Ex-Apple engineer turns stinky sauce into upscale condiment

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 18, 2018.
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It is rush hour on Phu Quoc island’s Duong Dong river as Cuong Pham’s craft navigates diesel-belching fishing boats coming in from the sea with their overnight catch of anchovies piled high on decks. The Vietnamese-American and former Apple Inc engineer, who fled his homeland on a boat decades earlier, has returned to Vietnam from Silicon Valley in the unlikely role of fish sauce entrepreneur whose condiment has become a global culinary sensation.

At the moment, Pham is giving chefs from the US and Europe an overview of his Red Boat Fish Sauce operations, decidedly low-tech but infused with a Steve Jobs-like obsession with quality. It took Pham, who acquired a small fish-sauce barrel house in 2006, three years to produce the first batch he considered good enough to sell after investing US$500,000 and commuting between California and Vietnam. He sold his first bottle in 2011. Now, gourmands make pilgrimages to Red Boat’s riverside operations on Phu Quoc island off the south-west coast of Vietnam, right on the border with Cambodia. The island is known as a Napa Valley or Bordeaux for fish sauce, with recognised designation of origin status.

“My life really started on a boat when I left Vietnam. I was a boat person,” said Pham, 60, as his vessel transporting 110-pound (50kg) sacks of salt squeezes past those inbound from the Gulf of Thailand, where his two boats are anchored. Like hundreds of thousands, Pham and his family slipped out of Vietnam on rickety vessels after communist North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975. “And the most important role in the fish sauce process occurs on the boat with the salting of the fish. The ratio of salt to fish and the timing of salting the fish is what dictates the outcome of the product.”

His circuitous journey back to Vietnam began with business trips as a tech worker and culminated with his decision in 2006 to produce what he considers the world’s purest fish sauce, made only from two ingredients — black anchovies caught with nets off Vietnam’s Phu Quoc archipelago and salt — that are fermented for 12 months in giant tropical-wood barrels. Red Boat’s first-press fish sauce retails at about US$8 (RM33.44) or more for a 250-millilitre bottle, three to four times the price of mass-produced fish sauce, and has become popular among foodies and celebrity chefs.

Red Boat is producing 600,000 litres to 700,000 litres of sauce annually, a fraction of the global market, which Euromonitor International forecasts at more than US$1 billion in 2019 and which has been led by Vietnam’s Mason Group Corp and Thailand’s Tang Sang Hah Co. Pham plans to double his output next year. His company has experienced 40% year-on-year growth since 2011; it entered the European market this year and plans to expand into the Middle East in late 2019. Pham’s bottles, emblazoned with twin-sail red boats, are sold in the US in outlets such as Dean & Deluca Inc, Whole Foods Market Inc, Trader Joe’s Co, and, as of this month, Costco Wholesale Corp.

Pham sold his first bottles from a sport utility vehicle he drove around to Asian markets in California, logging more than 25,000 miles (40,234km) in the first year and facing rejection about 90% of the time. Some buyers were initially turned off by the brand’s high price. He was frequently advised by store owners and distributors to pick another product because Asian markets were already saturated with competing brands. But Red Boat’s singular flavour — less of a fish taste and more of a tantalising funk like that of Iberico ham or Parmesan cheese — quickly garnered business from Vietnamese who remembered the traditional fish sauce from their homeland, nuoc mam nhi.

“The older generation of Vietnamese buy it by the case because they are afraid they won’t be able to find it again,” he said. “You see these old ladies limping out of the stores carrying cases.”

Red Boat Fish Sauce is now found in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants such as San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and Mister Jius, Tim Raue in Berlin, and New York’s Le Bernadin.

The purity of Red Boat’s amber sauce — untouched by additives or sugar typically found in rival sauces — is encouraging chefs around the US to use it in non-Asian dishes, and that is causing Americans to experiment with fish sauce in their home kitchens, said Edward Lee, culinary director of Succotash in National Harbor, Maryland and Penn Quarter, Washington.

“I love using it in Italian food,” said Michelle Minori, former executive chef of San Francisco’s Barzotto and one of those visiting Red Boat’s facilities. “It gives a flavour you can’t really put your finger on ... and rounds out a dish’s complexity. It’s the flavour you only get from time and fermentation.”

Red Boat has the highest level of natural protein — four grammes per tablespoon — than any fish sauce sold in the US, Pham said. On each Red Boat label is 40° N, which refers to the number of grammes of nitrogen in each litre. Higher level of nitrogen produces more protein, which increases the sauce’s intricacies and umami, he said. Users report having to use less of it than other brands.

Pham also produces a kosher sauce, a Chef’s Cuveé 2015 double barrel-aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels previously used for maple syrup, and 50° N Phamily Reserve Hardwood Smoked Fish Sauce, also barrel-aged. Many cooks marinate their steaks with the bourbon barrel fish sauce to produce “a flavour similar to dry-aged steak”, said Pham.

At the urging of chefs, he has also started selling fish sauce in solid form: Red Boat Salt, to be used in cooking and as finishing.

Chef The Duc Ngo, who operates 11 restaurants in Berlin and Frankfurt, said Red Boat is generating a new global interest in fish sauce. “A lot of chefs think of fish sauce as being salty and stinky. This fish sauce is not salty,” he said as he sampled it from barrels. “It is mild, round. The umami flavour is very intense.”

“They only use anchovies. There aren’t any other fish parts or squid guts in there”, so it has a “really clean flavour” and is the “highest-quality” around, said Lee, author of Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine. “It’s no longer just a Vietnamese dipping sauce but part of a gravy, part of stews.”

Pham’s trek to Phu Quoc began with a longing to find the fish sauce he tasted from his mother’s kitchen while growing up in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. He vividly recalled the days leading up to the fall of Saigon in April 1975: Incessant gunfire filled the air and US helicopters thumped overhead, ferrying Americans and Vietnamese from the US embassy’s compound hours before communist troops stormed the city.

“We knew it was the end,” Pham recalled. “We were freaked out.”

He and his family — his father had worked closely with the US government during the Vietnam War and was in danger — eventually left the country in separate fishing boats in rough waters full of pirates. He arrived in the US at age 21, unable to speak English but eager to begin a new life. He worked in Silicon Valley for over 25 years as an Apple systems architect, and later at Oracle Corp, Anderson Consulting, and a start-up acquired by Verizon Communications Inc.

In 2005, he visited Phu Quoc for the first time and was dismayed to see the island overrun by producers choosing shortcuts to make sauces with additives, preservatives, and flavour enhancers, the fallout from the double-whammy of a US trade embargo starving exports and many fishermen leaving the country.

“Premium fish sauce producers had to either cut down on production, or they switched to producing low-end sauce because of economic conditions,” said Pham. He brought a couple of bottles back from a small operation still making the pure sauce and gave them to his mother.

“She literally cried,” he said.

The government plans Phu Quoc to be a major tourist region, and the island is humming with construction of resorts and condos as dusty red-soil roads are paved over. Pham, whose three adult children have joined his business, is betting on the island’s past.

He was initially viewed with suspicion, said Pham, looking a bit like a tourist, sock-less in dock shoes and wearing black frame glasses, blue shorts, and Red Boat T-shirt while standing on his transport boat chugging out to sea. His crew, some in flip-flops, others barefoot, prepared to offload sacks of salt onto the fishing boat.

“At first they thought, ‘The expat is coming back and will take all the fish,’” he said. “Then they thought I was crazy, ‘Why is he doing this?’ They walk into the factory and they expect to see conveyor belts and forklifts. We are artisanal. We are doing something no one else wants to do.” — Bloomberg