In the spring of 2011, Viet Pham, chef and co-owner of Salt Lake City's Forage restaurant, was in New York City enjoying elegant dinners with culinary celebrities as one of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs.
Fast forward 12 months. Pham now one of seven chefs competing on the second season of Extreme Chef was dropped by helicopter into the scorching California dessert to scavenge for food and cooking tools.
Extreme Chef premieres Thursday, Aug. 16 on The Food Network with an episode entitled "Doomsday Survival." Cooking in a post-apocalyptic wasteland was no day at Central Park.
"It was really, really hot scorching hot," Pham remembered. The chefs had 60 minutes to raid a deserted tent village for non-perishable ingredients, build a cooking station and start a fire using steel wool batteries and tumbleweed. "Being in that desert and cooking took a toll on everyone. It's not just one shoot. There are reshoots."
Returning viewers will be interested in knowing that The Food Network has changed the format of the show's second season. Last year, each episode featured three contestants who battled in extreme conditions with one winner chosen at the end of each show. This season, seven chefs will start the competition, with one being eliminated each week by a panel of celebrity judges. The final three chefs battle in the jungles of Thailand for $50,000. Besides Pham, the competition includes chefs from Massachusetts, North Carolina, Vermont Hawaii and two from New Jersey.
During a recent interview, Pham was sworn to secrecy about where he cooked and how he did on the show, but he was able to answer a few questions about the competition.
How did you get selected?
I'm not sure. Some of the other contestants applied. I originally got a call to do Season 1, but I wasn't able to do it because of the Food & Wine best new chef scheduling. I told them if they wanted me for Season 2 to let me know. And they called in January.
Are you a fearless chef?
Mostly I'm a fearful chef; I fear things. Fearing things is what keeps you alive and keeps you going. Being fearless means doing something totally stupid. But I guess I do have a little dash of fearlessness.
Did you prepare for the show?
There's no way of doing that. I went in hoping everything my experiences, the people I've met and the things I've done was enough. You have know idea what they are going to throw at you.
Did anything surprise you?
I found out I was really good at working under pressure. I'm McGyver-like in a lot of ways. I used a lot of ingenuity to put things together at the very last moment.
One of the preview clips shows you crying. Why so emotional?
I was chopping a load of onions.
Before you competed, did you call fellow Utah chef and Survivor contestant Jonas Otsuji for advice?
I don't know Jonas. My first and foremost strategy was not to think about it too much. People wanted to give me advice and it cluttered my mind. Even during our free hours, thinking about the competition made me feel even more tense and nervous. I learned that in the mornings, before competition, to really take a moment to myself and reflect on the day and clear my mind so I could be really focused and relaxed.
Did you ever want to quit?
There are many times during competition that it's so physically and emotionally draining that you want to go home. Before doing this show, I didn't know what was involved in producing a show. The amount of work is amazing. I was only away for a few weeks but it felt like months. Every day was so eventful. But there's a part of me that's really competitive and wants to push myself. And I also want to make my parents proud. All the sacrifices they've made for me, being on "Extreme Chef" was a way to show them that I appreciate their sacrifices.
What kind of sacrifices did they make?
My parents are boat people. They left Vietnam during the 1970s. At that time, 1.5 million Vietnamese fled by boat, but only 750,000 survived. You only had a 50 percent chance of survival based on the turmoil. But with the communists in charge, that was a risk my parents were willing to take. My mom was pregnant with me at the time. They were on the boat for a couple weeks and then were in a refugee camp in Malaysia. I was born in Paola. My parents built a house of wood and we lived there for eight months before we got sponsored. I grew up in Illinois and we were extremely poor. But my parents sacrificed so I could go to college, they would do anything for me and my brother. I want to show them that their sacrifices weren't a waste.
Utah's 'Extreme Chef'
Viet Pham, chef and co-owner of Salt Lake City's Forage restaurant, will compete on the second season of "Extreme Chef." The show premieres Thursday, Aug. 16, on the Food Network. Check local listings for times.