Authentic Pho for a Cause

The din of pots rattled on the cast-iron stoves of the Cottonwood Restaurant kitchen in Truckee. It was 8:15 a.m. and five chefs and a number of sous chefs and assistants huddled around Mai Doan, a 75-year-old Vietnamese cook. Daon was explaining the process of preparing traditional Pho (pronounced “fah”), a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and beef or chicken.

Mai Doan’s Authentic Pho recipe
Thao Doan talks about the importance of food banks

Mai’s daughter, Mai Phuong, and family friend, Ann Nguyen, served as assistants and translators for the cooks. Mai’s other daughter, Thao Doan, co-founder of the restaurant app, Kynbo, cooked up the plan to have her mother teach a group of local chefs to make Pho and Goi Ga, a Vietnamese chicken salad, to serve at a benefit dinner for Project MANA.

The kitchen was abuzz all under the watchful eye of Mai Doan aka “Mom.”

Project MANA, a nonprofit organization, helps reduce the incidence of hunger and its detrimental effects on individuals, families and the community in the region. In addition to providing hunger relief, it develops programs to alleviate the causes of hunger and promote nutrition through education and awareness.

Mai Doan, her husband and their seven children came to the U.S. in 1975. As Vietnamese refugees, they found themselves in Fresno trying to rebuild their life after the war. Thao explained that the family was extremely poor when they first arrived in California and they needed supplemental food from a local food bank. When Thao asked her mother to teach a few local chefs how to prepare Pho for Project MANA, her mother was thrilled to participate.

“No one knew what Pho was or even what Vietnamese food was,” said Mai, who opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in Fresno. “Many Vietnam vets would come to the restaurant.”

Michael Bouyer | Project MANA

The lineup of chefs on board for the fundraiser included Dave Smith from Cottonwood Restaurant; Jason Lee from Marg’s Taco Bistro; Steve Anderson, an executive chef from Northstar; Carolyn Newman, a personal chef and a resident chef for Tahoe Food Hub, and myself, owner of Seasoned Sage and a personal chef focused on health and wellness. Also, as the food and entertainment editor for Tahoe Weekly, I was thrilled to be invited to participate. Donavon Webb and Troy Allen, sous chefs from Cottonwood, were also on hand to help with the dinner. Michael Bouyer Sr. of Greater Bay Area Talent TV filmed the evening for a segment in his show.

Mary Chow | Project MANA
Mary Chow | Project MANA

The process of cooking traditional Pho takes more than eight hours to prepare. We were making 200 servings for the evening. Carolyn and I peeled the onions for roasting while Dave and Steve prepped and cleaned the bones and prepped the brisket. Water boiled, bones rattled and knives whacked on cutting boards. Jason shredded cabbage on the slicer and his wife, Kaylie Titus, jumped in to prep the Thai basil.

The brisket was massaged and thrown into a boiling pot. The kitchen was abuzz all under the watchful eye of Mai Doan aka “Mom.” The beef-based broth, Pho, would be served with condiments of fresh lime, mung bean sprouts, jalapeños, fresh Thai basil, scallions and chopped cilantro. We also prepped ingredients for Goi Ga that would be served family style for the 177 people who signed up to dine at the sold-out event.

While I prepped, I chatted with Jason about food, menus and what’s new at Marg’s Bistro. Cottonwood owners Robert and Kathy Green passed through the kitchen to witness the scene.

By noon, Mai prepared a five-spice chicken, rice and salad for everyone. Dave whipped up an Asian salad dressing and was given a big nod from Mai who said, “That’s really good.”

We sat family style for lunch in the Cottonwoods’ dining room. Tangy and sweet, the chicken melted in my mouth. After we ate, it was back to the kitchen.

By 5:30 p.m., the broth simmered, the eye round was being thinly sliced and the finishing touches were coming together.

By 6 p.m., guests began to arrive. The bar was jammed as Jason Gifford and Ganga Welch poured drinks. Guests sat family style at dining tables getting to know each other. Project MANA’s Julie M. Malkin-Manning, director of development, and Deidre Ledford, executive director, introduced the evening.

The shredded chicken and cabbage was tossed with a sweet vinaigrette dressing and Donovan slipped me a taste — it was delicious with a sweeter flavor than I had expected. The Goi Ga was set on the table. Meanwhile the line in the kitchen was in full madness as the chefs passed bowls of rice noodles, added brisket, layered the thinly sliced beef, added the broth and topped it off with cilantro and scallions.

It was time. The wait staff served the main event. Two hundred bowls of Pho were poured. People raved about Mai’s creation.

Mai Phuong slipped me a bowl to try. I added the condiments and sipped the broth. It was rich, savory and excellent. After everyone was served, the chefs and staff tasted the Pho. It was a long day of preparation and in the end the team effort of organizers, chefs and participants helped contribute their time for a beautiful benefit to help others have access to food. | or

Mai Doan’s Authentic Pho recipe
4-6 servings

5-7 lbs. beef bones
2 lbs. brisket
3 large nobs of ginger, washed
1 large onion, remove outer layer
1½ lbs. beef round
2 T salt
2 T rock sugar
2-3 T fish sauce

Spice bag
3 pods star Anise
2 pods coriander
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cloves

Garnish for Pho
4 green onion, sliced thin
½ C cilantro
1 C Thai basil
1½ C bean sprouts
3 Jalapenos, sliced thin
2 limes, quartered

Preheat oven to 350°
Fill up one stockpot with water to prepare for broth. Fill up one stockpot with water to clean bones. Put bones in salted water until water boils then rinse.

Rub brisket with salt and rinse.

Clean ginger and peel outer layer of the onion. Roast in oven until light brown and add to stockpot. Skim off foam from stock after it boils. Add salt and rock sugar.

Add salt, brisket and cover.

Remove brisket after 3 hours of simmering, rinse under cold water and cover with plastic and let it cool.

After 6 hours of simmering, add pho spice bag to pot and add fish sauce.

After 8 hours remove everything from the pot and leave only the broth.

While the soup is simmering, prep the garnish.

Slice eye round thin.

Cook rice noodles for 3 seconds.

Place cooked brisket in bowl. Add uncooked thinly sliced eye round, top with rice noodles and add broth, green onions and cilantro. Serve Pho steaming hot. Top with mung beans, lime, jalapeños and basil. And enjoy.

Serve with Hoisin sauce.


Priya Hutner
Priya is a writer, personal chef and meditation teacher. Having moved to the mountains from Sebastian, Fla., she embraces the Tahoe lifestyle and loves to ski, hike, paddle and swim. Priya is the owner of The Seasoned Sage, a business that prepares organic meals and facilitates workshops that promote a health-conscious lifestyle. Priya writes feature articles about music, art, food and recreation. She loves to immerse in story. Whether jumping from a plane, eating obscure foods or hitting the Tahoe-Reno music scene, she is always up for adventure and experience. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience living on an ashram and working on a series of cookbooks.