Eater | ‘Hawker Fare’ Cookbook Chronicles Chef James Syhabout’s Journey Back to His Roots
"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.”