Restaurateur-chef Mai Pham has worked her cooking magic in Sacramento since 1988, when she debuted Lemon Grass restaurant on Fulton Avenue. It continues to serve some of the best Southeast Asian cuisine anywhere.
Pham also has two Lemon Grass Grills, which are more casual, and Star Ginger, specializing in Asian "street food" (the banh mi sandwiches are tops). Her three cookbooks are must-haves in home kitchens, as are her signature sauces and marinades (www.starginger.com).
In December, in the interest of "growing our brand," Pham and food-service giant Sodexo opened a "Star Ginger concept" company cafeteria inside the State Street Financial Center building in Boston. "The 2,000 employees told Sodexo (which operates the cafeteria) they wanted Asian food, and Sodexo said (to me), 'Why don't we do this.'"
Two years ago Pham partnered with Sodexo, which promoted her as a celebrity chef on college campuses during a 19-city tour. Sodexo has contracts with many colleges (and corporate and military facilities) to run their cafeterias.
"Campus dining can be quite sophisticated, but I saw during the tour that I could help their food operations with Asian (offerings)," she said on the phone.
The Pham-Sodexo relationship moved forward to the point where now "Sodexo is our licensee for campus (and corporate) dining. It's similar to a franchiser-franchisee (model). In instances where both parties feel there is a need to open a Star Ginger concept, they're the operator who supplies the space (and labor) and we supply the expertise and training. We provide an authentic, high-quality Asian restaurant concept that comes pre-branded."
In other words, Sodexo is promoting a ready-to-go package to its clients, who apparently are hungry for Asian fare.
"We are working with (universities) to improve their Asian offerings (in their cafeterias)," Pham said. "I'm just back from Yale, where I worked on their Asian salads and banh mi programs."
So, between corporate accounts and college campuses, could this first Star Ginger concept be just the start of many more across the country?
Yes, Pham said. "In business, you have to act on your vision for expansion, and cooking is my passion."