Chef Donny Sirisavath Embraces His Lao Family Traditions at Khao Noodle Shop
The Dallas chef also shares a recipe for Lao-style jerky eaten with sticky rice.
Donny Sirisavath—the chef and owner of lauded Lao restaurant Khao Noodle Shop in Dallas, Texas—has been interested in food for as long as he can remember. In fact, it was this curiosity and obsession with trying new things that landed him in the hospital to get his stomach pumped after mistaking a box of rat poison for Nerds candy (in his defense, he was around five and the rat poison made the same clanky sound as a box of Nerds).
“A lot of my childhood was just trying to survive with refugee parents and eat what was available to us,” he explains, chuckling. “I was a curious kid and got into things that I didn't need to get to.”
Growing up, Sirisavath spent his childhood in the kitchen with his Lao mother, who always provided him with cooking tasks, passing on her knowledge to him. Sometimes he pounded chilies and garlic in a large wooden mortar and pestle, known as a krok, or chopped vegetables. He never shied away from funkier ingredients: “My mom just gave me all kinds of stuff—fish sauce, shrimp paste, just funky stinky stuff.” When Sirisavath’s mom opened a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas after moving there in 1989, Sirisavath was there bussing tables and helping out.
Sirisavath didn’t know he would eventually open one of the most celebrated restaurants in the country, using the same ingredients and techniques he grew up with and following in the footsteps of his mom. During his teenage years, he was mostly motivated by money—dropping out of high school in search of better opportunities for cash.
It was only after Sirisavath’s mother was diagnosed with cancer that he realized his passion has always been intertwined with food—the community feeling of gathering around a table, the ingredients that reflect his heritage, the familial connection. “That’s when I spent more time with her again, and that triggered memories. We grew up together, cooking in the kitchen,” he says. “[Before] my mom passed away, she was like, ‘I just want you to do something that's more meaningful. Do something that you have driving purpose for.’”
Sirisavanth did just that. It turns out that the stints Sirisavath had in the corporate world in different industries came in handy for running the business side of a restaurant. “I [use] that skill that I learned from there and the knowledge I learned from my mom and kind of mend those two together and become this marriage that happens now,” he says. Although Khao Noodle Shop has only been open for a little over two years, it’s acclaimed. The restaurant was listed as one of Bon Appetit’s hot new restaurants in 2019 while Sirisavath himself earned a nod from Food & Wine and the James Beard Award for best new chef.
Accolades aside, Sirisavath’s driving force remains celebrating his heritage and making his mom proud. His recipes are inspired by her: a boat noodle soup ladled with fresh pork blood, as tradition in Laos and Thailand, is swimming with savoriness and unabashedly true to its roots. A Mother’s Day dessert special of sticky glutinous rice and taro dumplings in a coconut milk broth, known as bua loy, was one of Sirisavath’s mom’s favorite sweets. Dried Lao-style beef jerky customarily eaten with sticky rice is a treat reminiscent of childhood meals seated with his mom.
“Jerky was my go-to as a child. I think it’s probably one of my very first memories eating,” Sirisavath says. He recalls his mom chewing on the dried meat for him, softening it before feeding it to his toothless self. “It just sounds gross now,” he laughs. “But that was just motherly love, you know, for [her] child.”
Everything at Khao Noodle Shop is a tribute to Sirisavath’s mom and the experiences he garnered as a Thai and Lao American growing up in Texas. “Our restaurant is a community table. We bring people together, friends and family from all different races and cultures, to just have a meal, reflect on our lives, share our story, and show our culture,” he explains. “That's always been ingrained in the back of my mind and my mom was the person that really pulled that out of me.”
Seen Hang (Lemongrass Beef Jerky)
- 10lb round eye
- 2 ½ cup oyster sauce
- ½ cup fish sauce
- 2 cup Maggi seasoning sauce
- 1 cup cooking oil and 2 quarts of cooking oil
- 2 ½ cup sugar
- 2 ½ cup lemongrass
- ¼ cup black pepper
- ½ cup garlic powder
- ¼ cup ginger
- 2 mixing bowls
- 2-4 sheet trays/cooking pan with jerky rack (for oven use)
- Cutting board
- Food processor
- Measuring cups
- Frying pan
1. Trim outer silver skin and fat, leaving some fat on the round eye. Quarter cut with the grain of the round eye into finger size pieces. Place cut pieces into a mixing bowl.
2. Cut and peel ginger and lemongrass. Blend ginger and lemongrass in a food processor until fine. In a separate mixing bowl, pour in your wet ingredients first, stir around and then add your dry ingredients. Stir thoroughly to make sure the ingredients are mixed well.
3. Pour marinade onto the slice round eye. Mix and massage the marinade into the round eye. Cover the mixing bowl and let it sit for 2-3 hours in the fridge.
4. Preheat the oven to 185°F or set your dehydrator to jerky settings. Place marinated round eye on trays to be dehydrated. Place trays in oven or in dehydrator.
5. Once jerky is done, let it cool and then pull the jerky off the racks. Pour your 2 quarts of cooking oil into a cooking pan, preheat to 350°F. Once temp is reached, flash fry jerky for 1 min or until it slightly turns reddish/brown. Place napkin to soak up residual oil from frying. Let cool and fry next batch. Frying will allow it to full cook and tenderize the jerky. Can be left out in a container up to 3 days, unless vacuum sealed. Will last longer once sealed tight, if not can be refrigerated.
6. Eat, share, and enjoy with friends and family
Use a spoon to peel the skin off of ginger. Use a meat cleaver to chop lemongrass
Usually the jerky will take up to 3-4 hours to dehydrate. Make sure to rotate the trays every hour from top to bottom/back to front. This will ensure proper dehydration.