Meet Chef Saeng Douangdara
We are excited to share our friend, amazing Lao chef, and advocate, Saeng Douangdara's story. If you received one of our Southeast Asian jungle themed snack boxes this August, you'll have a chance to try "Mae's Jeow Bong" (a spicy Lao chili paste/dip) made by Saeng and his mom!
Saeng Douangdara immigrated to the United States with his family as Lao refugees post Vietnam War. Once his family landed in the U.S. in 1992, he grew up most of his life in Wisconsin. He used to help his parents work in the flower farms in Wisconsin to make extra money, and they would always come home to a table full of funky, fresh dishes. He was always in the kitchen with his mom watching her make Lao food and he occasionally helped her peel the wrap for egg rolls.
His journey in cooking started in college since he had to learn how to recall all the flavors and dishes he grew up eating. He started cooking Lao food and it snowballed his passion into advocating and uplifting the cuisine and the Lao community. He has been to Laos and wants to spread the bright bold flavors of Lao food across mainstream media. Through social media, he teaches people how to cook Lao food.
He is an acclaimed Lao chef with features in LA Times, Foodbeast, Delish, Munchies, Hallmark, Buzzfeed, Hollywood Reporter, and KTLA 5 News. He is a proud self-taught home cook turned personal chef, Lao cooking instructor, and culinary creative based in Los Angeles. As an entrepreneur, he created Saeng's Kitchen LLC where he provides personal chef services to clientele in the entertainment industry. His clients range from NBA players, Emmy award winners, and comedians.
Checkout his website here for Lao food recipes and inspiration!
A Conversation With Saeng
We first met Chef Saeng a few years ago when hosting an event for Courageous Kitchen in Austin, Texas and we've been a huge fan and supporter ever since.
We've admired his passion and his love of life, so Christy sat down to dig a little deeper into this Lao'd and proud superstar.
Christy: You’re one of my favorite Foodies, and I love how you’re making a name for yourself in an unconventional way. How long did it take you to get to this point and what has helped you distinguish yourself?
Saeng: Can I say it took me all my life to get to this point? I grew up cooking with my mom and observing her in the kitchen. If I had to find a date of what pushed me to cook more, it was when I left home and ventured off to college at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. It was natural for me to bring friends together over a home cooked meal. Having graduated with a masters in Counseling Psychology from Hawaii and being an Upright Citizens Brigade student, I merged my identity as a educator and Lao chef with dashes of humor. My foundation in Lao food helps distinguish myself because it is a food that has gone under the radar. I am proud to help lead the way with my fellow Lao chefs. And I feel very blessed to be one of your favorite Foodies. Thank you!
C: Along those same lines, the culinary world is a constantly evolving landscape. Asian food in particular is having it’s moment. How do you adapt to stay ahead of the game?
S: I love that the culinary world is constantly evolving because it shows you that as a society and humans, we are also part of this evolution. It is important to me that I always challenge myself and evolve with my creative endeavors. I do notice many Asian food trends as flavors and dishes are continually “discovered”. My foundation is Asian food, particularly Lao food so I always try to think ahead with the arsenal of Lao flavors. I am not afraid to challenge the status quo of foods; my jungle macarons have been a hit where I am able to fuse Southeast Asian flavors such as Thai chili, passion fruit, durian, and pandan. It's one of my favorite things to bake!
C: Are you mostly a self-taught Chef? (in the sense that you didn’t go to any fancy culinary schools or receive classical training.) What got you interested in food and sharing it with others, and when did you realize you had a knack for it?
S: Yes! I am all self-taught with some professional classes. Most of my knowledge is from my mom and books. Lao food is one of the things that brings me a sense of home no matter where I am. When I can share the food I grew up eating, it's also a way for me to show someone how much I care about them. I guess I took on my mom’s way of showing love. When I entered the professional world, I yearned for a challenge that involved cooking. A chef in Orange County took the risk and let me take over one of her classes to teach Lao food and that was when I knew I could combine my love of teaching and food. It felt natural. Everyone loved the food and I was able to show students that cooking is fun and easy.
C: When and how did you shift from being someone who just cook food to realizing that you could make a business out of it?
S: I worked at a Chinese restaurant as a dishwasher when I was 16. I worked at Panda Express when I was in graduate school. These types of experiences let me appreciate how hard people work in restaurants. It helped me realize working for someone else's restaurant was not my forte and I wanted to be my own boss. The entrepreneurial spirit has always been with me since I was a little kid selling bingo stickers that I got from Goodwill. You could say it was my parents hustle and resiliency as refugees; they never stopped working. The skills learned from my previous businesses from being a DJ in college and fashion designer has helped me shape my career in food. It is an untraditional route in a food career, but I’ve never been one to follow the straight path.
C: Being an American but also descendants of Asian immigrant or refugee parents, how important is it for you to represent your culture for future generations? I know personally as a first-gen Lao American, I never wanted to embrace my Asian identity until I was much older. Have you always been a proud Asian American or has it been a slow realization like mine?
S: As a proud queer Lao American, my identities have come in waves in understanding myself and my family’s history. I grew up in a predominantly white city so the only Lao interaction was my family and the occasional weekend celebration with the few Lao folk in the town. I craved to learn my background. My first insight into my history and culture was in high school; I did a research project about the Secret War and how my family got to the states. During college, I had more access to a larger Lao community where I was also able to study Asian and Southeast Asian studies. It was at this time I immersed myself in learning how to read and write in Lao while leading the Lao student organization. There is no right way to be Asian American or Lao. I’m constantly learning and also sharing my knowledge with others. It was my Asian identity that was more acceptable versus the queer identity. Looking back, I am very blessed to go through these challenges as it made me a stronger person in terms of how proud I am of my identity.
