James Syhabout has spent time in some of the world’s best kitchens, from Ferran Adria’s El Bulli to Daniel Patterson’s Coi to David Kinch’s Manresa. In 2009, he ventured out on his own to open Commis in Oakland, creating the only two-Michelin-star restaurant in the East Bay. Yet, when he sat down to write his first book, he decided the restaurant that made him famous would not be the focus.
“With a Commis book, it would be another fine dining restaurant book,” Syhabout tells Robb Report. “That’s kind of been a story that’s been told over and over. It just wasn’t personal enough for me. It would just be another fine dining book that no one’s really going to cook out of.” Instead, he’s published Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots, as a way to reconnect to and advocate for the food of his family’s homeland.
Syhabout was born, like his mother, in Isan, in the Northeast region of Thailand bordering his father’s home country of Laos. When the U.S. dropped bombs on the region in the 1970s, it eventually caused his family to flee to the States. When his parents arrived in Oakland, they made ends meet running a restaurant—not one serving Lao food, but Thai dishes that were more familiar to Americans. They shied away from serving their native cuisine out of economic necessity, but for James, avoiding his roots was about being a kid trying to fit in.
“I ran away from my background in general,” Syhabout says. “Everyone around me, other first generation Asian kids, were kind of doing the same thing. We all wanted to be Americanized. We wanted to do well and that’s the reason why our parents came to America, to give us something. Get a head start in life.”
Watching chefs on TV changed how he thought about cooking. “Wow, there’s a glamorous side to it—it’s not just grunge like my pop’s place,” he says. So that’s the path he went down with food. He would work in the finest kitchens and accumulate accolades himself, avoiding the cooking his parents did. But like many other chefs of his generation, found something lacking. “We chased that starched chef jacket dream, we got there and we’re like ‘It’s cool, it’s great,’ but sometimes we forget about why we get into cooking in the first place,” he says. “On this low level, in your mother’s kitchen, that’s where it started.”
So he opened Hawker Fare, a restaurant devoted to cooking a style of cuisine not known well to Americans, and far from fine dining. It’s a spicy, sometimes bitter, and earthy style of food filled with dried chilies, preserved ingredients, and the unfiltered, fermented fish sauce called padaek. And this year he released a cookbook devoted to venturing back to Southeast Asia to explore those flavors and share what he found back home in America, to bring Lao and Isan Thai food to the masses. We sat down with the chef to discuss what he learned on his trip, the futile search for authenticity, and how he pushes diners to be a little more adventurous.
You write that this book is 100 percent American; why was it important to you to emphasize that point?
It’s an American story. This country is made of immigrants and everyone has a story similar to mine. And it’s also traceable through food. You know, if you are Vietnamese or if you’re from Europe or you’re from Africa and you’re now an American, we all have the same stories how we grew up in America.
To say it’s 100% American is because I am an American. I think a lot of Americans, regardless of where they’re from in origin, will have the same story and they could have their food be called American as well. American doesn’t really have a specific cuisine. What? Hamburgers? Pizza? That’s Italian. Hamburgers, people argue it’s German. What is American cuisine? it’s kind of a free-for-all. People might as well just put up a dart board and throw darts at it.
How did you research this book?
I remember asking myself, “What do I miss? What do I remember in my childhood with food?” Then trying to recreate that just through taste memories. I would ask my mom, then use my training and French background to analyze flavors and textures and how to get there. But I had to figure it out on my own. Yeah, I had my mom on the phone kind of advising me, that was part of the research.
I also went I also went back to Thailand to see where did my mom get her point of reference and see how the ingredients are different. Lemon grass here, lemon grass back there, it’s totally different. Cilantro, night and day. My point of reference is from an Americanized version of what my mom was trying to do to replicate back home.
Going back to see that point of reference, that origin, was important to me. It’s like, papaya salad. I was there for a month, eating two papaya salads a day, and I was also questioning that authority of authenticity, you know? That’s a big thing. It gets me bent out of shape when people say, “authentically made”. No. There’s a chapter in the book about chasing unicorns. Authenticity is like a unicorn. When I went back to Thailand, there were 60 different papaya salads in a trip. How can I argue if hers is more authentic than yours? More authentic than aunty or the next town over?
Did you find anything really unexpected?
I was actually surprised the food in Bangkok was sweet. I was talking to a local about it there’s a generational shift that exists in Bangkok, where the younger generation doesn’t eat spicy. Now, a lot of the Western culture is now in Bangkok. All these McDonald’s and KFCs and Sizzlers and even the high end with Pierre Hermé having a bakery there now. They’re all on a trend toward Western food and Western pop culture. Their palates are changing, too. It seems with food stalls, some are adapting to that new generational pallet. They can’t handle the spice as much. The city kids.
City kids have gone soft.
I was totally shocked. I was like, this sauce is really sweet, it’s sweeter than what we make at home. This is weird. Then you look around and it’s Baskin Robbins. Or you go to KFC and a bunch of Thai children are waiting in line. They don’t want street food.
Once we got out of the city to the countryside, it was what I was looking for. Things were still bitter. Things were more organic; it wasn’t so refined. You can still find that stuff in the big city, too, but I think it became the tourist areas. It became like rolling the dice.
When your parents immigrated to America, why did they cook Thai food and not the food you found on your trip?
My mom worked at a very popular Thai restaurant in Berkeley. It was a very busy restaurant and she knows what sells and what people like. They’d been doing it for a while and the reason why she struck out on her own and opened her place, she knows the formula. She’s like, “I’m not going to change it. I’m not in the position to test customers.” Back then, she’s not going to have the press; people are not going to seek it out, so she just did what worked. It was more of a business decision.
