Thursday, July 5, 2018

Commis chef James Syhabout discovers his roots in Hawker Fare

As a teenager in Oakland in the 1990s, James Syhabout saw a television show featuring the great French chef Michel Troisgras and, Syhabout writes in his new cookbook cum memoir Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Thai Isan and Lao Roots, “I was mesmerized.” The kitchen in his mother’s Thai restaurant looked nothing like Troisgras’s. Syhabout started reading food magazines at a local newsstand, stumbled across an article about The French Laundry and thought, “I need to do this.”
He did. For five years, he commuted an hour each way from Oakland to Los Gatos, where he rose to the position of chef de cuisine at Manresa, like The French Laundry one of the best restaurants in the U.S. In 2009, Syhabout opened Commis in Oakland and within months received the validation of a Michelin star for his intricate, inventive cuisine. While he flourished, his mother struggled at her own restaurant. After seeing her break down in tears one night, he took over the lease on her place and told her to move back home to the small town in the Laotian part of Thailand where she had grown up.
Syhabout took the new venture as an opportunity to “learn something deeper about my own heritage.” In going to culinary school in San Francisco and honing his craft at Manresa and some of Europe’s greatest restaurants, Syhabout writes, “I ran away from my past. Being Lao embarrassed me.” He remedied that by cooking his own version of the food he’d grown up eating at Hawker Fare, the restaurant he opened in his mother’s old space and continues to run on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission district.
“Lao cuisine favors umami,” he writes. “The flavors are salty, bitter and herbaceous, fragrant with fresh dill and heavy with spice,” and the cuisine is based on sticky rice and padaek, a fermented fish sauce. This is the food he introduces in the book’s recipes: Pork rib stew with pepper wood, dill and squash vines. Sour fermented pork sausage. Fried red peanuts with garlic, lime leaves, chiles and iodized salt. For many of Syhabout’s customers, these are exotic, delicious dishes. For him, they’re a taste of childhood and home.   

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