This morning, Food & Wine magazine named Khao Noodle Shop’s Donny Sirisavath among the Best New Chefs 2020. The news comes at a challenging time, as the magazine acknowledges, “[w]hy run this list when restaurants as we know are on an indefinite hiatus, when the entire industry is on pause as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe?” Last month, Sirisavath discontinued Khao’s takeout for the time being while he focused on pantry items and on regrouping in the midst of exhaustion.
Like many things, the news also puts in perspective what’s real and true, raw and important: that the richness of the food will go far beyond the award. “This year’s class will shape the future,” writes Food & Wine’s restaurant editor Khushbu Shah of the diverse cohort. “They will not only help rebuild their shattered industry, but help it thrive again—through their cooking, their resolve, and their vision for what a more equitable future in restaurants might look like. With them at the helm, the future of dining looks brighter, fairer, and more delicious than ever before.”
Sirisavath was abroad in Thailand in mid-February when he learned the news that he’s had to keep secret as events were called off and the announcement was postponed from early April until now. He had to cancel a trip that would have coincided with the unveiling in New York City; everything was shut down. The internal announcement came around the same time Sirisavath learned in February that he was among the James Beard semifinalists for Best Chef: Texas. This following a wave of accolades last year from the likes of Bon Appetit and Eater for his diminutive noodle shop with mesmerizing boat noodles.
“It’s always come as a surprise,” says Sirisavath. “The past couple years, it’s always been a surprise and shock for us. But it really hit me kind of hard. This is something. This is real. I didn’t plan this. I’ve been busy and trying to survive and plan ahead for Khao, and it was always a shock for us when we hear big news like this. James Beard was a shock, Food & Wine was a shock, Bon Appetit was a shock. Because at the end of the day, we’re not looking for accolades.”
But the individuality also caught him off guard. “To get nominated for best chef with nine other best chefs around the nation was like, wow!”
It’s also a time to think about the changing notions of what it means to be a chef—that it might not mean classically French-trained kitchens—and what an American chef landscape might look like. Sirisavath’s story, like that of many second-generation immigrant chefs, becomes a statement.
“Being a chef is being true to yourself and being true to your artistry and paying duty to what you learned from your past,” he says, reflecting on many of the posts he’s posted on social media in the last months. “This was Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and it really let me step back a little bit and be proud of who I am. Be proud of the person and the chef I grew up to be. Because if it wasn’t for my parents being a refugee or immigrant family, I wouldn’t have learned the things that led me today to open my restaurant.”
Sirisavath sees this not only as a moment, but a movement in which “other chefs like myself with other ethnic backgrounds are gonna come out of their shell and be a voice for their culture, too. I think that’s the biggest part of being this caliber of chef now. To start using this platform for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
The dark moments have come, the times when he felt he had to say, “Do I belong here? Should I really be here?” The stripping away of artifice can be good. He’d like to see chefs “being real and being authentic and true to yourself and vulnerable. People need to see that too, through our restaurant. They need to see that we’re people.”
The news comes as Sirisavath is poised to reopen Khao Noodle Shop for takeout, with a reduced staff and compressed hours (dinner only Wednesday through Friday and full days on Saturday) and an open patio for diners to take advantage of the spring weather with tables spaced apart. He’s a restaurateur tiptoeing back in while continuing to make pantry staples of greens, Lao jerky, and the addictive condiments called jeow. And thinking about the future of Khao.
And he cautions: We should use this as a time to think about smaller, more vulnerable businesses. Because the moral for him is that all are endangered. If a restaurant with accolades can struggle, how much more so the mom and pop operation. “You need to see them and show support to local restaurants, because any business can just close the doors and not come back.”
“I think that’s the movement for the chefs or culinary world right now. Let’s not bicker and outdo each other. Let’s come together and help each other shine. Every restaurant deserves its own moment. That’s what I love about Dallas becoming a food city. We still have a lot of work behind the unforeseen things. But we’re definitely again going to be nominated for James Beard, nominated for something else. It’s going to be the next chef, the next restaurateur, the next home cook that turned to a restaurant owner chef. And that’s gonna be the new wave of the culinary world. Not that you’re a French-trained chef or a culinary expert. That’s the movement I wanted to be a part of.”