"Sometimes you have to act like a tourist," says James Syhabout. The Oakland-based F&W Best New Chef is sitting in a booth at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan's Chinatown perusing the dim sum picture menu. Nom Wah is packed; it's been around since 1920 and gets a big crowd on weekends around noon. "You just missed Andrew Zimmern," says Syhabout. (My bad for being late.)
Syhabout doesn't often leave California (he recently made an exception to travel to his birthplace, Thailand, and to Laos for the cookbook he's writing). But he's in New York City to cook for a night at the preview of the supercool, pop-up store Tiger Trading Co., celebrating Asian creativity. Conceived of by Tiger Beer, the Singaporean lager that's marking its official launch in the U.S., the store acts as a showcase for new Asian art, fashion and design. Attendees who scored a coaster get to trade it in for an item from the shelves of the Canal Street storefront provided by some of the world's coolest Asian brands. Among the most coveted things: a Reversible Silk Bomber and a Bomber Jacket from Opening Ceremony; a Bamboo Bicycle (seriously) from Mekong +; and adorable dog illustrations from the Singaporian designer Ordinary People (the latter was the favorite of Questlove's crew).
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Back at Nom Wah. "Gotta get the OG egg roll," says Syhabout about the house specialty. Stuffed with big chunks of chicken, the enormous egg roll is wrapped in a crepe and batter-fried. In anticipation, Syhabout checks out the condiments on the table. He's excited by the bottle of Worcestershire sauce alongside staples like mustard, soy and oyster sauce. "It's a curve ball," says the chef of the Worcestershire, pouring some onto his plate and mixing in a little chile oil. "Kind of like black vinegar," he decides about the combination, and dips in a chunk of sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf. He describes the dish he's making for Tiger Trading: A sticky rice cracker topped with chile jam and crab curry. It's a mash-up of two traditional dishes and inspired by Syhabout's recent trip to Thailand where he saw leftover sticky rice that had been dried in the sun and then fried. "I want to represent my own cuisine, my way" says Syhabout. "It's what this event is about, what these artists are doing. We're all taking something traditional and making it our own. It's like a remix. Our Asian roots go deep but there's always the chance to take a fresh look."