Dude, It's Not Fusion

Southeast Asian gets the chef-eye in a totally new way

The foods chefs love to eat often become the menu items diners crave.  As with dim sum, tacos or tapas, the minute a chef gives the side-eye to a 2 a.m. bar burger, there’s a $38 short rib patty topped with a four-minute egg and a dusting of truffles on the menu.

The latest cuisine to be “modernized” or given the classical European culinary treatment is a longtime late-night favorite of chefs: Southeast Asian. Suddenly, traditional Thai, Filipino and Vietnamese foods are merging with a service-oriented sensibility and a hip soundtrack to produce something greater than the sum of its parts, and absolutely of the moment.

“It wasn’t long ago that people coming into my restaurant asked for sweet and sour sauce or requested a basket of bread,” says Mai Pham, chef-owner of Sacramento’s longstanding Lemon Grass Restaurant. “Now, all our customers will eat anything we serve. And they know almost as much about the ingredients and preparations as I do.”

A NEW KIND OF KITCHEN

“Working in Eurocentric kitchens, you don’t encounter Southeast Asian flavors very often,” says Chef Jordan Kahn, a veteran of top-rated restaurants French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea. Yet, when the workday ends at 3 a.m., a late-night noodle shop may be the only thing open, and soon, a plate of Malaysian mee goreng (fried noodles) or a pile of pork-filled Filipino lumpia (fried spring rolls) becomes something craveable—and inspiring. Kahn’s cravings led him to open Red Medicine, the Los Angeles restaurant where he creates dishes inspired by the Vietnamese pantry, such as a brook trout roe with rice pudding and Buddha’s hand citron.

"It wasn't until I went to the Philippines and really immersed myself in the culture...that I really began to feel it."

— Maharlika and Jeepney Chef-owner Miguel Trinidad

Setting aside the classical European culinary mindset is tough for cooks committed to replicating the food of Southeast Asia. But finding authentic ingredients can present an even greater challenge. “We go through about three cases of fish sauce a week, plus kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) from Indonesia, palm sugar, cane vinegar—a whole Southeast Asian pantry,” says Kahn, who leans on Los Angeles’s large Vietnamese communities for some of his sourcing.

For Pham, Sacramento’s Thai and Vietnamese communities provide  enough  support for Lemon Grass, but supplying her fast casual chain Star Ginger—with locations from California to western Massachusetts—can be more vexing. “From a foodservice perspective, it can be hard to find ingredients at scale,” she explains. “It’s only been in the last five years that you can call up a distributor and order fish sauce.”

Tracking down the best versions of products is another issue. Unless the restaurant is in a climate similar to Thailand for growing indigenous vegetables—baby Thai eggplant, long beans or green papaya, and herbs such as shiso, galanga or kaffir lime—like Miami-based Khong River House, frozen produce may be the only option.

DON'T FORGET YOUR BACKPACK

For those opening restaurants dedicated to a national cuisine, a trip to the country of its origin is essential. While starting Maharlika and Jeepney in New York, it wasn’t enough for Miguel Trinidad to learn how to cook the food—he had to go to the source. “I spent about a year on the food, lots of trial and error,” he says. “It wasn’t until I went to the Philippines and really immersed myself in the culture—learning from grandmothers, from maids, from chefs—that I began to really feel it.”

Staying in touch with Thailand is a part of Andy Ricker’s identity as a chef and the success behind his bicoastal Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, Ore., and New York City. Even with decades of deep involvement in Thai cuisine behind him, he goes back to Thailand every few months to stay connected with the culture and the food.

A Westerner can certainly pick up basics in a week or a month, but the essence of Southeast Asian cuisine is challenging to capture ad hoc. “The food of Southeast Asia includes some of the most complex cuisines in the world, with thousands of years of history behind them,” says Khong River House owner John Kunkel, who lived in Thailand for three and a half years. “It’s difficult to drop in for a short visit and just grab a few recipes.”

The restaurant’s “boat noodles,” for example, is a family recipe from Chef de Cuisine Duangwiwat Khoetchapayook (known in the kitchen as Chef Danny) that contains more than 40 spices, house-made meatballs and an abundance of fresh ingredients. “ We only have this dish because we have Chef Danny, and his family trusts us,” Kunkel says.

