Person of Interest: Nguyen Pham


Name? Nguyen Pham

Occupation? Semi-Professional seafood peddler

Age? 34 going on 7

Years in the Sacramento area? Born and raised in Sacramento… I’m actually SO Sacramento that I can’t really stand being in other cities for prolonged periods of time… Even the beautiful beach cities or nice vacation areas don’t have shit on Sacramento to me!  True story, ask my wife.

Spirit Animal? My spirit animal would be a yellowfin tuna…. That fish alone has provided me with my modest life that I appreciate so much… So what do I do to return the favor…. well, I sell the shit out of them…. roughly 6,000 pounds a week.

Food you can’t stand? The one food I can not stand is actually a condiment… F#&K MUSTARD

Sacramento area fine dining restaurant? The restaurant I swear I could eat at almost every day would be Ella… They do such great food and they make it so accessible price wise.

Sacramento area cheap eats? Favorite cheap eats spot would be any Vietnamese place on Stockton Boulevard… Any place on stockton Boulevard charging more than ten bucks a plate on average would literally go out of business because the clientele in that neighborhood would not support that… And those restaurants thrive!… makes you wonder why it won’t or doesn’t work in more areas around the city… I understand the higher rent situation but there are other corridors that are totally useless.

Sacramento area food after midnight? After midnight the best restaurant in Sacramento literally is just starting to come to life… Sarang Bang off of Kiefer Blvd….. That place is amazing if you don’t mind graffiti on your dining booth.

Processed food? My favorite processed food would be chicken McNuggets… with any sauce except for that hot mustard crap!

I’ve noticed that Sunh Fish manages a unique balance between restaurant and civilian clientele. Was this intentional or by accident?  Sunh Fish actually started off selling fish out of the back of a van in the Seavey Circle and Dos Rios Housing Projects where my family lived when the business started.  Civilians or retail customers were our first customer base…. But for the past twenty or so years, over 90% of our volume goes to restaurants and retail customers make only a little under 10% of our revenue… I enjoy both sides of the business but I really like talking to home cooks the most because they generally don’t know for sure what they want and you can teach them about new products… It’s a little more rewarding because restaurant chef’s generally already know what they want and how the want it…. I like the balance being around 90/10% because it allows us room for growth in the future for our retail customers… It’s not an area we neglect per se…. but it is an area we need to develop a ton more because that’s where the company started…

What type of product is most popular for restaurants? For civilians? The strange thing about the products that we sell is that we don’t advertise so all of our retail business is from word of mouth either from chefs to patrons or from one friend to another friend… This in turn usually dictates what products the customers look for… For example if a couple asks a chef where they got their scallops from and the said Sunh Fish, that customer would be coming in looking for scallops… So the products civilians look for and restaurants use mirror each other a lot of times….  Also seafood, especially fish is something that a lot of people are nostalgic about.. People tell us fishing stories about their childhood and come in looking for that same type of fish because it brings back a memory or helps them relate to a certain time in their life… That is what I think separates fish from other proteins or food products… Not a lot of people have cow slaughtering or chicken hunting stories from childhood… but a ton of people remember fishing with their dad, eating fresh crab from the coast or eating lobsters right off the boat in Maine…

Is there any product that is hard to sell? Anything that surprises you in its popularity? Is there a product you would love to turn people on to? The products that are toughest for me to sell are the ones that hard core chefs love the most like sea urchin roe and monk fish liver… fresh monk fish liver looks like animal brains but it tastes like foie gras…. Great to see the finished product but the raw product just freaks people out…

