Minh Phan has spent too many hours clarifying that her food is not Vietnamese. The chef, who owns Phenakite, a celebrated Los Angeles fine dining restaurant serving black sesame vichyssoise and dill crab cakes with lardon-filled nasturtium mochi, believes the lexicon used to describe the cooking of Asian and Asian American chefs is simply too limited. “I think about how others are allowed a canon of techniques and ingredients, but I get bummed when people say ‘fusion.’ I’m not combining anything. I think [my cooking] is always bigger and deeper than that. It’s a study going beyond space and physical origin—I’m using food as a form of expression,” says Phan, “and I shouldn’t be limited to my ethnicity.”
Among food media, it’s now widely accepted that describing food as authentic or inauthentic is unfair and generally unhelpful. That framework relies heavily on a diner’s deeply personal notions of what a chef of a certain identity should be cooking. But while the language we use to talk about chefs of varying identities may be evolving, AAPI chefs still face challenges in cooking the food they want to cook. Across the country, Asian and Asian American chefs like Phan are overcoming stereotypes, hurdling barriers, and toppling the idea that they should be relegated to cooking only certain cuisines. As a result, the American dining landscape promises to become much more diverse and, ultimately, more interesting.
While all chefs are tasked with weighing the challenges of filling a dining room, Asian American chefs often have the added burden brought by the expectations and assumptions made by diners.
Some Asian American chefs receive feedback from members of their own communities that their menus don’t evoke enough of the diners’ own personal associations of how the food should taste or present. At L.A.’s Michelin-starred Kato, chef Jon Yao has occasionally gotten comments from Asian diners who complain the food isn’t “Asian” or “Taiwanese” enough. In response, the staff now describes their menu as inspired by Yao’s childhood. “Hopefully that resonates with a generation of similar, mixed background,” says Yao, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan.
Phan opened her first Los Angeles restaurant, a now-closed brunch spot called Field Trip, in 2014. The restaurant focused on seasonal California cooking, and the vision of Phan’s financial partners required her to use only ingredients from the adjacent Hollywood Farmers Market. After her first restaurant closed, Phan transitioned her pop-up restaurant Porridge + Puffs into a brick-and-mortar location, where she served—as you might imagine—porridge.
With no investors, Phan’s first independently owned restaurant was a smash success, allowing Phan to layer complex flavors upon contrasting textures using a medium that had historically been regarded as “peasant food.” Most recently, Phan put a pause on service at Porridge + Puffs and opened Phenakite, a whimsical 10-course dinner experience in a flora-ensconced courtyard that expands upon her exploration of contrasting textures, rare ingredients, and meticulous fermentation and pickling.
Phan’s freedom to cook as she wanted brought the restaurant its critical success—including a Michelin star—and grew Phenakite’s waitlist to 26,000 people, validating her vision and point of view. “I get to look at food as art and I get to look at food as a scholastic study. I get to view food as culture and look at food as my medium. So I’m in a very privileged place,” she says.
While all chefs are tasked with weighing the challenges of filling a dining room, Asian American chefs often have the added burden brought by the expectations and assumptions made by diners. Doesn’t pandering to those expectations by making “traditional” food create its own sort of inauthenticity? Thanks to the recent increase in self-funding or partnering with financial backers who are on board with their visions, many Asian American chefs are able to channel their creativity through this newfound freedom.
At Camphor, a months-old French bistro located in the Arts District of Los Angeles, Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George are creating a cuisine that is predominantly French with Indian influences. “We want [Camphor] to be a portal into a different dimension where you don’t feel like you’re in L.A. anymore. It feels Parisian, but at the same time, not all the flavors are from there,” Boonthanakit says .
Spices are sourced directly from George’s hometown in Kerala, India, which provide the structure to Camphor’s menu. “Spices from my region [go] really well with French cuisine,” George says. They are among the current class of Asian chefs who are avoiding the pigeonhole that they must focus on cooking food from their ethnic background and instead are embracing the freedom that comes with self-expression through cooking.
“Originally, the idea was [to go] 50-50, Indian-French” with the menu, says Boonthanakit. Then the concept slowly morphed into “99% French and 1% Indian.” The influence of Indian flavors and ingredients is most evident in the openers, like the panipuri-like amuse-bouche with chickpeas, the crispy, fried baby shrimp appetizer with savory gunpowder seasoning and the Dungeness crab barbajuan, with its fine sea threads stuffed into a tiny golden pastry.
What’s profound about the restaurant’s early evolution is the creative freedom with which Boonthanakit and George, with the support from their partner, Cyrus Batchan, were able to pivot their cuisine away from Indian and toward the primarily French menu Camphor still serves today. “I never presented the story board or inspiration. I [tried] to limit that as much as I can because I want [Boonthanakit and George] to run with it and that’s how the creative process works best,” Batchan says. What’s certain is that Boonthanakit and George are poised to cook only the food that inspires them, exactly the way they want.
James Syhabout, who was born in northeast Thailand and grew up in Oakland, opened Commis, his New American, prix fixe restaurant in 2009. Oakland was the new frontier of development in the Bay Area as the country reeled from the economic crisis, and the humble opening menu at Commis (three courses for $59) impressed prestige-bestowing critics immediately, earning the restaurant’s first Michelin star in 2010.
