The Lao Factor
Far away from the quiet hustle of tweezing small rounds of radishes or pouring savory tisanes during the tasting menu at Commis in Oakland, California, the East Bay's only Michelin-starred restaurant, chef James Syhabout is causing a commotion at one little burner in our Test Kitchen.
He's making het dong kai dao (see the recipe), puckery, Thai chile-speckled pickled mushrooms heaped on top of hot rice and crowned with an egg fried in probably way more, way hotter oil than most of us are comfortable with. But that's the Thai way. Cracked into sputtering, almost-smoking hot oil, the eggs bubble and brown on the bottom, lending them a cloud-like look with light, lovely, almost-offal-like crunch.
"Man, why would I want to fry an egg any other way?" Syhabout asks.
Gravity-defying eggs aside, the real stunner are those funny little flavor bombs of mushrooms. And that's the element of his mother's humble, soul-warming Thai Laotian dish that's most in line with the fine dining finesse he works with at Commis. Yes, those boring ole white button mushrooms.
"White button mushrooms are one of those ingredients that gets overlooked," Syhabout says. "They get a bad rap. You eat them on Round Table pizza and in Campbell's soup."
It's something he's all too familiar with as a restaurant kid growing up in the hood—"We didn't have access to nice ingredients, so white button mushrooms were the best thing," he says. But chef Pascal Barbot blew his mind when he stumbled upon the bland, rubbery, low-cost ingredient at the legendary L'Astrance in Paris.
"One of the signature dishes was shaved button mushroom with foie gras and lemon curd," Syhabout recalls. "It's like, look at this mushroom that everyone doesn't want. For me as a cook, it's very inspiring—how do I take something that I can find in a corner store and elevate that?"
At Commis this past March, he turned white button mushrooms into a silky tisane, but for today's dish, he's giving the credit back to Mom. A stash of these pickled mushrooms always sat in the fridge, ready for the family when she was too tired to cook or tending to her restaurant, which is now the home of the original Hawker Fare, Syhabout's fiery, fish-sauced ode to his Isan homeland. He just opened his second outpost in San Francisco this past spring, where he continues to channel his Thai (fragrant curries, funky papaya salads) and Laotian (spiced grilled meats with tons of sticky rice) backgrounds, gleaning ideas from each phone call to his mom.
"This is all an accident of my mother moving away back home to Thailand, and I'm like, this is a shame, because I don't know how to cook the food I grew up on," he says.
So he started begging her for the recipes behind the dishes she loved cooking at home, he craved now and most of her own customers probably never tried.
"I grew up in Thai restaurants, and the Thai food we were serving was very sweet pad Thai and curry, but the staff meals were awesome, and the customers never got to see that," Syhabout says. "I always asked my mom why, until this day, and she says, 'They'll never understand. It smells like stinky feet.'"
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But she's come around since then, now calling up Syhabout, offering her own ideas and even considering coming out of restaurant retirement to open her own Laotian place. (Syhabout's thinking more pop-up for now.)
"My mom is more enthusiastic about cooking the stuff she wants to eat. She feels like she doesn't have to sacrifice or adapt to a different palate," Syhabout says.
And if what she's bringing back is anything like this spicy, soulful het dong kai dao, Syhabout better watch his back.
"Maybe she'll steal back the space from me," he jokes. "She's like, 'You're able to do this at Hawker Fare. Why I can't do it now?' She's kind of competitive like that. Cooks."
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