Pho House Interview

Vinh Lam and his Mother

Vinh Lam and his Mother

We knew Pho House was renowned in the neighborhood, as it had been around in Chinatown East for many years. We'd had their great Pho before and wanted to sit down with them for an interview. The family run joint was kind enough to indulge our request.

Sadi: Okay I just want to start off by asking you how business is going these days?

Vinh: It’s going pretty well. Steady, up and down. Summer is usually the busiest. This year it’s around the early afternoon, last year it was later afternoon.

Sadi: How long have you been working here?

Vinh: Four to five years now. We’ve had the business for four to five as well. The chef, started here maybe nine or ten years ago, when it was still the previous owners.

Sadi: Was there ever any doubt about what kind of restaurant you were going to be? Or was it always going to be Pho?

V: Yeah it was always going to be Pho. The chef, my mom, worked here for ten years, she studied the chef here at the time, watched the waiters, watched how they prepared the food here. She’s self-taught, she learned everything by hand. Five years later she decided to buy the store.

S: As a family, why did you decide to enter the restaurant business as opposed to another kind of business?

V: My parents don’t really have a high educational background. They never completed Elementary school, so for them, it was either go work in one of those factories in North York or something, doing packaging or whatever, or go pull worms out of the ground at night for money. Those were the prospects. My Dad as well, he’s getting weaker, he can’t do heavy lifting or intense labor, so my Mom came up with a way to find a job for him as well. So we bought this restaurant in the end.

S: Wow, that’s nice. So what do you want people to know about your restaurant?

V: We sell Pho. We’re not doing anything crazy. We want to sell the food and have you enjoy it.

Andrew: Is there a particular item on the menu that’s really popular?

V: Um…the caramel flan right now is really popular.

S: And which Pho is most popular?

V: The special. The 101, the Dat Biec. (Flank, Rare, Tripe, Tendon, Beef Balls)

S: Is there a dish on the menu that you wish more people would try?

V: Um, we kind of want more people to try the Pad Thai.

S: How long have you had Pad Thai on the menu?

V: We started having it a couple of months ago. People started buying it, but we want more people to try it now.

It’s hard to explain, I know it sounds cheesy but I just like the fact that they come in, and they say ‘Yeah its good.’ It’s the small things like that.
— Vinh Lam

A: And is there a dish that you guys make here that you’re particularly proud of making? Like your favorite dish here. If you were going to eat here.

V: It would be the Pad Thai haha.

S: Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Toronto and not another city?

V: Well my mom was already working here. And it wasn’t like the chef taught her anything. My mom just studied the chef by watching, she wrote down everything. Five years later she knew it was the right business for her. She enjoys cooking, she loves doing it, she knows the regulars.

S: If you guys go out to eat as a family, where do you go as a family?

V: Um, just anywhere new, really. Just not anywhere Asian. Because we’ve had almost every kind of Asian food. So any kind of Greek, Indian, Italian. We want to try foreign food. My Mom really loves the Taste of Danforth.

A: Is there anything that stands out to you when you try it?

V: Ramen really stands out to me.

S: Do you guys read reviews about your restaurant online or do you have an online presence?

V: It’s more the people that come in. We don’t really care much. As long as the customers are happy. If you have a problem, we would rather you come up and talk to us. If it’s bad we would rather you come up to us, we’ll give you a refund.

S: Has business always been great? Or was there a time when things were tough?

V: It’s tougher now. Not necessarily financially, but it’s hard to find someone who’s willing to work full time as a waiter. So we struggle to find part timers. The problem is, either they speak a poor amount of English, or they speak enough English and not enough of Cantonese, Mandarin or Vietnamese.

A: What would you say is the best part of working in the restaurant industry?

V: Um, when the customer enjoys the food. It’s hard to explain, I know it sounds cheesy but I just like the fact that they come in, and they say ‘Yeah its good.’ It’s the small things like that.

S: And what’s the aspect that you enjoy the least?

V: When the customer orders something they’ve never ordered before, and they say ‘Oh it’s uncooked,’ or ‘Oh it’s spoiled’, and it’s not really uncooked or spoiled, it’s supposed to taste like that. Like how would they know what it’s supposed to taste like if it’s their first time ordering it.

