‘As raw as it gets’: Pretty Bird owner reveals what it was like competing on ‘Chefs vs. Wild’
Viet Pham is no stranger to reality competition shows. But ‘Chefs vs. Wild’ was a different beast
They dropped Viet Pham off in the wilderness.
Specifically, Pham found himself on the Sunshine Coast, a remote area of British Columbia, Canada, that can only be reached by ferry or floatplane. Here, he would spend the next several days either fortifying his shelter to withstand a powerful and historic storm, or foraging for spruce leaves, cedar leaves, mushrooms and berries — anything that could come together to create a decent meal.
The food wasn’t for him, though. Or at least most of it wasn’t.
Pham, who is the owner of Pretty Bird Hot Chicken in Utah, was competing on the new Hulu series “Chefs vs. Wild.” In the wilderness, his primary mission was to forage enough ingredients to put together a restaurant worthy meal. He was competing against another prominent chef, and each of their dishes would ultimately be judged by celebrity chef Kiran Jethwa and nutrition educator Valerie Segrest.
So anytime Pham came across a potential ingredient, he asked himself: Should I eat it now because I’m hungry, or save it for the competition?
The answer to that question was more often than not the latter; Pham believes he ate less than 500 calories over the course of several days.
Viewers can now see Pham’s struggles and triumphs on “Chefs vs. Wild,” which recently premiered on Hulu. In his episode, which released Sept. 26, Pham went head-to-head with North Carolina-based chef Sammy Monsour.
The actual filming for the show took place nearly a year ago, in late October 2021. But it’s all still remarkably vivid in Pham’s mind.
Surviving and exploring the wild
In regular life, Pham’s camping usually includes an inflatable backpacking mattress.
Filming for “Chefs vs. Wild,” resources were limited. He couldn’t have a sleeping bag or pillow. And his primitive shelter, fortified with help from survivalist David Noel, struggled to withstand a torrential storm that wiped out much of the power from Seattle to Vancouver.
At one point during filming, Pham and Noel ended up sleeping outside of the shelter next to a fire because of wind that was coming through a gap at the base of the shelter. They hadn’t planned to keep a fire going all night, so the two took turns getting up every half hour to chop wood. They spent their brief moments of sleep rotating their bodies next to the fire to stay warm (near the end of filming, a fire would burn down a large portion of the shelter).
“I’ve never felt a chill up my spine the way that I felt that chill up my spine when I was up there,” Pham recently told the Deseret News. “I’ve never, ever slept literally just on the cold wet ground — ever. With zero protection between me and the ground. I’ve never felt a cold so cold as being on that show. It was literally as raw as it gets.”
But Pham tried not to let the harsh conditions get the best of him. Each morning, he got up and made tea using pine needles, or cedar or spruce leaves — whatever he could find. If he was lucky, he ate something. And then he foraged.
He was able to find plantain seeds and huckleberries fairly quickly. Eventually, he came across a tide pool and managed to get oysters. He bottled up some seawater so he could use it for cooking.
Pham was especially intent on finding pine mushrooms. He’s an avid mushroom forager in Utah, often searching in the Uintas and along the Wasatch Front, and he said that pine mushrooms were in “abundance” this time of year in the Pacific Northwest.
He didn’t even find one. Monsour, his fellow competitor, found a bunch.
Looking back, Pham believes he was so focused on finding pine mushrooms that he probably blinded himself to other ingredients that were readily available. But a major foraging highlight came when he stumbled upon another mushroom: Chicken of the woods, which has a texture and flavor similar to chicken.
With this unexpected find, Pham was able to apply some of his Pretty Bird styling to the wilderness. When it came time to face Monsour in the wilderness kitchen — where they had four hours to prepare their meal for the judges — Pham cooked his Chicken of the Woods mushroom appetizer in a similar fashion to the Nashville hot chicken that inspired Pretty Bird.
“Pretty Bird is still a very young company, and I’m growing it, and every opportunity that I can promote the brand is invaluable,” Pham said, recalling how in the years leading up to Pretty Bird’s 2018 opening he would drive around in his Prius with turkey fryers, “literally frying chicken for whoever would try it.”
“To this day, I’m still working on our recipe,” continued Pham, who recently opened up Utah’s fourth Pretty Bird location in Midvale. “So being on TV and being able to talk about Pretty Bird and sharing all the things that I love about cooking and giving people the opportunity to see me … I think that’s awesome.”
Pham is no stranger to reality competition shows.
He’s competed on a number of Food Network shows, beating Iron Chef Bobby Flay … twice. Later this month he’ll be on an episode of the new Food Network competition “Bobby’s Triple Threat,” where he’ll face off against three top-tier chefs selected by Flay.
But “Chefs vs. Wild” was a different beast.
When the crew dropped him off along the Sunshine Coast, Pham expected to have tough days. He expected the cold and the rain — although maybe not to the severe degree he experienced. And, like all of the other cooking shows he’s done, he expected to pull through the challenges and succeed.
What he didn’t expect was to be so emotional. But as he faced the “Chefs vs. Wild” judges (no spoilers here), he thought about the struggles with his shelter, the highs and lows in his search for food and how the land provided for him when he let go of his own expectations. It’s a “profound spiritual aspect” that he’s still trying to unpack a year later.
“I think just being out there being cold, lack of sleep, hungry, it created this experience that I’m still trying to pick apart and understand,” he said. “But it was a very powerful experience. I’ve never felt so connected to the land, the things around me — ever. Just being in the outdoors and being around trees and animals, it really humbles you.
“It was enough to awaken me.”
Amid the cold and wet and hunger, Pham said he gleaned strength from his parents, who were Vietnam War refugees. The 43-year-old chef, who was born at a refugee camp in Malaysia, said he’s heard his parents talk about the trials they faced “thousands of times.”
In one story Pham recounted, his dad’s brother, who was studying abroad in the U.S., sent his parents a care package that included a bottle of soy sauce, towels, letters and photos. On the way to Malaysia, the bottle broke and the soy sauce ended up leaking onto the towels, ultimately drying out. Whenever Pham’s family was able to secure rice for dinner, they would pass the towels around and smell them so they could have the aroma as they ate.
Over the years, Pham has listened to stories like these and tried to develop a better understanding. But it wasn’t until “Chefs vs. Wild” that he really felt he could begin to empathize with those struggles.
And he hopes to continue getting better at doing so. He doesn’t want to forget what he’s learned, and he’s even thought about going back into the wilderness with fewer resources to help keep those lessons alive.
“To this day, I’m still trying to understand it and trying to figure out what it means,” he said. “But I do feel like a better person inside and out.”