Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2020: Donny Sirisavath
Chef bringing Laotian flavors and culture to Dallas, Texas at Khao Noodle Shop.
Every day after school from the time he was 9 years old, Donny Sirisavath filled water glasses or bussed tables at his mom’s Chinese restaurant in San Antonio. The menu was filled with Chinese and Thai dishes, even though Sirisavath’s mom was a refugee from Laos. “At the time, Lao food was not familiar and not popular,” he explains. By the time he was 20, Sirisavath wanted nothing to do with the restaurant, so he spent the better part of the next decade wandering down several career paths. He worked the register at a Jack in the Box; he worked as an airplane mechanic, as a telemarketer, and as a member of tech support. Things started to change during a several-year stretch working as a field service engineer at Hewlett-Packard. The job paid well, but it didn’t make him as happy as cooking did, so on the weekends, for fun, Sirisavath started preparing the Laotian meals he grew up making with his mom for friends. “I missed the joy of cooking,” he says.
His plans to attend culinary school were shattered when his mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I pretty much stopped everything. I spent all of my time with her, cooking with her, understanding more about her life, about her story,” he recalls. Sirisavath would spend his days making her favorite dishes, like khao poon, a spicy and nourishing Laotian soup, made with vermicelli noodles and plenty of galangal. When his mother passed, everything clicked into place: “Cooking was what I had to pursue.”
He launched a pop-up in Dallas, serving his take on the Lao dishes he grew up eating. It was an instant hit. After several years, he still hesitated to open his own brick-and-mortar spot, but a conversation with chef Seng Luangrath, who runs a small empire of successful Lao restaurants in the Washington, D.C., metro area, killed his lingering doubts. “She was the person I needed to talk to because I don’t have a mom. I wanted my mom’s guidance; I needed my mom’s opinion and blessing,” he says. “Chef Seng gave me the confidence to say, ‘Hey look, you should do what you want to do and be passionate about it.” Soon after, Sirisavath threw open the doors to Khao Noodle Shop, in a bustling strip mall in Dallas.
The size of Khao Noodle Shop (tiny) betrays the level of flavor coming out of the kitchen (huge). Most plates on the menu are priced between $5 and $7, including the beloved boat noodles, a shockingly rich and deeply umami bowl of rice-noodle soup made with charred beef-bone broth, fistfuls of toasted spices like star anise and black peppercorns, and a hefty pour of pork blood, for texture. Same for the trio of shrimp bites, pulled from the fryer just seconds before they arrive at the table with a shatteringly crisp crust. The real stars of the menu, however, are the sakoo—luxuriously chewy tapioca dumplings bursting with crisp pickled sweet radish. They aren’t easy to make and are traditionally only eaten for special occasions and celebrations. But for Sirisavath, the day-long process is worth it. “Every day I’m celebrating my memories of my mom. Every day I’m celebrating life.”
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