Just across the water from the bright lights of San Francisco is Oakland, an urban dwelling fast becoming the place to visit in SoCal.
Marked by industrial cranes, Oakland may not be the first place you think of when visiting the sunny state but look beyond the industrial aesthetic and you will discover a town rich in diversity, history and culinary assets. One of which is chef James Syhabout, a local through and through. Fleeing Thailand with his family, Syhabout found himself immersed in the Oakland way of life from a very young age. We caught up with the two Michelin Star chef to find out where’s best to go whilst staying in this up and coming town.
You moved to Oakland from a refugee camp in Thailand when you were two; tell us about your early memories of cooking and Oakland
My earliest memories of cooking are of being at home with my mom. She was a stay-at-home mom and so looked after us all, including doing all the cooking. I started to get involved at a young age, following her around the confines of the kitchen, slowly picking up skills like how to use a knife safely. A mortar and pestle was like a toy to me! It was all very natural, I saw working in the kitchen like playtime, handling tools and learning what they did and how to use them.
Oakland was very foreign to us; it had paved roads, street lights, electricity! It was a bit of a culture shock, there were tall buildings unlike anything I or my parents had seen before in Thailand. But we made ourselves comfortable and we had a lot of support. Being based at the Rock Ocean community meant were surrounded by lots of other refugees, so we could all relate to one another and help each other out. It had a real village feel.
What is your approach to food?
I have two different philosophies because I am cooking in two different worlds. Commis is a two Michelin Star restaurant and Hawker Fare is a much more casual street food place. However they both have a shared aspect; cooking Thai and Lao food which is delicious. Commis is conceptual whereas Hawker Fare is more free spirited. Both however stem from the idea of experimentation and innovation; creating a new recipe is an organic process, I don’t force it. Some of the best decisions come about randomly.
You’re famed for using the freshest ingredients, where do you go for good, local produce?
We’re really spoiled here in the Bay area; Oakland alone has five farmers’ markets a week! So I try to go to at least three of the markets to source ingredients and these change every week depending on which farmers are where and what produce they have available. For example, I can only get the best sun dried tomatoes on Tuesdays – it’s a bit of a juggling act! We also source produce depending on the weather conditions so for example, when there’s a drought, I have to rethink menus a bit to accommodate for other foods. We try to be as resourceful as possible but with meat and fish it can be harder – there are only so many things I can do with local salmon so I might get some down from Alaska instead. It’s still American but has a different taste and texture to more locally sourced salmon. We also get Kampachi from Hawaii, foie gras from New York State – everything is different.
You have several restaurant’s including Commis, a two Michelin Star restaurant, and Hawker Fare, a casual, street food style restaurant. What’s your favourite kind of food?
Everyday kind of food for me is at Mom and Pop places; it could be a taco shop of truck, or a Mom and Pop soul place, some Chinese restaurants, I eat at Hawker Fare more than any other restaurant! Just because it’s like every day food, it’s simple and easy.
What is Oakland’s best culinary asset?
The diversity. Not just cultural diversity but diversity in economics and the type of trade taking place. We have a lot of bloggers, designers and artist who cover things like Burning Man. We also have a very eclectic social landscape; it’s a true melting pot. There’s an Ethiopian community, as well as Vietnamese amongst many others; the whole world feels as though it’s here.
Where’s best for a last minute dinner reservation?
I like to go to a friend of mine’s restaurant in Berkeley called Great China; he does a wonderful traditional Peking duck but serves it with crepes rather than buns. It also has a great wine list; what’s not to love about a great Burgundy and Peking duck?! I also just love sitting in a café. There’s something very timeless and pure about it, as well as being very grounding.
Ice cold beer? Morning pick-me-up?
I don’t drink coffee but I can tell you about beer! There are so many places but drinking beer outdoors is the best, especially paired with Oakland’s beautiful weather. There are so many beer gardens open now, we’re spoilt for choice. But perhaps one of my favourite is the Heinold’s located on Jack London Square. It’s one of the oldest bars in the area and it’s where Jack London used to frequent – the building is crooked and very characterful.
Best piece of advice for an out-of-towner?
Ignore the guide books, ask your Uber driver for the best places to go to; they know the city inside out! If you want the inside tip on anything, ask your bartender, they seem to know everything. Everyone is very enthusiastic here and we all want to help people out and share experiences.
Where’s best to stay when in the area?
Oakland doesn’t have many big hotels so I would always recommend staying in an Air B’B. There are so many great neighbourhoods, each with their own personality, so you won’t be disappointed.
Where can one go for the best view of Oakland?
Take 7th Street out to the west to pretty much the very end. It’s like being at Land’s End and you feel as though you’re underneath the bay bridge. The area is great too with St. George’s Spirits, a small independent brewery; in fact, it used to be an old naval base so it’s really wide and open and has one of the last panoramic views of Oakland and beyond.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a Hawker Fare book which will touch base on Oakland and my Lao-Thai heritage; it’s due out next year so I’m pretty busy with that right now. My business partner, Adam and I have also just acquired a brewery on the dock so we’ll be working on opening a brewery in January 2017. I don’t personally have any experience of brewing beer – other than drinking it! – but I will be heading up a restaurant alongside it and Adam will be the brew master. The future looks good!