From Refugee Camp to Best US Chef Contender

WASHINGTON Seng Luangrath may have been born to cook. She started when she was a 7-year-old girl in Laos, learning from her grandmother.

My mom was too busy working, she told VOA in the kitchen of her Washington, D.C., restaurant. So, I had to cook for my three other siblings. I remember it was a joy for me to learn, to observe whatever my grandmother will give me an assignment to do.

This year, for the second year in a row, Luangrath was nominated as a Best Chef Mid-Atlantic semifinalist for the James Beard Award, one of the most coveted honors in the restaurant industry.

Her achievement is all the more remarkable considering that her repertoire was honed during a two-year stay in a refugee camp in Nakon Pranom, Thailand, after her family fled Laos in 1981 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

I learned how to cook from my neighbors. We had neighbors from all over Laos, she related. So I got myself exposed to different types of Lao cooking. She was 12.

When her family came to the U.S. and resettled in the San Francisco Bay area, Luangrath, the oldest child, continued to cook for the family while her parents worked long hours.

Decades later, she built on that experience when she dared to open the first Lao restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Sticky rice

Before Luangrath or Chef Seng as she is known to her customers, opened the restaurant in 2014, Lao cookery was all but unknown in the U.S. capital. She started with a Thai restaurant in the Washington suburbs. When that was up and running, she began to serve her customers there some Lao dishes.

It was quite challenging because not too many people know Lao cuisine. Not too many people know where Laos is, she said. So, I have to come out and teach my guests what is Lao food. Where is Laos.

While Lao cuisine is different from other Southeast Asian traditions, it is also the cuisine of northeastern Thailand, a region called Isan. Before it was reunified with Thailand, Isan was part of Laos.

As governments rise and fall, borders are redrawn, but the people, the culture, the food remain the same. Here, they speak Isan, which is a dialect of Lao. They eat thum marg hoong, they eat sticky rice with their larb, and they like their food spicy! Luangrath wrote on her website.

The Lao are bigger consumers of sticky rice than any other people in the world. Mindful of that, Luangrath called her new Washington restaurant, Thip Khao.

"Thip khao means a basket, a vessel that holds sticky rice, she explained. It's a part of Lao culture. If you go to Lao households, you're always going to see thip khao. It's a basket that is also meaningful for our Lao culture, as well."

Thip Khao

And the rest is history. Thip Khao was a quick success by restaurant standards, collecting a coterie of regular customers like Mazen Yacoup:

My wife and I tried it, and we fell in love with the food. The freshness of the ingredients, spice, flavors they keep us coming back. We brought friends, all of our friends have fallen in love with the restaurant, too.

Fresh is right. To deliver the authentic flavor of Lao cuisine, Luangrath grows vegetables and herbs in her backyard that she can't find locally.

"For example, we have kaffir lime leaves, which are the leaves that give a lot of fragrance, aroma, to the salad," she pointed out.

Customers weren't the only ones who noticed Thip Khao. Less than a year after opening, We were nominated the best 50 new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit and then there was the James Beard nominations. That was just, like, surreal for me. I was just, 'How'd that happen?'

"Cooking is my passion, she declared. When I cook, I put 100 percent of my heart and soul into what I am making."

Source: Voice of America