“This book is a sort of an apology letter, an attempt at reconciling my past in many ways,” Bay Area Chef James Syhabout writes in his debut cookbook, Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai and Lao Roots, released today.
Growing up in West Oakland, where he moved with his family as refugees at the age of two, he observed his mother’s restaurant carefully. He noticed — and judged — how his favorite Lao dishes, full of spice and flavor, were watered down to appease Americans’ palates and presented as Thai rather than Lao to avoid confusing them. After high school, he sought to leave his past behind as he entered a career as a fine-dining chef, cooking in some of the world’s most famous kitchens, from the Fat Duck, to El Bulli, and Mugaritz, shunning his roots as he rose through the culinary ranks.
“I ran away from my past,” Syhabout writes. “Being Lao embarrassed me. I felt ashamed. I still loved the Isan and Lao food my mom cooked — loved it deeply — but I kicked it to the curb.”
His true appreciation for his culture and its brilliant cuisine came later in life, resulting in his popular restaurant, Hawker Fare, in San Francisco (the Oakland location recently shuttered), which serves up the types of funky, spicy, authentic street dishes offered in his cookbook, like papaya salad, pork laab, and fried chicken tossed in charred chili jam. He also owns two-Michelin-starred Commis, which remains the only Michelin-adorned restaurant in the East Bay.
It’s noteworthy that Syhabout chose to name his first cookbook Hawker Fare, not Commis. But, this was never a book about fine dining. It was always a way deeper dive into his heritage, honoring his immigrant parents: his father came from Pakse, Laos and his mother from Isan, the northeast region of Thailand where he was born.
“This book will make you a better person. That’s before you even try any of the recipes,” culinary icon Anthony Bourdain writes in the preface. That’s a bold claim to make — but as you page through Hawker Fare, Bourdain’s reasoning becomes clear.
Published by Ecco, Bourdain’s publishing imprint of HarperCollins, this is a cookbook offers more than a collection of recipes or a narrative about a chef’s life. It does those things — and well — but it also goes deeper, using food as a way to confront subjects like culture, family, identity, and inextricable feelings of guilt, regret, and pride. It’s a deeply personal narrative that feels so relevant for this moment. In the end, it’s a American story about a refugee who had to turn away from his roots before he could embrace them.
With this book, Syhabout hopes to build an audience for such an underappreciated and misunderstood cuisine. Though many Americans have had Lao food in Thai restaurants, they wouldn’t know it. His recipes, however, pull from Thai, Isan, and Lao cuisines broadly and are inspired by his own mother’s cooking from his childhood using California ingredients, with recipes amateur chefs will enjoy making such as his famous Khao Mun Gai (poached chicken and rice) or Khua Mee (dry-fried rice) noodles .
Syhabout has launched many more projects over the past year, opening Hawking Bird, an even more casual spin-off of Hawker Fare, in Temescal, Oakland; a cocktail lounge next door to Commis called CDP; and brewery-restaurant Old Kan Beer & Co. in West Oakland with Adam Lamoreaux. In Syhabout’s signature style, he did of this while writing taking many trips back to his home country to better teach himself about the cuisine and unpack its ingredients and flavors for his forthcoming book. Those travels are documented in book’s narrative, co-written by food writer John Birdsall, as well as in bold photos by San Francisco-based Eric Wolfinger — shots of the street vendors and farmers, markets and temples, chilies and papaya — all bursting with the colors of Southeast Asia.
“This is the food that got me into cooking, but I sidelined it for so long,” Syhabout told Eater. “This cookbook is a family heirloom with recipes from my parents that now my children can cook from — and others can, too.”
To celebrate the book’s release, a launch party will be held Jan. 28 at Old Kan Beer & Co from 12:00 to 4:00 pm, with a buffet of recipes from the book; $85/guest, includes signed copy of the book. Omnivore Books in San Francisco will also host a book talk Feb. 1 at 7:30pm; admission is free.