At the time, the “French-European” menu featured such dishes as pork jowl with potato, black garlic & poached egg; and a cheese course presented as dessert. Commis’s success lent Syhabout the freedom to incorporate the bitter flavors of his background and heritage. More Lao elements, such as a version of sakoo yat sai (a tapioca dumpling), can now be found in Syhabout’s tasting menu—a direction that he wouldn’t have had the confidence to include had Commis not garnered the awards and the acclaim it did early in its inception.
That’s not to say he didn’t try to cook food representative of his heritage much earlier. In 2011, Syhabout opened his first Lao street food restaurant, Hawker Fare, in nearby downtown Oakland and in 2015, the second location in the Mission District. While the Oakland restaurant closed in 2017, the San Francisco location still stands. As Syhabout tells it, however, its iteration today is quite different from the initial concept. The menu featured grilled shrimp paste dips and “a lot of bitter flavors” like jungle curries. Diners would come in asking for pad thai and become upset that it wasn’t available. “I was getting killed on Yelp, reading things like, ‘Oh, this shrimp paste—authentic or not, it smells like dirty socks in the locker.’ It was jabbing me in the heart.”
“People get very attached to the idea of what they think something should be.”
In response, Syhabout made his menu more approachable to the general public, taking out sour, fermented elements sourced from and inspired by Laos and northern Thailand, and putting in more commonly served Thai dishes. “I thought, At this pace I need to keep the business going. It’s not worth putting my staff through it,” Syhabout says. Though it wasn’t the food he truly wanted to cook, he didn’t feel free to cook what he wanted. “But I’m proud that I gave it a shot.”
It makes sense that Thai food, more ubiquitous throughout the States, is usually used as a reference point when describing Lao cuisine. The two countries not only share borders, but have long had disputes over them; in fact, while many consider papaya salad to be Thai, it originates in Isaan, a region that was originally Lao. The food of landlocked Laos, however, incorporates more lime and fermented fish pastes, yet fewer curries, than that of Thailand. Depending on their position within the diaspora, Asian American chefs like Syhabout who want to cook the food of their sourceland are sometimes tasked with not only introducing an entire cuisine to the dining public, but burdened with the responsibility of making it amenable to Western palates.
There’s something to be said about the fine dining space, where set menus—and the inability to make substitutions—convey to would-be diners that they’re committed to a night with the chef and their team’s vision. Syhabout still sees a future for his Lao food in which the dining format would require the customers’ acceptance before stepping foot into the restaurant. “I still have my dream; I really want to do a Lao food place like how I do it at Commis—where it’s prix fixe, family-style. You have no choices. It is what it is and you prepay,” he says. A set menu, created by a widely acclaimed chef might be what it takes to move the needle in terms of acceptance of a cuisine that is otherwise passed over or watered down. It attracts a dining audience that is “all in” and willing to go places the chef takes them.
Then again, a set expectation can be its own burden. Angie Mar, whose aunt was the late Ruby Chow, a Seattle restaurateur and politician, is a descendant of an American Chinese restaurant empire—but has taken up cooking French cuisine in her own career. “Since I was 8 years old, I [have been] a very old French man trapped in this body,” she says. When she took over the helm of the Beatrice Inn, a meat-centric French restaurant, she had the history of a storied chophouse to uphold. By the time she closed it during the pandemic, she had been both a victor and victim of her own success. “People will always come because it is a New York institution, but the drawback to that is you are bound to its heritage and you can’t really stray that far away from [it]. People get very attached to the idea of what they think something should be,” Mar says.
Les Trois Chevaux, which she opened last year in Greenwich Village, was a chance for Mar to stake her own claim and define who she is: Not just a chef who cooks French cuisine, but one who uses elements of her heritage to modernize regional French cooking. Named for her siblings and herself, the restaurant is an examination of regional French cuisine interpreted through Mar’s personal lens. In Mar’s Rouen duck dish, the crown of duck is buried for five days in cherry blossoms imported from Japan, before it’s slowly roasted to create a floral aroma. Despite the cherry blossoms, “we treat it in a very French way—pressed with green lentils and a sauce Armagnac. That is very old-school,” Mar says. “This is the food I want to eat. This is the food I dream about. This is the food that I love and that speaks to my soul.”
Whether they’re integrating more cooking techniques and ingredients from Thailand or China into European cuisines, or navigating the challenges of proving their expertise to Asian and Asian American diners with preconceived notions of what their food should taste like, what will it take for Asian American chefs to live out their passion for cooking? At Les Trois Chevaux, Mar has no financial partners. “Self-funded creativity, or having partners that believe enough in your vision to let you do what you want to do, [allows chefs] embark on projects that are labors of love, and unbridled creativity,” Mar says.
Though AAPI chefs are constantly balancing diners’ expectations with their own need for creativity, the caveat may very well be the necessity of finding the right audience for their restaurants. “My aunt absolutely informed and shaped my sensibilities. Her sense of hospitality was: Welcome to my home. Have a seat, let us show you what we do and enjoy,” says Mar. “It’s not for everybody.”
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit
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