Pham general manager of restaurant operations at the Shell Factory
Son “Sonny” Pham is living proof what hard work can do. From being an officer in the South Vietnamese Army who had to endure the fall of his own country, to working in the CIA, to starting over again in Florida, where he washed dishes while learning to become a culinary wiz.
Today, Pham has taken his nearly 40 years of work and parlayed in into his new job, as The Shell Factory’s general manager for restaurant operations, where he will bring his own style to Capt’n Fishbones Seafood Grill.
It’s a far cry from where he came from. As a teenager, Pham became an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, where he served in combat with the South Vietnamese 5th Ranger Corp., also known as the Black Tigers, which fought alongside American Troops right up to the end of the war.
“I was an 18-year-old kid with wild doe eyes and you can squeeze the milk off my face, and now I was responsible for the lives of 40 men. It was very overwhelming,” Pham said. “Fortunately, the soldiers knew that and they became my boss and taught me.”
Pham was wounded in combat but went on to work for Air America, a covert CIA operation with supply flights all over Southeast Asia. Pham basically became a soldier with no name, rank or serial number
When it became apparent the South would fall in the middle of 1974, Pham for his own safety and that of his family was flown to the United States for what the CIA would call enhanced training.
“Fortunately, my unit worked with American soldiers. We knew what was going to happen and they feared for my safety and made arrangements for me to come to America,” Pham said.
Pham would serve in Virginia, then in Anchorage, Alaska.
When Pham had the opportunity to come to Florida with his family and start a new life, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I had a friend who lived in Cape Coral who served with me in Vietnam. He told me Fort Myers was like Vietnam where we had two seasons, wet and dry, and that I would probably like it,” Pham said. “I went from 60-below to seeing people riding bicycles in swim trunks. I said that’s where I want to live for the rest of my life.”
Pham moved to Naples and basically started over. He was a dishwasher and cook for years at restaurants in the area.
But Pham had bigger dreams. He sought out a new career as a chef and hospitality manager, and after years of hard work, he became that.
“I learned a lot from scratch. But there were all these cooking shows on, and I went to culinary school,” Pham said. “If I was to become what I wanted to become, I had to go to culinary school.”
He managed and was executive chef at restaurants such as Blue Hawaii, Hoang’s Oriental Cuisine in Sanibel, The Gathering in Naples and the Steak and Lobster House on Naples Bay.
Pham retired early this year, but when he learned of the job at the Shell Factory, he thought it would be a fun job and changed his mind.
“When I first retired I spent some time with my grandson. But he’s in school now and I had nothing to do,” Pham said.
Pham became one of the honored guests at the recent “Nam Jam” event on Oct. 22, and said the event was a great way to honor those who came to serve our country and get people’s minds away from who’s standing for the national anthem.
“Nowadays, when you turn the TV on and you see what’s going on in the NFL and nobody thanks you. These are the people who created the blanket of freedom those people in the NFL use,” Pham said. “We want to let the veterans know that we haven’t forgotten you.”
The real accomplishment was getting Pham to come work for them, not just be honored for his service.
“We are proud and excited about having Sonny lead our restaurant operations here at The Shell Factory,” said Rick Tupper CFO and marketing director.
For the Capt’n Fishbones menu and information, visit www.shellfactory.com or the Shell Factory Facebook page.