You have a unique perspective into sacramento food culture… how do you find the Sacramento culinary community?  I have always had a strong opinion on the dining scene in Sacramento because my wife and I dine out so freaking much… Before we had our twins, we were eating at restaurants 3 to 4 times a week…  I have a very love/hate relationship with the dining scene in this town… I see how far we have come from just a few years ago but I also see how far we must go to actually reach our potential… I am a huge fan of young chefs from our city leaving for a few years to learn and explore the world outside and coming back with a vengeance…. Sacramento needs more of this… A lot of our restaurant lineage can be traced to Paragary’s restaurants with Kurt Spataro… So many of today’s restaurants were spawned from his teachings…. He gets very little credit for the groundwork he’s laid in this city… He is a great teacher and a great mind, but it doesn’t hurt to go out and explore what else there is in this world… I love that we have chefs that are choosing to be in Sacramento and when I say choosing, I mean these guys could cook in almost any kitchen anywhere… Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to leave Sacramento to be a great chef, but it doesn’t hurt to see what’s out there…  My biggest gripe about Sacramento’s dining scene is that I feel we have also taken some steps backwards… I will not make any friends by saying this, but I say it with a pure heart from someone who dines out A LOT….  We hit a snag a year or two ago when we started going “farm crazy” in this town…

We have great resources around here but hearing about them so much made me cringe and I saw some of my favorite restaurants start to stagnate a little… Every restaurant I went to had “Feeding crane this, Lucky Dog that, Passmore Ranch this, Bledsoe that”… It became boring and tired… I almost felt like all i got on $38 entree was a farm’s brand name with some salt and pepper on it… It got to the point where my wife and I would just drive to Napa or SF for dinner on weekdays because everything became so copycat and boring… Of course the better restaurants out of the pack were still doing impressive things with these ingredients, but for a lot of the restaurants we frequented,  the local concept got too tired for us….  I didn’t bitch and whine about this, I just quietly took my money elsewhere and ate…. My wife and I are just 2 people in this city of millions but that’s how we felt this past year…  To some extent, my love for Sacramento and it’s burgeoning dining scene got totally “local whored” out…. I hope something changes about this soon….

I’ve heard a number of possible collaborations between Sunh Fish and other entities in your space. Can you speak to this at all? Our goal for Sunh Fish in the next two years is to turn it into a culinary destination for home cooks and professional chefs… We have had talks in the past about bringing in a couple different vendors that have the same goals and ideals as ours like Preferred Meats and a local farmer who farms year round… Billy would do a restaurant open very limited hours using products from the different vendors in the space… All these businesses would be operated independently of each other yet they would all be tied to the central idea of providing the best ingredients the world has to offer….  I am just a guy who wants great food on my fork no matter where it came from… Local or not, I just want the best ingredients the world has to offer.

Do you ever visit purveyors on the supply side of your business? I hear about planes that land from Japan full of product and fisherman in SF… do you see any of this in your travels?  I like to visit my purveyors when I get some free time.. They are literally the key ingredient to my business succeeding… bad vendors make for a a bad business… luckily for us we are almost 30 years in and have dealt with most of the same companies and people for the past 30 years…. my central location where everything I purchase is stored at pier 45 in San Francisco… from there we bring it to our warehouse on V. Street…  Three Fourths of my day is dealing with logistics of getting fish from one part of world 4,000 miles away to my warehouse in freakin’ Sacramento, California.  One of my favorite stories from this holiday season is from us flying in lobsters directly from Masachussetes…  The day before Christmas lobsters are scarce all across the country and apparently some airport worker was desperate for lobsters… When we opened up one of our live lobster boxes there was $40 and a note inside apologizing for a couple missing lobsters… The note said something to the effect of ” I am very sorry for doing this to you, but I could not find lobsters anywhere in town and it has been a Christmas tradition for my family for 20 something years to have lobsters on Christmas Eve… I hope you do not get upset or file a claim with the airport over this … Have a merry Christmas and Happy New Year”…. I didn’t know whether to be happy or pissed off that someone stole lobsters from me and paid for them…

Is there any chef you would like to talk shit about in this forum? Any scores you would like to settle? The chef I want to address in this interview would be Aimal Formoli… I have never seen a gremlin with opposable thumbs and black rimmed glasses cook before until I saw him…. For all the battles he has had to endure throughout his life, like having so much facial hair that werewolves always attempt to dry hump him,  he is still able to put out amazing food… He might be the only human on earth to simutaneously own a Vespa and a Harley Davidson… Aside from these shortcomings,  he is a great person and an awesome chef… We need more Aimals in this town…

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