She did what she did. Her motivation was to make a living from it. She’s not there to say, “Hey, guys. Get Lao food. I’m making noise.” You know? She’s just like, “I want to provide for my family.” She had the restaurant for a long time and as I got older, I started noticing the food we ate and the food she served is totally different. I started asking questions about it.
Was she changing things for the Western palate?
Not really changed for the Western palate. Maybe it’s not even available for the Western palate at all—things to make a fish sauce, the spice levels. There was no dill in any of her food. She didn’t even have papaya salad on the menu. Just mostly stir fries and your array of colors of different curries.
Everything was kind of safe. Pad Thai of course, peanuts and bean sprouts, but it wasn’t charred catfish relish. Nothing like that because it’s super spicy and smelled. You didn’t serve sticky rice. Telling Americans to eat with their hands is kind of odd. Even today, at Hawker Fare, I see people stabbing the crap out of my sticky rice basket, trying to get sticky rice out. They’re getting frustrated and I’m like, “You’re not supposed to eat it that way.” I even have a little cartoon for you how to eat it. You know, creatures of habit.
Do you see people changing?
I think people are more curious. They’re more accustomed to spice and are used to having a bitter flavor as a good thing. Before it’s like “oh, bitter, that’s medicinal and off putting.”
Now people are more balanced. You can see that everywhere, not just food. In the cocktail culture people want more bitter drinks, with amaros. People’s palates are changing where they’re accustomed to a wider spectrum of flavors.
What was the reception when you opened Hawker Fare?
When we opened Hawker Fare, I put a lot of dishes like this on the menu that I eventually had to take off. People don’t understand it. All they knew was, they didn’t understand the history and we weren’t there to preach, per se.
The bamboo shoot stew with ganan leaf, you know? It’s this murky, black, but it’s delicious to me. But you know, food gets sent back and you get bad Yelp reviews. It tastes fine. It totally tastes what it tastes like. Because they didn’t like it, they think it’s horrible. So we get a bad Yelp review.
You know what, It’s not worth the headache. I can’t put my business on the line. It makes me think of my parent’s business. I’m not saying I’m a well-known chef, but people know I’m behind the restaurant because of Commis and still come in with the perception of not having the trust to try something new and say, “It’s not for me,” rather than bash it on Yelp. I can only imagine what my parents felt, you know? They had no notoriety whatsoever. It was just mom and pop’s place. They were in no position to take risks like that. I can totally understand where they’re coming from sell pad Thais, push fried rice.
But that’s not what you wanted to do.
It was good for me to measure what the climate was for this type of food at Hawker Fare. With one dish I heard people over talking at the bar saying, “It smells like socks.” For me, it’s a hard thing to hear.
What did you do?
It’s a consumer world so what can you do? Take it off, remove it. You read the reports that say, “Oh, we had to comp four dishes because people thought it was too strong for them or smelled bad.” Okay, we just wasted product and effort to make this really delicious, traditional thing that people don’t like.
So do I adapt it to their palate? For me, I’m pretty hard-headed. It won’t be worth it. I’ll be back to not doing it justice. Then it jades what that dish is in perception of the diners. I took all those items off the menu, actually. Maybe five or six dishes off.
Industry people loved it, got it. It was like, “Wow, you’re really giving it to us.” I’m like, “Yeah, this is what the food is.” I don’t know. I’m not experimenting. I really wanted to showcase how we really eat. The total spectrum of bitterness that people don’t understand. They’re not willing to try it, so it ends up being a business decision to remove those things off the menu. We couldn’t afford bad Yelp reviews; that hurts your business.
Was it difficult to balance those business decisions with artistic ones?
Oh, yeah. It’s hard. Hawker Fare itself is a good location. It’s a big restaurant, too. So we need to do volume. If it were to do the food I wanted to do, it has to be a smaller place where the risk is smaller. Where even I could be controlled what they’re eating and it can be fixed. You know? Just say, “I’m delivering you a real Lao experience. No dietary restrictions, no utensils. I might even have you sit on the floor, cross-legged, and just share one bit sticky rice basket.”
Sometimes you have to go to extremes to deliver an experience and I think about that in fine dining with Commis and a lot of high end restaurants. Michelin restaurants where you go there for experience. There is no a la carte menu. You go there, you sit down and you order what you drink and you’re at the chef’s mercy, right?
Sometimes I think maybe I need to go to that extreme. Or else, we’ll just sell green beans and fried chicken all night. That’s the bread and butter of the restaurant—what keeps it alive. It’s good, but that interest of the dishes I want them to experience, for the masses to know about Lao food. They’re not going to order it unless I force it upon them.
Edouardo Jordan told me something very similar about only wanting to offer fried chicken at his Southern restaurant once a week, because he wanted people to try other things.
With food, there’s a lot of trust. We always want something that’s comforting, something we know. Especially when it comes to food. It’s very food that can be adventurous. Spice levels, even. Yeah, it’s just we’re creatures of … It’s a natural instinct. We kind of retract when it comes to food.
Hawker Fare could be a four-item menu restaurant and we’d be fine. Sometimes I think let’s shrink the menu to five items. It will make my life a lot easier. That’s not the idea, though. I’m hoping this book can move things forward. I want to put more esoteric items on the menu and maybe I’ll just label the menu with a section that says “No refunds. This is what the food’s supposed to be. Like it or not. Order at your own risk.” Fill the menu up with disclaimers. Funny thing is, I bet it will attract people to order from it. It’ll be one big social experiment.
You’re helping the people who want to be adventurous.
They say they do, but when they actually get it they’re like, “Oh, you know, can you take this off our bill?” I’m like, “No.” I’m over that. It takes a lot of work and effort to make these dishes I’m proud of.