The first time I talked to Oakland chef James Syhabout was on the sidewalk outside Hawker Fare. This was in 2011, before the restaurant was even open. Five years later, Hawker Fare is closing, a casualty of the city’s real estate frenzy. The book I helped Syhabout write—a memoir about growing up on an Oakland block with other Lao refugee families, and the Thai restaurant his mom operated in the space that would become Hawker Fare—hasn’t even been published. Already it’s an elegy for a vanished time.
That’s how it goes these days. A restaurant, like the story of a chef’s life, doesn’t always end where you expect it to, wrapped up with a hopeful epilogue. As cities like Oakland change, displacing families who struggle to keep their roots alive in toxic soil, restaurants, and narratives, change with them. This one started with so much life.
Back in 2011, Eater and the San Francisco Chronicle had been scrambling over news that Syhabout, chef of Commis, was opening a cheap and funky rice-bowl place a mile up the grade of Piedmont Avenue (in Oakland, status and the promise of streets without potholes rise with the hills). I was writing for the East Bay Express, an alt weekly. I made a daily trip past the unopened restaurant, a corner James was calling Hawker Fare, to try and be the first to report on opening day. For more than a week I’d driven past, watching for a sign in the window.
Then one morning I spotted James out front (I recognized him from photos). I parked and strolled back. I pretended I was casually interested, just a neighbor walking by. “You own this place, right?” I asked when the launch was. James’s reply—“pretty soon”—put enough stress on the first word to make it a non-answer. He was looking up at Hawker Fare’s faded orange stucco the way you’d study a car through a dealer’s window, calculating or imagining. I stood and gazed up too for a couple of seconds, sharing the sidewalk, a tenuous act of connection.
Three years later, in 2014, James asked if I wanted to help him write a book. A chef’s book? I hesitated. Syhabout said his would be different: recipes yeah, but also a memoir about growing up Lao and Isan in Oakland, about shifting identities, and learning to cook in a way that was different than fine dining: not better, definitely not worse. Also, I’d have to go with him to Thailand and Laos, visit his mom’s farmhouse in the family village, eat, and just be there while James reconstructed his story.
We began the book in June 2014 with a photo shoot for the proposal. In a corner of Hawker Fare, photographer Eric Wolfinger shot fried chicken with charred chile jam and a chicken stew with unborn eggs. On December 1, 2016—two and a half years, two trips to Southeast Asia, 40,000 words, 92 recipes, and 38,000 photos later—we submitted the manuscript to our publisher, Anthony Bourdain’s imprint for HarperCollins’ Ecco Press. The book is scheduled to drop in spring 2018.
The Hawker Fare space is the memoir’s pivot. Months before we shared a sidewalk, James had taken over his mom’s lease. Her restaurant was Manyda. She cooked standard American-restaurant Thai food because that’s what Americans wanted. Manyda was a symbol of an immigrant woman’s grit. She became an entrepreneur, raised two boys and kept them off the streets, guarded her dignity. She didn’t just hold on, she moved through, the ultimate American story.
He took his original rice-bowl concept, dug in, and made the Oakland location of Hawker Fare something personal, cooking the food, fierce and vital, he grew up with on that Oakland block. He also managed to erase every trace of chef’s ego, cooking to honor his mom and the women who taught her.
Much of Oakland’s original Lao refugee community of the 1980s has already scattered. Hawker Fare, which has its last day of service on February 18, is also the story of the city, of every family that came and tried to cook in a way it understood with the ingredients at hand, before dissolving under the pressure of displacement or voluntarily moving on to evolve in other places, sustained by other foods.
Restaurants can be places that survive for decades or they can be the briefest of gestures, flickering on like fluorescent tubes, mercury vapor exploding into photons before dying, clicking off again. It’s not the longevity of a restaurant that matters but the illumination it provides before it goes. I know that, and yet I’m already dreading the drive past Hawker Fare once it closes.
Editor’s Note: Hawker Fare in San Francisco will remain open, as will Syhabout’s two-Michelin-starred Oakland restaurant, Commis.