Chef Seng Luangrath on Cooking With Respect

By Evan Leventhal, Morgan Carter, Nicole Borden and Madeline Mark


Evan Leventhal, Morgan Carter, Nicole Borden and Madeline Mark
Chefs Bobby Pradachith and Seng Luangrath of Thip Khao
Chefs Bobby Pradachith and Seng Luangrath of Thip Khao

At the 13th Annual StarChefs Congress, we’re gathering more than 170 industry icons to share the influences that permeate their work in the kitchen and on the floor. As part of a panel, D.C. chef Seng Luangrath of Thip Khao will be discussing menu pricing for immigrant cuisine. To explore the theme, “Cooking With Respect,” we asked Lunagrath what cooking with respect means to her.

The one kitchen task you could perform the rest of your career: Pounding papaya salad, a technique that appears simple but requires much focus and attention. Many aspects of the salad depend on the amount of force and repetition that result in perfect contrasting textures of crunchy and chewy. I have been pounding papaya salads ever since I was a young child in Laos, right by my grandmother’s side. Something like this always brings me to a happy place and most of the time, childish as well, since I get so caught up to those moments as if I was still a child.

What’s sacred in your kitchen: Kok and sahn, or a mortar and pestle, is imperative to Laotian cooking. I would describe it as the jungle version of the Vitamix or Robot Coupe. Its functionality is quite similar to them, in terms of the end results, but it provides more purpose. That equipment is very hard to come by, as Laos is a very poor country. However, the mortar and pestle is something that be constructed easily because it is usually made out of clay. It’s essential to create a dishes ranging from curry pastes to soups and various salads. It is very mobile, and you can take it anywhere, along with ingredients, and be able to create wonderful food wherever.

One thing you do to take care of yourself: Long walks with my family and dogs have constantly put me in a mental state of calmness and peace. I am so used to being around people and hearing noises from the ticket machine that taking a walk in the park takes me away from the craziness in the kitchen. Hearing the rocks as you step on them and the birds chirping really brings me peace. Yoga is another important exercise that I really like to integrate in my daily routine.

What you want your team to respect: Balance—the flavors in Lao cuisine can be very complex and upfront on the palate since we use many ingredients that are fermented, preserved, spicy, and herbaceous. The seasoning could be daunting on the palate if the flavors of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy are not balanced. When we show cooks how to make a dish, we slowly and surely explain the process of when to put the ingredients in and how long to cook them. We also teach them to taste continuously to understand how flavors develop from the initial process to the end result.

Change you’ve made in your community in the past year: I’m working on the Lao Food Movement, an initiative that brings Lao communities from across the country together and pushes forward the expression of Lao culture in our local communities. Over time, I had met many young Lao-Americans who visited me in D.C. and wanted to learn how to start their own Lao restaurant or business. At the same time, I had put together great teams for both of my restaurants, led by my son, Bobby [Pradachith]. With that said, I was able to put more time into travel to mentor those Lao-Americans, share my learning experiences, and show them ways to a build a successful business. It’s been a great journey to have the opportunity to spread Lao culture in the United States. In addition to that, I am also working toward opening my third restaurant!

Most important ingredient in your walk-in: Padaek! It translates to “unfiltered fish sauce,” and it’s  the foundation of Lao cuisine, providing seasoning and also the funk, which we like to express for its fishy qualities. It is an ingredient that is similar to wine, in that as it ages, the flavors continue to develop since the by-product of the fish remains in the sauce. The older it gets, the funkier and tasty it becomes! So far, we have been making our own using snakehead fish heads, guts, and bones that have been salted and incorporated with toasted rice powder. It ferments for a minimum of one year. As of now, ours has been going for over two years!

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