You have to be frugal on buying. On average, you spend about 4-5 thousand on food alone. Rent, property tax, electricity bill, water bill. Most of your profit goes back into the restaurant. Vacations are…a myth haha.
— Vinh Lam

S: What’s the best piece of advice that you guys received in regards to the restaurant industry? Was there a family member or someone who said something that really stuck with you?

V: My Mom always says ‘Make sure the orders always correct. Always double check. Ask the customer, triple check their order.’ And then inside the kitchen, my Mom always says ‘Always prep the food a day early. There’s no such thing as free time when it comes to restaurants.’ Like right now for instance, it’s not busy, but there’s a lot happening downstairs. Prepping the meat, prepping the noodles. Oh and um, one more thing. You know how this is a Pho place right and the soup is the most important thing, so don’t mess that up. The customer knows right, the customer will always know if they’re a regular. One time, we added too much salt, a lot of customers complained. ‘Hey, this doesn’t taste like what it used to taste like.’ The customers know if you’ve messed up on the ingredients. Everyone has to work together. Mistakes do not actually happen if you follow instructions properly. For example if there’s a piece of hair in your food, it’s most likely not an accident and it’s because one of the workers back there forgot to tie up their hair. Or if there’s a piece of plastic in the food, it’s most likely it wasn’t prepped properly downstairs.

A: And if someone were to open up a restaurant today, what advice would you give them? What should they do?

V: It’s funny. A week ago or two weeks ago, one of our family friends wanted to open up a restaurant. So we were about to buy the restaurant across the street for them. The ‘Pho Train’. We were about to buy it, and they started working here for experience. They found it too hectic and busy. So you have to be ready for a large amount of customers and complaints. The hardest part about owning a managing the people and ingredients. So my friend who wanted to open the Pho restaurant, she didn’t know how to make Pho, or how to make Pad Thai, she just wanted to open a restaurant. You have to know what you’re cooking and what you’re offering. And you have to know your suppliers as well. She got lucky because we told her our suppliers. No one tells you just like that where they buy their food from. You have to know where to buy the food from. You have to make sure you talk to all your suppliers as well because some of them will try to rip you off. You have to be frugal on buying. On average, you spend about 4-5 thousand on food alone. Rent, property tax, electricity bill, water bill. Most of your profit goes back into the restaurant. Vacations are…a myth haha.

S: You guys don’t mind if another Pho restaurant opens across the street? Isn’t that like competition?

V: No, because they have their customer base and we have our customer base. The only reason we would mind, is because the lady who wanted to open a restaurant over there, asked us for our ingredients and we just can’t give it away like that. We’d taste the same then.

S: Was there anything that you’ve noticed that you got better at from working in the restaurant industry? How did you grow as a person?

V: Five years ago, I was very slow. Handling food, bringing the soup out. Now I can just kick the door open and send the food out.

S: Do you guys live in the neighborhood?

V: Yeah, like fifteen minutes away. Local.

S: Have you guys ever experimented with the food here, or made stuff you didn’t think you would?

V: So the problem with experimenting with new foods, is that you don’t know enough about it. For example there’s the problem with storage. If you make something new, and you don’t sell all of it, and it goes bad, you can lose around 30-40 dollars’ worth of ingredients right there.

S: So right now, is there anything that you guys are experimenting with?

V: Well actually that’s where our Pad Thai and Caramel Flan come from. We went to Disney Land once and noticed they made that (Caramel Flan) and we decided to try it out here.

A vat of Pho being made

A: So do you find it annoying when people come in with presumptions about how Vietnamese food is or what it tastes like?

V: Sort of, what I find more annoying is how they eat it. They pour a shit ton of sauces into a bowl and mix it up, and they almost never use it. Or if they do, they use it like a dip.

S: Okay, so break it down. In your opinion, what’s the proper way to eat Pho?

V: Without any of the sauce at first, if you want to add it later it’s fine. But if you’re a first time eater, just eat it the way it was made, and then add a little here and there if you need to.

S: Okay I think that’s everything. We really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for sitting down with us!

Pho House
610 Gerrard St E