Vietnamese cuisine has exploded in the United States over the past five years, with banh mi shops popping up on (seemingly) every street corner and once little used ingredients (read: fish paste) finding their way into high-end kitchens everywhere.
The heartbeat of the movement, though, is pho. The brothy, rich signature soup of Vietnam has won over the hearts of the American masses with its comfort food familiarity and infinite versatility. In spite of the soup’s popularity, though, there still remains a gap in understanding about pho’s history and deep-rooted cultural importance.
That’s where entrepreneur Freeman LeFleur and Chef Curtis Bell (who just so happen to be high school friends) come in. Through their cheekily titled new documentary, Phocumentary, the pair has set out to spotlight pho’s international journey and how its story closely mirrors the complicated history of Vietnam itself.
What was your inspiration for making a documentary about pho?
Freeman: I was living in Orange County and eating a lot of pho because there’s a huge concentration of Vietnamese people [in O.C.]. I was going out for pho a lot, having business meetings over pho and it started out as a joke in a way. I started saying, “Why hasn’t someone made a documentary about pho?” It’s such a trendy thing right now in Western culture and something that a lot of young people are into.
It was January of this year when I contacted Curtis and we started talking more seriously about it. We started to try to find where the story was. That’s when we started talking to owners of pho restaurants and [found] this common thread that a lot of the owners of these restaurants came over from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War.
The deeper we went, we found pho really mirrors the history of Vietnam. Every time Vietnam went through a change, so did pho, and it followed the people to wherever they went around the world.
What are some of the biggest questions you’re trying to answer about pho?
Curtis: We want to know the absolute origin of pho. There’s even been a court case about whether the French can claim it or the Vietnamese can claim it. It’s very interesting. We want to see what the true origin is.
We want to dive deeper into the French influence, including the way beef made its way into Vietnam via the French occupation.
Freeman: Pho is this symbolic dish for Vietnamese cuisine, because a lot of people’s first experience with Vietnamese cuisine is pho. Everyone is telling us a different story about where pho came from. That’s a central question: connecting all the dots. Also, [figuring out] the first people who were establishing pho restaurants outside of Vietnam. It’s really difficult to tell because there was such a wave of emigrants.
Do you personally have a favorite pho?
Freeman: We’re headed to Vietnam in June so I’m sure that will change things…
Curtis: Even as far as what we want in our soup goes, that’s already really changed over the course of this. I used to be pretty simple. I didn’t know a lot about pho, and even being a chef and adventurous, I went with what was safe and good. I did the rare beef, maybe some brisket. Now, I like the tendon and the meatball. Last night, I had my first bowl of chicken pho and thought it was great. I’m discovering a little bit more all the time.
Freeman: For me, it’s still all about the broth. The first thing I judge is the broth, then the side plate, and then I have a third rating about the restaurant itself and the authenticity. One of my favorite restaurants is a place in San Diego call Pho Hoa. Their broth was so rich and so good.
Curtis: We both thought it was a game changer. I felt like I hadn’t really had pho until I had it there.