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Interview: Chef James Syhabout and Hawker Fare

It’s taken the Lao community by storm. Hawker Fare: Recipes & Stories from a Refugee Chef’s Thai Isan & Lao Roots was released at the beginning of the year and people are still buzzing. The book was published under Anthony Bourdain’s imprint, a man known for culinary travel shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown. For a population that’s long been under the shadow of neighbouring Thailand, many are thrilled to see their cuisine brought into the limelight. For the history buffs–northeastern Thailand was once a part of the Kingdom of Laos. So, Isan food/Northeastern Thailand cuisine has roots from Laos.

The author is Chef James Syhabout, who says his identity is difficult to box in. “People say I’m Lao and people say I’m Thai. I’m both. Lao American chef? Sure. Thai American chef? Sure, I’m that too. It’s complicated.”

James was born in northeast Thailand to a Lao father and a Thai Isan mother. The trio landed in the US in 1981. They made a home in west Oakland, California, forging a community with other refugee families. Their urban village spanned 2 blocks around Twenty-Fifth Street, an area known as the Laotian ghetto.

He grew up around food. James fondly remembers neighbourhood cookouts and large gatherings for meals that went on for days. He also recalls playing sous chef to his mom from a young age. As he and his brother grew older, they clocked hours in the back of his family’s Thai restaurant.

His mother introduced him to cooking, but it was an episode of Great Chefs that inspired him to pursue a culinary career.

“I was mesmerized,” he says of his first glimpse at a professional kitchen. “[The] tv kitchen looked cool… It was elegant… Everything was so clean and refined. I remember the thought that came into my mind: I need to do this.”

Straight out of high school, he was the youngest person in his class at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. After finishing the 18 month program, James spent over five years honing his skills in various kitchens across the Bay Area. Then came a yearlong stint in Europe, where he interned and ate his way through fine dining establishments in England, Barcelona, and Spain. Upon returning, James set out to open his own upscale restaurant. He did so in a place that had never seen such a thing – his home city of Oakland.

Commis opened in mid-2009. The fine dining spot was a success, becoming the first place in East Bay to earn a Michelin Star (it currently has two). But as the restaurant began to take off, his mother’s was headed down the opposite path.

Manyda, located not far from James’ childhood home, had been hit hard by the 2008 recession. Plus, his mother had burned out from over twenty-five years of cooking in and managing her business. James dropped by for a visit one night and found her broken down, mentally and physically exhausted. Retirement was the answer, but she was stuck in a lease that wouldn’t end for another five years. He ended up taking it over and buying her a one-way ticket home to Thailand.

James contemplated how to breathe new life into Manyda’s old space. Commis lite, a small bistro, was the easy choice. But it didn’t quite feel right. He quickly realized that he should honor the essence of the restaurant, the part that meant the most to him – his mother’s cooking.

The only problem was that he had no idea how to replicate it. Despite his years as a restaurant kid, James never learned how to cook the food he grew up on. The soups, jeows, and papaya salads were lost on him. There were many parallels between his and his mother’s careers. But in pursuing fine dining, he had admittedly turned his back on his roots.

“I spent so many years as my mom’s kitchen assistant and I hadn’t even shown her the respect of learning how to cook her food. I took it for granted, turning away from it when I found it embarrassing, shunned the culture that is me.”

Courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

To make amends, James began to explore Lao and Isan cuisine. This endeavour began in his kitchen in California, and took him back to Thailand and Laos. He chronicled his journey in Hawker Fare, which is part biography and part cookbook. Woven into the narrative is an introduction to Thailand and Laos’ culinary-focused cultures.

The book has been well-received. For many readers, it’s a relatable story, a taste of the familiar, endorsed by a famous personality. Anthony Bourdain asserts that reading Hawker Fare will make you a better person. James, on the other hand, is just hoping to create an audience for his beloved cuisine.

But he stakes no claims at authenticity.

“The recipes in this book are not 100 percent Thai, Isan, or Lao…” he says in the introduction. “… this is the furthest thing from an authentically Thai or Lao book.”

Authenticity, he argues, is an elusive creature. Instead, he’s presenting his own interpretation of recipes and hoping they evolve with his audience.

We caught up with James to discuss his culinary journey, his response to critics, and the guest list for his dream dinner party.

Courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

What was your most influential memory growing up?

I remember our living situation, and how we made things happen. We were always pushing to do better. It encompasses how I carry myself. You want to do better with the next generation.

Gathering together to eat was a big deal, making time for weekend get-togethers. They were large, like 12-15 of us. For the Lao community, it’s about conversations and having fun over food. That’s the best part of those moments.

How did you get started cooking? What was your childhood like?

I was a restaurant kid. Cooking was fun for me. I started when I was 9 years old – peeling garlic and de-stemming chile peppers. I thought to myself, “Cooking is cool. I can do this.”

A mentor once said to me, “If it’s fun and you enjoy it, work can be the highest form of play.”

I don’t find it to be a grind. At 15 years old, I didn’t think I would be here. I worked with great mentors and had great connections. Now I’m part of an ecosystem of support that feeds itself. All these cool people want to work with me, too.

So what’s your cooking style? What should people know about Chef James’ food?

It’s situational, it depends on my mood. Some days I want to make Mama noodles. Today, I woke up and had caviar and khua mee.

