The Chef Who Brought Lao Cuisine to D.C.
Seng Luangrath keeps getting accolades.
In March, Seng Luangrath, the chef/owner of Padaek in Falls Church and Thip Khao in Washington, D.C., was, for the second time in two years, named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” award. Her path to restaurant ownership hasn’t been an easy one. In 1981, Luangrath fled the political strife in her native Laos at age 12, with her mother, two brothers and uncle. After two years in a Thai refugee camp, they arrived in Berkeley, California, sponsored by a family member who lived there. Her marriage to husband Boun Khammanivanh would bring her to Springfield, Virginia, in 1989. Two decades later, Luangrath finally pursued her passion for cooking, opening her first restaurant, Bangkok Golden (now Padaek), in Seven Corners.
How did you learn to cook?
From the refugee camp, mostly. There were people from all over Laos, not just my region, so I had exposure to things I would never have known.
Padaek serves both Thai and Lao food. How do they differ?
Mostly the flavor profile is different. The base ingredients are similar—spices, fresh chilies, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime. But in Lao cooking we use old methods of cooking. We’re not a modernized country. No wok or oven. More open-fire with stew pots, charcoal grilling, wrapping in banana leaves and steaming. We don’t cook herbs. Thai cooking will pound lemongrass into a paste and cook it. We use fresh lemongrass with mint. We use the same fish sauce, but also a funky, unfiltered fish sauce called padaek.
You recently changed the name of Bangkok Golden to Padaek.
Yes. Because padaek is so important to Lao cooking. Flavor in Lao is complex. We add so many things—it’s spicy, herbal, funky and sour, with the umami [savory taste] mostly coming from padaek.
Some diners don’t realize that Lao versions of dishes like papaya salad and larb even exist.
Yes, for papaya salad, we grind chili, garlic, fish sauce, tomato, lime juice and palm sugar—those are basic ingredients. In the Lao version, we add shrimp paste, fermented black-crab paste, rice-paddy crabs, padaek, Thai eggplant, and sometimes a Lao olive. And a lot of chilies. It’s very spicy. Larb begins with chopped protein, fish sauce, lime juice, cilantro, scallions and toasted rice powder. In Lao larb, I also use lemongrass, chopped green chilies, dried chilies, padaek, two kinds of mint and always with side vegetables and sticky rice. It’s a whole meal, not an appetizer.
You’ve been nominated twice for a James Beard Award—last year for Thip Khao and this year for Padaek.
The first time I was really surprised. I had only recently learned about the James Beard awards and what they were all about. I was in the kitchen doing what I do. The second time I was shocked, like, Why was I nominated at Padaek? It’s a hole in the wall, in a strip mall. It’s not in D.C. Padaek? I didn’t think anyone would pay any attention to that place.
What does that recognition mean to you?
So much, being a Lao person and a Lao chef. When I first started Bangkok Golden, I had to do Thai cooking there, too, because I was worried about making it. Being recognized by James Beard is huge. It’s like I’m coming out. Now I don’t have to attach myself to Thai cooking. I can do Lao on its own. Now Lao people all over America doing Thai food can have the courage to assert their identity. We are out. We can be proud of ourselves.
My goal is to open two or three more [versions of] Thip Khao and Padaek. And a noodle concept. I want to be able to control things, be hands-on, not lose touch with my cooking by getting too big. Being in the kitchen makes me happy.
6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church, padaekdc.com