BLAME IT ON BOURDAIN

A love affair with exotic ingredients, like citrusy herbs, sweet-spiced sausages and salty, fermented seafood sauces, is part of the reason modern Southeast Asian cuisine is booming. But convincing customers to branch out beyond takeout-style pad thai, lumpia and pho is half of the equation.

Diners are more apt to try new things thanks to Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, the intrepid TV ambassadors of odd and unexpected edibles. Trinidad credits them with spawning interest in traditional dishes like tripe, ruffle fat and even balut—the Filipino street food delicacy of a fertilized duck egg—which are flying out of the kitchen.

That’s not to say there aren’t limits. Ricker recognizes that the popular Thai dish, raw pork laap (minced meat salad mixed with raw blood, spices, herbs and cooked offal), wouldn’t play well at Pok Pok. But that doesn’t mean blood is entirely off the menu: the cooked version of the dish, laap muu suk, is “more than accessible,” Ricker says. “People love it, and when it’s on the menu, it sells well.”

BALANCING ACT

The success of a modern Southeast Asian restaurant is more than a balance of flavors. It’s a matter of appealing to customers who may not be familiar with the menu while paying homage to the history and tradition of the cuisine.

“We were terrified of the (Filipino) community coming down to the restaurant and saying, ‘Hey, that’s not Filipino food! This isn’t right, why are you cooking my food like this?’” Trinidad says of his French technique-inflected cuisine. His pata, for example—the famous Filipino fried pork leg—is cooked confit-style, for meltingly tender meat with a crisp exterior.

But Trinidad and other chefs say the reception from Southeast Asian communities has been overwhelming. “These are flavors they know, but they get to experience them in totally new ways, and that’s something they love,” Kahn says.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

Whether you’re taking a cue from Kahn’s riffs on the Vietnamese classics or Ricker’s faithful recreations of authentic Thai dishes, there’s still the hurdle of convincing customers to pay white tablecloth prices for foods that cost a buck or two at the take-out spot down the street.

“As soon as you have a pair of chopsticks on the table—unless you’re serving Japanese food, which is considered to be very high-end—you can’t charge above a certain amount,” says Kahn, whose airy, modern dining room is more tasting-menu than take-out.

Khong River House strives to be both a local joint and a destination restaurant. Kunkel says the sophisticated ambiance and well-rounded wine and cocktail programs make diners comfortable forking over $17 for a jungle curry, $5 for a side of sticky rice and upwards of $42 for the restaurant’s bestselling salt
encrusted, lemongrass-stuffed fish.

Maybe it’s meticulous sourcing, a commitment to hyper-authentic recipes or pantry items, or just what Ricker calls “the undeniable deliciousness of Southeast Asian food,” but these chefs’ modern Southeast Asian restaurants are full virtually every night.

“I thought we were going to get lots of complaints about the food, lots of people not liking these new things they were eating,” Trinidad says. “But when we get a complaint now, it’s usually just people not wanting to wait as long as they have to to get a table.”

Helen Rosner is the executive digital editor at Saveur magazine. She lives in New York.

5 Ways to a Southeast Asian Feel

Play with flavors and textures. At Jeepney, Chef Miguel Trinidad mixes bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) with mayonnaise, and serves it on a cured pork sausage sandwich.

Don’t be scared by “authenticity.” While chefs may recoil from the word “fusion,” there’s plenty of cultural mixing. At Khong River House, the “G.I. Breakfast” is a popular Bangkok street dish of pork hash, charcoal-grilled Chinese sausage and eggs over-easy inspired by American soldiers stationed in the region in the 1950s and 1960s.

Watch your timing. “Thai food is inherently quicker to prepare than typical western food because the cooking techniques are simpler and faster,” says Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker. A Thai stir-fry, for example, might hit the pass well before a char-grilled pork chop.

Bring in the experts. Give your staff a cultural crash course, like John Kunkel at Khong River House, who puts his staff through “Thai food school,” complete with midterms, quizzes and a final exam.

Quality takes investment. Even if you have a handle on protein costs, Southeast Asian cuisine is reliant on beautiful herbs and indigenous vegetables that can be costly, especially in the wintertime.