My food is a work in progress. Chefs are our worst critics, so I’ll say that my food is not that good. It’s never-ending perfection for me.

Your Mom was obviously a big influence for you growing up. What does she think of your cooking?

She likes it. Fine dining doesn’t make sense for her. Because it’s a different way of eating. We eat, we don’t buy; it’s a culture shock. She’s not used to hundreds of dollars being spent on food and wine. To her, food is a necessity – a convening.

Commis is the only restaurant in East Bay with a Michelin Star. You’re also the first Lao chef to be awarded one. What’s that like?

It’s a huge responsibility because you’re on a global stage. The pressures are on.

Courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

How did you connect with Anthony Bourdain?

Shear luck. Anthony loves Vietnam War history, and part of it is Laos. Somehow I was working on the book and he called me and said, “I want to publish your book, you have a great story. It’s about the people behind the food.” I signed on and here we are. The ball keeps rolling. It was the right time and place, and he found me.

Do you think your personal story is important to appreciating the recipes in “Hawker Fare” or can it stand alone?

I think the story is more important than the recipes. Without the stories, they don’t carry any weight. Food is a powerful thing. It’s more than nourishment, it’s an identifier.

How would you describe Lao food to the world?

It’s by taste and sound. Lao cooking is simple. You use your instinct. It doesn’t require science. One day of cooking can be different from another. It’s a mixed bag.

Cooking with instinct is easier done when you’ve grown up accustomed to Lao food. What suggestions do you have for someone who’s completely new to this cuisine and venturing into your recipes for the first time?

The recipes are just a guideline. Use them as your bones and foundation. Follow them the first time. The second, use your own variations to your tastes. Adjust to what you like and think it should be.

A lot of Lao people use recipes loosely, if at all. You even mention in the book that the same meal can change from day to day. So how did you capture the essence of Lao cuisine and translate it into step-by-step recipes?

Like cooking any cuisine, it’s about understanding the flavours. The first thing you do when you cook is shop and get to know the ingredients. How does fish sauce taste by itself? What about chiles? Just like with colours, you don’t mix things blind. Get to know your building blocks.

What do you hope a reader who is not Lao, Thai, or Isan gains from reading Hawker Fare?

Maybe it’ll make them travel to Laos, or want to try new food. I hope it makes them realize that Lao food isn’t different. You’ve had it before. It’s just a matter of re-educating. You’re familiar with these flavours, you just don’t know about it commercially. Let’s give Lao food some credit; it’s way deserved. From a marketing standpoint, it’s same same, but different.

In Thailand, you were asked how a meal made you feel. How do you hope your book will make people feel? Both the memoir and the meals made from the recipes?

I’m more concerned with making people think. I hope it makes them more conscious.

People sometimes say about my food, “that’s not how my mom made it.” But it’s not about that. I’m not saying my recipes are correct; it’s just the way I’ve had it. Everyone has a different point of reference.

Courtesy of Patricia Chang

What’s been the most memorable experience of your career so far?

None, really. I feel like I’ve met my benchmarks. But I’m never content. I can do more and be better. I have four restaurants. I’m still asking if there’s an easier way. It’s about process and learning.

In your book, you mention your mom’s personal American dream: to help her children make something of themselves. What’s yours?

To be able to provide. Making sure I’m good, and then others. Maybe do something for my family, for the youth.

What are your thoughts on the #Laofoodmovement and the rapidly growing Lao food community on social media?

It’s fantastic. Who knows where it’s going? Whoever is driving it will get far. It wasn’t my intention to write the first Lao cookbook. It’s a bio, a personal journey. Now it’s my motivation.

What’s your go-to comfort food?

In-N-Out French fries.

Any other hobbies other than cooking?

I enjoy running, basketball, being outdoors. I’m active. To be a chef is to be physical.

If you were stranded on an island and could only have a few things for survival, what would they be?

Coconuts, a cleaver, a box of Mee Mama noodles, and rice. I can do without protein. Or if I really need it, I can find animals on the island.

Courtesy Eric Wolfinger

You’re hosting dinner with your idols. Who’s coming to that party? What would you serve them?

Anthony Bourdain, of course. Bob Marley would bring the weed, Mom would look lost, Nelson Mandela would keep everyone calm, and Dave Chappelle as the entertainer. I would do a BBQ. No matter where you come, BBQs are always good. Don’t forget a bunch of chile paste.

What are your plans for the future? A lot of articles have mentioned ‘Hawker Fare’ as your first cookbook. Do you plan on writing others?

I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m not big into planning. At the moment, I’m still getting over the hangover of writing the first book, I’d like to take a break.

Do you have any words of wisdom for emerging chefs?

Be assertive and take risks. Make sacrifices. Take a pay cut to work for free for the big guys. People want to be in the fast track from A to B at a 100 miles per hour, but don’t want to put in the time and effort. You still gotta work from the bottom up.

Any final thoughts?

The book is just scratching the surface. There’s more to explore through my mom’s eyes. Her recipes aren’t the same as your mom’s. But to me, cooking isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about saying, “is it delicious?”

To say one person’s food is more authentic than another is bullshit. Authentic Lao food is like trying to find a unicorn. I ate 60 different papaya salads in Thailand and Laos. Each one was different. There is no authenticity.


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