accessible haven for value-minded changemakers that believe in investing in people, beautiful spaces, and the environment.
Experimental in both its dining experience and internal operations, Chef Minh is leveling the playing field. Serving a nine-course meal including braised short ribs and pan-smoked abalone in handcrafted pottery, PHENAKITE is an experience that elevates more than just your tastebuds.
Often in the food industry, front and back of the house are radically different experiences. Back of house often hire workers as ‘interns’ offering education and exposure in renowned kitchens in exchange for free labor. While front-of-house makes a lot more money from tips as servers and captains. At Phenakite, everyone starts in the kitchen, then the dining room, and then service – where everyone learns the process and is paid equally for it.
“It’s like love at first sight. I adore being at Second Home and feel very aligned in our shared vision for the future. PHENAKITE is our attempt at redefining fine dining and addressing the many inequities in the field.”
In pre-pandemic times, Potli hosted a magical evening with family and friends for the launch of our Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Cultivated and crafted with our shared devotion for sustainably grown ingredients, it could not have been a more perfect partnership.
Looking back, we cannot wait to gather together and break bread with our community to celebrate new beginnings.