Most chefs with Michelin-starred restaurants, plus a classical training and the résumé to go with it, would pour all that fancy stuff into their debut cookbook. Glossy cover. Art house photography of white tablecloth dishes and, well, tablecloths. Anecdotes from world-class kitchens. Recipes one's from own world-class kitchen. Not James Syhabout, whose restaurant Commis is the only restaurant in Oakland with a Michelin star and who is a veteran of Manresa, the Fat Duck, Coi, Mugaritz and El Bulli — a heady list of some of the best restaurants in the world.
Rather Syhabout's first cookbook, "Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes From a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai and Lao Roots," published recently by Anthony Bourdain's imprint at Harper Collins' Ecco, is a tribute to his culinary heritage and his other restaurant — a casual street food joint called, you guessed it, Hawker Fare. The 98 recipes within the book trace to the food Syhabout grew up with: His family came to Oakland from the Isan region of northeast Thailand as refugees in 1981, when Syhabout was 2. The food that the chef highlights is thus Isan Thai and Lao, his parents' culture. As the chef writes in his introduction, "Lao food tends to be focused inward; it's far less public than Thai food. You rarely eat in restaurants in Laos — if you're not eating at home, you're slurping noodles on the street."
So we have a remarkable catalog of the food from that home and those streets, and a deeply personal chronicle of Syhabout's past and present culinary journey. He brings it all: his Oakland childhood, the struggles of his refugee parents, his professional trajectory from his mother's restaurant kitchen to haute cuisine palaces back to the eventual kitchens of his own restaurants, and all the heat and spice and doubt and drive along the way.
The writing here is as expert as the recipes, as Syhabout's writing partner is John Birdsall, the two-time James Beard Award-winning, Oakland-based food writer. The photography is pretty great too: not only colorful, playful shots of the dishes (rice vermicelli in chicken-coconut curry broth with pork blood; fried eggplant and mackerel with acacia-leaf omelet and grilled shrimp paste dip), but also of the chef on the streets and fields of Thailand, as well as the cooks, vendors, farmers — and Buddhist monks — who are all part of the story. (For more street cred to pair with the street food: Anthony Bourdain wrote the preface, Roy Choi wrote the foreword.)
Syhabout's book is fun, fascinating and very timely. Consider the themes that flavor both the stories and the recipes: immigration, cultural identity, the economics of high- and low-end dining, authenticity. As Syhabout writes: "Authenticity turned out to be a unicorn: cool to think about but just try tracking one down. What makes food delicious is a whole range of nuances, adjusted to each cook's taste. They're all just as good. That's the trippy part." And something for the rest of us to think about over a bowl of Syhabout's glorious rice congee.
Cookbook of the week: "Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes From a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai and Lao Roots" by James Syhabout with John Birdsall (Ecco, $39.99)