Meet Chef Seng Luangrath Of D.C.'s Thip Khao

Seng Luangrath remembers watching the other refugees cook outside her family's bamboo hut. It was 1981, and she was a 12-year-old in a Thai refugee camp, having escaped a politically unstable Laos with her mother and brothers. She had always been shy, but her neighbors' cuisines—from all over Laos—fascinated her. She dared to ask for lessons.

"When I want to do something, I will make it happen," Luangrath says.

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In the past decades, Luangrath has made a lot happen as the owner of two restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. Thip Khao, the city's first Lao restaurant, has earned honors from Michelin, Bon Appétit and the James Beard Foundation, which listed Luangrath as a semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. She now leads an international movement to promote Lao cuisine.

"It's so lucky that the chef community is accepting me so well, especially [because] I'm a woman, minority, and I'm Lao," Luangrath says.

This future did not seem likely back when Luangrath was six years old in Vientiane, learning from her grandmother how to flip sticky rice in a bamboo steamer. It was not even a viable career when her family immigrated to San Francisco. Luangrath—the oldest girl in the family and designated cook—loved to spend her weekends watching Yan Can Cook and Julia Child. But, following her mother's advice, she studied banking instead.

Cooking became a side pursuit. In 1989, Luangrath married her husband, Boun Khammanivanh, and moved to Virginia, where she became a bank teller and then an accountant. She spent weekends preparing elaborate feasts for her family.

In 1998, Luangrath realized that opening a restaurant was her dream. She and Khammanivanh flirted with the idea, even going so far as to look into real estate. But the couple concluded that restaurants were risky and launched a carpet business instead. Luangrath catered small events in her spare time.

But Luangrath hadn't given up on her dream. By 2008, she was so unhappy that Khammanivanh told her to stay home and reconnect with her passion. "I spent hours and hours at grocery stores just reading labels," she says. She stayed up late cooking and devising her own recipes. So when she found out a local Thai chain was looking to sell one of its outposts, she jumped at the chance.

Luangrath took over Bangkok Golden's kitchen with only a month's notice. "I had to trust my instincts," she says. Her instinct was not to serve Lao food. Lao restaurants had failed across the country, because Americans didn't know the cuisine. So, like other Lao cooks, Luangrath served a Thai menu.

But it was the off-menu Lao dishes—like the papaya salad and laab—that made Bangkok Golden's reputation. One day, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema came in asking for those Lao specials. He praised them in his 2010 review. 

Bangkok Golden took off. Luangrath added a Lao menu alongside the Thai one, but diners began clamoring for a D.C. restaurant that served only Lao food. "That gave me confidence," she says. Thip Khao opened in 2014 with a "jungle menu" of dishes like pig's-blood sausage and minced alligator laab. People loved it. 

Thip Khao's arrival jump-started the Lao Food Movement, which Luangrath leads by promoting the cuisine at culinary events and on social media. She also encourages young cooks to open Lao, not Thai, restaurants. "We've been hiding under another culture," she says. "Any part of the world is ready for Lao cuisine." 

Luangrath has more projects she wants to make happen in D.C. "I'm so driven," she says. "I don't want to be the CEO of a company; I want to cook."

Amy McKeever is a writer based in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Instagram at @amykmckeever.