C: When did you or your family settle in America and by way of where? How does your culture translate into your food?
S: My family left very late post Vietnam War. The refugee camps were closing and being consolidated and my father was given the choice to either flee to the United States or return to Laos. At the time, my mom was very hesitant in coming to the states; she was scared of the unknown. It was my dads drive to leave that made her leave with the kids. My family left the Thai refugee camps in 1991 and landed in Atlanta for a period of time. We then relocated to the northern parts of Wisconsin and then finally settled in Janesville, Wisconsin. In regards to my food, my culture plays a predominant part in what I cook. I became very proud of Lao food in high school while also feeling unsure about it because my mom didn’t want it exposed to the public. I would always ask “why not?” and she would tell me others would not accept the food. I always questioned my parents and others views on Lao food. Questioning a person’s perspective on foods was my way of giving them a gently nudge and to help unpack biased views.
C: Speaking of family, do you involve them in your food ventures? If so, can you tell me a little bit about your work relationship and how this journey has been for you all?
S: My family is not involved with my food ventures. My mom does provide some suggestions on how I can improve, but she lets me do things on my own. My parents didn’t encourage me to be in the kitchen and in fact, didn’t expect me to cook with the role I played in the family. I naturally had a tendency of wanting to be in the kitchen to observe my mom. As a kid, I’d rather be in the kitchen than outside playing sports. I do notice that me loving to cook Lao food also plays a trickle effect on my siblings. It is gently pushing them to cook more Lao food at home and it makes me so happy.
C: As you know, we work with several refugee youth providing food education and teaching basic nutrition skills. What advice can you give to some of our students who may be in a situation very similar to what your family experienced?
S: Food and nutrition education is highly needed for refugee youth. My family grew up in a country not familiar with the environment and how it would impact our health. Being overweight and diabetic is a prominent issue in the Southeast Asian community, and I experienced this first hand and was able to lose 100 pounds. I learned how to manage my weight and ways of balancing my food consumption later in college after dealing with years of being obese. My advice to other students is to be proactive about learning various ways of eating healthy. There is no one way fits all diet. And eat your greens!
C: Can you tell me what being courageous means to you and how it relates to your cooking?
S: I put all my heart into what I cook because it represents me and my family’s struggles. Being courageous means I am proud to say I love to eat and cook Lao food. I am proud of the funky, pungent flavors of unfiltered fish sauce padaek. I am proud to eat with my hands.
C: Over the past few years, what have been some highlight moments in your culinary career? Alternatively, what have been some of the most challenging moments?
S: One of my favorite stand-up comedians is Ali Wong, and it was a shock to me when I discovered she knew about Lao sausages. With my limited Photoshop abilities, a sprinkle of humor, and some email correspondence, I found myself cooking for Ali and a her family several times. Aside from the celebrity highlights, it's been amazing to help and watch Chef Seng’s organization Lao Food Movement grow from her passion and drive. I see her as a mentor and she is incredible to provide me and other Lao chefs empowerment in our food. I had the pleasure of joining her on one of the LFM trips to Texas and it was eye opening to meet other Lao chefs and learn about their passions. It was a little overwhelming to eat papaya salad everyday!
C: I know you’ve got a lot going on -- i.e. products, pop-ups, private events, videos, and cooking classes in the mix. What’s next for you, and where do you see yourself in 5 years?
S: I love everything I do when it comes to food and media! I have a few things going on and I’m currently in the development phase of a food documentary. In short, I am creating a story of food and history centered around Lao Americans and hope it will continue to push Lao food to the forefront. As I continue to work on my food portfolio and media presence, you will see me on a cooking show soon. In 5 years, I want to host a cooking show on television and be somewhere in the planning phases of a restaurant. I have many ideas and usually will go with the flow in how things pop up. The universe provides us all things we didn’t know we needed so we will see!
C: When you’re not in the kitchen, what do you enjoy doing? Any other passions or favorite hang-outs?
S: Lately, I’ve been taking improv classes and its been an amazing experience. I watched improv growing up like “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” and it's great to tap into my performance and comedy side. I am a student at the improv school, Upright Citizens Brigade. It's a place to meet many different types of people that have a sense of humor and want to challenge themselves in a type of performance. I enjoy improv and I know the skills I learned from it will benefit me in the cooking entertainment world. Or it will just make me look silly in public. It's a win-win situation.
C: Lastly, if others want to support you or follow your journey, how can they do that? (Instagram, Facebook, etc)
S: I would love to have more friends and community follow me on my food journey. I am mostly active on Instagram @saengdoungdara. My facebook page is Saeng Douangdara. Many of my recipe and cooking videos are on youtube https://youtu.be/HVq3My2ZK_8. I can also be requested to do food lectures and cooking classes via my webiste: www.saengskitchen.com.
Tuk Tuk Box is so honored to be in community with Chef Saengthong and so many other Southeast Asian entrepreneurs who are paving the way for future generations. If you're a subscriber be on the look out for his famous Jeow Bong, included in this month's Jungle theme box.
Thank you so much Saeng for sharing his story with us! Tuk Tuk Box is proud to exclusively feature Southeast Asian ingredients and include refugee, migrant, and generational stories in every box.