Chef Spotlight: James Syhabout

Fans of that good hip hop (as opposed to whatever trash the kids are listening to in the internet these days) will have undoubtedly encountered a common theme running throughout much of the genre: keeping it real.

When keeping it real goes right

Slug (of Atmosphere fame) immortalized the “10,000 lakes” of his not-so-hip-hop hometown in this Minnesota anthem. In his infamous track , Ether, Nas famously suggests that Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z, aka Hov, aka he-got-the-hottest-chick-in-the-game-wearing-his-chain) ask Queens, NY native, Russell Simmons about the relationship between Queens and the Def Jam corporate structure (who runs y’all?!). Among many other philanthropic acts benefiting Brooklyn, Jay-Z also returned to his old neighborhood to include many of its residents in the filming of music videos. And, don’t even get me started on Too Short, half of his epic discography is an ode to The Bay. So yeah, it’s more than obvious that rappers aren’t shy about they’re humble beginnings. They keep it really real.

Pimps, Playas, and Michelin Stars. Just another day in Oakland.

The same case can be made for James Syhabout. Sure, drawing a parallel between a Michelin level chef and THE potty-mouthed MC from the East Bay might seem odd. Until, that is, you find out which hometown the previous decided to open his Michelin level resto, Commis. That’s right playas, James Syhabout is straight outta Oakland!

Round up the posse, fugee comin’ around the way

The biggidy biggidy O, The Town, the home of the mansion previously known as MC Hammer’s home, whatever you want to call it, it’s where James Syhabout got his start. He was born in a Thai refugee camp, and at two years old, he and his family settled in California. At a young age he was cooking beside his mom in her Thai restaurant. He made his move to the California Culinary Academy following high school. After a few stops at restaurants in Berkeley and San Francisco, Syhabout made his way to the South Bay (represent represent) into the kitchen of Manresa. There he honed his culinary skills for about three years under the keen and watchful eye of Chef David Kinch. After a couple of Iron Chef America cameos sous-ing for Chefs Kinch and Lahlou (yeah we watch closely) and internships at some international big ticket kitchens (think Fat Duck, Mugaritz, and El Bulli) he came back home to Oakland to run his very own kitchen at Commis (which got its star only months after its opening day). And it deserved it.

Not your mama’s kitchen counter

Our trip to Commis was the exclamation point at the end of a food (and drank) frenzied day (sake tasting, Berkeley Bowl, Omnivore, Herbivore, etc etc). We were lucky enough to be seated at the kitchen counter overlooking the open kitchen. It was so serene and calm in there that I half expected them to bust into om’s midway through swiping my plate with black garlic. If I had a kitchen that ran so smoothly, I’d wanna show it off too. I could go on forever about the menu (but that’s for another post) all you need to know is every plate was beautiful and every plate was delicious. Go. Try to get a seat at the counter and go. Now. (and tell them that The Wooden Table sent you, it might not help you get a table, but it might help us, haha)

A different kind of soul food

His most recent project is Hawker Fare, named for the ubiquitous street food markets in Thailand. Remember his mom’s Thai restaurant? Well the cool thing is, Syhabout decided to open his laid back, down home, all organic, Thai inspired joint in the very same kitchen that he was practically raised in (with a few upgrades I presume). “It was the only way I could convince her to retire”, says the Chef and good son. The Wooden Table and friends recently made the trek out to the East Bay to check out the Hawker Fare fare and (I love saying this) ordered the whole menu! It’s all good, definitely our kind of spot. The standout dishes were the sublime Chicken Rice dish, oh man, the Lemongrass chicken and the tasty (and well balanced, might I add) shrimp paste peanuts. Oh yeah and I personally make it a point to order a Mickey’s hand grenade whenever it’s on the menu, but in the spirit of keeping things real, I would’ve rather had an ice cold OE.

Referenced Articles
Food and Wine
SF Gate
Inside Scoop SF

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