Chef James Syhabout is a first-generation Asian-American whose family came to the Bay Area from a Lao refugee camp in Thailand in the early 1980s. He grew up working in his mother’s Thai restaurant before going on to a successful career as a chef specializing in fine dining. However, when his mother gave up her restaurant to return to her homeland, James came face-to-face with deep personal regret of not having learned more about the food of his people. Syhabout discusses with Francis Lam what it’s means to have a foot in two culinary worlds and how he came to appreciate Lao food through the journeys documented in his cookbook and travelogue, Hawker Fare. Shyabout also shares a recipe for Shredded Chicken Salad with Herbs, Fish Sauce and Lime, also called yum gai.
Francis Lam: Chef James Syhabout's family came to America from a Laos refugee camp in Thailand. It was 1981 and they didn't know a single person. They were settled on 25th Street in Oakland, California in a neighborhood called a Laotian ghetto. James grew up there, going to cookouts with the neighbors who would become his aunties and uncles. And he grew up in the Thai restaurant his mother opened and ran for most of his life. He worked in that restaurant, after school, every weekend, every summer break. And so he was a seasoned restaurant professional by the time he graduated high school. But it was turning on the TV one day that actually made him want to be a chef. James, can you tell us about what you saw on TV that day?
James Syhabout: I saw professionals. I saw a whole new level of cookery than what I was living in my mom and pop’s place. I saw this magnificent chef with starched whites, a toque, immaculate kitchen, copper pans; he was making beautiful, meticulous food. That's when I got the bug bite. It was like, “Wow, I need to do that. I love cooking, but I need to do that. That's the pros.” Being first generation Asian-American, we came here to live the American dream. I told my mom I wanted to cook for a living. She thought I was nuts; she didn't understand. She's said, “OK, you want to cook, but I need to tell you you're going to be very poor – beyond financially: socially and emotionally.” She didn't want me to do it.
FL: It's funny her world of professional cooking was just drudgery. Just hard work and trying to make it by – and what you were trying to say to her was, no, there's more to it than that.
FL: There's a great moment in the book where you talk about using a high-powered blender for the first time and making a puree versus pounding in a mortar and pestle. Can you tell us about that?
JS: It’s a much different, efficient approach. In fine dining, everything's more refined. Everything is smoother; everything has passed through a chinois. When making stock I was never taught to skim – at least my mom never skimmed – and once I got into culinary school, we constantly skim our stocks, drain it, pass it through cheesecloth, get it as clear as you want. But now looking back I'm asking myself why aren’t we skimming the stock making pho or kapoon? It's that impurity, it's like protein. It's flavor. Why do we want to skim that away? So, there's two sides of the argument and I'm stuck in the middle. It's kind of situational.
Chef James Syhabout
Photo: Nader Khouri
FL: It's situational in an interesting way. Because now you truly are a star in the world of fine dining. Your restaurant Commis is a two Michelin star restaurant, so by that standard it's literally one of the best restaurants in the world, where you serve extremely refined, creative, high-end food. But then after a few years of having the restaurant and having accolades and press, there's another moment in your life that you talk about in the book. You're visiting your mom at her restaurant and it had been years. Business was getting bad for her; she's tired and wants to give up but can't let go. You remember that moment?
JS: Vividly; I remember what the weather was like. We walked into the kitchen, and I hadn't seen my mother for a while even though the restaurant was close by. I was just so focused on Commis. We had gotten Michelin stars, it was super busy and the restaurant was growing. I went to visit, just to check in. Actually, I was kind of hungry and when I walked in, and I was like – wow – my mom looked lost and fatigued and she wasn't in a happy place. And the state of the restaurant wasn't in a happy place – a lot of neglected maintenance. Be mindful that this was 2009-2010 so the economy was not in the best shape. I couldn’t see my mom live this way. She always talked about wanting to go back home, just wanting to live in the countryside and raise water buffalos and be in the rice fields and be with her siblings. And I said, “That's what you're going to do. Just drop everything. I'll buy you a one-way plane ticket and don't worry about the rest.”
Now I'm a lease hoarder of this restaurant I grew up in. I could easily do a light version of Commis; open a bistro and serve duck confit and steak frites and it'll be Commis Casual, in a way. That place is so sentimental to me, and it hit me that I can't come over for these meals anymore when I want to eat some chapadak or kapoon. I've seen it made before, but I was never involved in the entire process of making these dishes. It's a shame that what gave me a love for cooking, I turned my back on. It's like I left some things unsettled. Going back, reconciling my past, remembering with respect as to why I got into cooking in the first place.
Hawker Fare by James Syhabout with John Birdsall
FL: Now you have these two sides. You have the fine dining Commis, a largely European-derived technique restaurant. As a chef you’re exceeding at that. And now you have this other restaurant, Hawker Fare, which is about cooking the Laotian food that you had to find. It was in your memory, but you had to learn how to make it. How do you think of yourself now as a cook and as a person versus when you felt like the world that mattered was fine dining?
JS: I feel more well-rounded as an overall cook on a personal level, on a soulful level, now that my two worlds are finally colliding. Before they were so segregated, and one's kind of hidden in the closet, untouched. Now, they work in tandem. In no means is it like I fused the two cuisines, but it affects the way I cook and look at food. It makes me understand what my role as a chef is: to make food delicious. Now I have this point of reference that satisfies me.
When I make a dish at Commis, in conceptualizing a dish at Commis, it’s a very elaborative process. At the end of the day we taste the dish and the question I ask myself now is – although it's cool, pretty, and looks nice – is it satisfying? Is it delicious? Is it as craving as tom khem stew that my mom makes? Does it give me that same satisfaction – even though it's Commis food? That helps me become a better fine dining cook, if anything.
And the tricky part is that it doesn't work in reverse. When I started cooking Lao food I was being too technical and systematic; I was not letting my instincts tell me. I was too technique-driven. Because I had been in fine dining for so long, I became somewhat of a jarhead. In cooking Lao food – and rustic food in general – you have to use instincts. You have to trust your instincts; make sure you're calibrated. That's why I talk about not relying on my instruments so much. That's how a lot of moms cook. A handful of this, a pinch of that, throw this in. It's delicious. She's not overthinking it. That's the beauty of it.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.