Butchering the chicken. (credit: Karen Datangel)
Culinary delights are sure things to be celebrated during Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month, and Bay Area foodies rejoiced at the opportunity to learn more about the art of Asian cooking (And satisfy their tastebuds too!) from a local celebrity chef.
As part of Macy’s series of Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month events, the Union Square store in San Francisco welcomed Michelin Star chef James Syhabout to the Cellar Kitchen on May 5th for a cooking demonstration and tasting. A Thailand native who grew up in Oakland, CA, he is the chef and owner of Commis Restaurant and proprietor of Hawker Fare Restaurant, which are also both located in Oakland. Hawker Fare is a Southeast Asian street food joint that Syhabout brought a piece of to his audience, by cooking one of their signature dishes Khao Mun Gai, or Thai-style chicken and rice.
Syhabout explained the process of creating the flavorful poached chicken and rice dish, from choosing the best types of coriander seeds to put in the chicken stock to marveling at the uses for distilled vinegar beyond the fermented bean sauce used in the final product. After an hour of chopping, boiling, mixing, and taking a wishbone out, everyone in the audience received a bowl of Syhabout’s Khao Mun Gai, which everyone agreed was delicious.
The event was not only a chance to see a chef at work, but also a genuine opportunity to interact with him. Syhabout passed around samples of ingredients for audience members to get a better sense of the differences in the food he was using. More significantly, he was able to answer questions from the small crowd about his cooking tips and tricks. We learned that it’s more convenient to freeze chicken stock in ice cube trays for future use, and that the Friday morning Farmer’s Market in Oakland’s Chinatown is the best place to buy sugar cane, coriander, Thai basil, and taro root!
Before the cooking demo, a VIP crowd was able to mix and mingle and take in appetizers and wine in a reception hosted by NAAAP San Francisco (National Association of Asian American Professionals). Syhabout took part in a more formal Q&A session, talking about collaboration for creating new dishes, his love for hot pot, and why cooking outside can be better than cooking in the kitchen. “It’s about being in touch with nature, and food goes back to nature,” he said.
Although Syhabout is admired for his innovative takes on traditional foods, he acknowledged that it’s important for all chefs to “respect the craft and respect the tradition.” His last words of wisdom to the general audience was a reminder: “Things are hardly new—they’re just rediscovered or put into the mainstream.”