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Chef Seng Luangrath on Why Reclaiming Lao Food and it’s Award-Winning Taste Matters

(Chef Seng @Thip Khao. Photo: Jai Williams)

At 7-years-old, Chef Seng Luangrath never imagined that the cooking skills she inherited from her grandmother and aunties at the refugee camps she went through would become award-winning staples in America, where she’s now serving Lao comfort food in the East Coast. As the Lao food addicts population rises to well-deserved acclaim, Chef Seng Luangrath of Washington D.C. has been hailed as one of the pioneers of the #LaoFoodMovement, blazing the path with her savory introduction to Lao cuisine to the masses. After reviving an empty Thai restaurant called Bangkok Golden in Washington D.C. in 2010 and steadily inserting Lao dishes to the menu, Thip Khao was born and the rave reviews of her award-winning food hasn’t stopped since.

The latest on Chef Seng’s repertoire is her recent nomination for the prestigious James Beard award, where she’s a semifinalist in the “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” category. This is a first for a Lao women chef. We got a chance to chat with Chef Seng about her reactions to the high honor, her roots in cooking, pro tips on must-haves in a Lao pantry and what all emerging Lao chefs should know about breaking into the Lao food scene.

A typical Lao food spread @Thip Khao, Washington D.C.

Congrats on your nomination, chef! How do you feel about being a James Beard semifinalist?

I feel extremely honored. Though I’ve never expected such recognition, one can always dream, and it’s something that I feel my team and family deserve. Lao food deserves it and I’m so thrilled, excited, and nervous, and happy, and all of those feelings together. In my heart we’re all winners already, but I can’t wait to see who the finalists are. I have so much respect for all those chefs in the same category, it’s incredible to be among such a talented list!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.

I’m from Vientiane and so was my mom and her parents. I was born back in 1969, escaped to Nakhon Phanom refugee camp in Thailand, until I left with my mom and brother and sister to California. I originally resettled in San Francisco back in 1983, then after getting married, I took a chance relocating to Washington D.C. to re-open Bangkok Golden and then started Thip Khao.

Breakfast of champions: Khao piak sen @Thip Khao, Washington D.C.

Why did you get into the restaurant business? How many years have you been cooking? 

In 2007, I started catering Lao food to my husband’s business partners and they loved it. They peaked my interest in the restaurant business and then we started looking for space to fulfill my passion. And here I am in Washington D.C.

How would you describe your approach to cooking? Any techniques that makes it specifically a “Chef Seng” brand? 

Most of my techniques and approach are mostly old school learned from my grandmother, my mom or the elders at the Thai refugee camp. Though I have embraced some modern techniques after I started watching cooking shows on PBS such as Jaques Pepin and Julia Childs. Definitely working along my son Bobby and his expertise with techniques acquired through other restaurants, chefs, and culinary school helped. I’ve used it all to adapt it to my own style, and there are things I won’t change. For example, the way I make papaya salad, nothing beats using a mortar, pestle and spoon.

There’s been a surge in the #LaoFoodMovement which owes much of its credit to you as well. How has the journey been so far?

I went slowly with the Lao food movement, starting back in 2010 when I took over Bangkok Golden, and little by little I went in with locals first; sharing Lao cuisine and culture, and how we eat our food, different dishes, and then social media has made a huge impact in how big the movement has become. #LaoFoodMovement has taken over.

I’ve traveled around Laos and the states connecting with others (I’ve met through social media) who are moving and pushing through with the Lao food movement. Of course, opening Thip Khao, a 100% Lao food restaurant and seeing the acceptance and love from the DC community, and also all the visitors who come from all over to try my food is great. There’s a lot to offer from our cuisine and people are ready for it, and they want it!

Eating papaya salad Lao style @Thip Khao, Washington D.C (Photo: Jai Williams)

What do you hope to accomplish through Lao food?

Continuing to share Lao food knowledge to everyone who loves our food and is interested in hearing about it! Uplifting, promoting, supporting small businesses, as well as educating our culture through food is my mission.

If you were to describe the unique palate of Lao food to strangers new to the cuisine, what would it be? 

I like to describe Lao food flavors as fresh and healthy. Our cooking methods such as salads using fresh vegetables and herbs, a lot of grilled, stewing as well, even our spiciness is fresh since it comes from chilies, galangal or ginger. Many of our dishes are based in our herbs, which are very refreshing, and of course it will get funky thanks to our padaek!

Dishes like laab, papaya salad, naem khao are very easy to introduce to first-timers of Lao food, because it’s easy to adapt to dietary restrictions while at the same time maintaining its traditional essence.

There’s the argument that many Lao-owned restaurants across the states prefer selling the more popular cousin cuisine: Thai food. This confuses mainstream America about what’s actually authentic Lao food. What’s your advice to Lao owners about addressing this issue? How can they ‘sell’ Lao food?

I would like to tell all Lao chefs who are wondering about cooking our food and presenting it to their guests that they can go for it. Don’t be afraid that people would not like it. Use all the ingredients just like how you would like to eat it! Slowly, test your crowd, include a dish or two as a special. Ask for feedback, it’s so important because every city is different. If your guests are not enjoying your Lao dish special, learn from that experience and tweak the dish. For example, I’ve learned about American culture and how much they enjoy different textures in a dish, and that’s something you could make a change without affecting the traditional flavors.

Mieng Muang Luang (Luang Prabang, Laos)

What’s your all-time favorite Lao dish?

Tom mak hoong is a dish I could have at any time of the day, regardless of the weather. Mieng muang luang, a dish that always brings me back to my childhood is also a favorite. So many dishes!

What are must-have ingredients in a Lao pantry? 

  • Padaek
  • Fish sauce
  • Shrimp paste
  • Rice powder
  • Grounded dried chilies

What’s next for you, chef?

Next for me is more traveling. I can’t wait to connect with others, support and learn and share as well my experiences with different food enthusiasts, cooks, entrepreneurs, and chefs.

What’s your advice to aspiring chefs of Lao food?

To aspiring chefs of Lao food: this is the moment! People are ready for Lao food! If you have questions, need advice, or just to exchange thoughts and ideas, please reach out to me and I’d gladly help out as much as I can, Lao Food Movement family.

Did we make you salivate yet? For more about Chef Seng, check out her website, go eat at her award-winning restaurant Thip Khao and read these recent articles on her work:

-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, editor@littlelaos.org

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