Photo courtesy of James Syhabout.
F&W Star Chef
Chef: James Syhabout
Restaurants: Commis, Hawker Fare, Box and Bells Eating House, The Dock at Linden Street (Oakland, CA)
Experience: Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)
Education: California Culinary Academy, San Francisco
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I grew up at my parents’ Thai restaurant. My mother taught me how to cook. The most important thing she taught me is not to be wasteful.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Overall, my cooking style varies. I like to cook with a sense of open-mindedness and playfulness, but also pay homage to the origin or history of the certain cuisine. Maintaining the original spirit is important to me, and I do this by reading cookbooks and eating the dishes at the multiple restaurants that do the dishes well.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever made was fried egg, cooked over-easy and served on top of steamed rice with soy sauce and cracked white pepper. It’s my favorite to this day. I would try baking for a beginning cook. It’s great to know how the science of cooking works and learning to be precise.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. This book is ahead of its time, and also timeless, which makes it an instant classic.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Organization and discipline are key.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I were better at pastry. I have a short background. The minimal experience I have had with desserts has helped me a lot on the savory side of cookery.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
White distilled vinegar, I use it a lot in Asian cookery and it is wonderful. The flavor is neutral and clean, and it can be used for flavored vinegars very well. It’s like grapeseed oil, without the price tag.
What is your current food obsession?
Kway Teow Rua (boat noodles). I can eat this anytime of the day and will not get sick of it. It brings me back to my childhood.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Ishikawa Restaurant in Tokyo. I love sushi and I’ve never been to Japan, so I am going to splurge when I get there.
A collective of Hawker food stalls in the streets of Bangkok. I haven’t gone back to Thailand since I was 13 years old. The visit is overdue and I’m really excited to learn more about myself through the food.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Dried mangoes from Thailand that my mother made when we were there 20 years ago. Mangoes were grown in front of the house my mother was born and raised in, and it was rolled by hand and sun-dried. It doesn’t get any more “terroir” than that.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Thai shrimp paste. People will realize and enjoy the funk that comes along with its deliciousness.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Ice Cream. I can eat a gallon of it in one serving easily, even while standing up, and it will never get old.
Calbee seaweed-flavored potato chips from the Korean or Japanese supermarket; they’re super-addictive.