The imaginarium of chef Parnass SavangThursday June 29, 2017 08:34 am EDT
I remember the first time I tasted durian. I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, just a few months into what would eventually become a three-year chunk of my existence. It was late summer, hot and sticky as the bowels of hell, the narrow streets lined with foliage and filled with the exhaust of passing motorbikes.
While the "king of fruits" holds a hallowed place in Southeast Asian cuisine, durian also comes with its fair share of criticism. Thais will tell you not to mix it with booze; no one's exactly sure why, but legend says the combination can be fatal. Walk into any high-end Thai hotel and there's a good chance you'll spot a laminated placard with a picture of a durian, crossed out with a big red X. For this there's an easy explanation: The things smell god-awful. Travel writer Richard Sterling has described the scent as that of "turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock." Anthony Bourdain says they'll leave your breath smelling "as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." And the stench isn't just some kind of passing nuisance; it seeps into everything and lingers like a flatulent spirit.
But I had committed. So I walked up to the corner durian stall and threw down 60 baht (approximately $2 USD). The vendor smiled knowingly and handed me a heavy yellow blob, disemboweled from its spiky green husk, plopped onto a Styrofoam tray and covered in plastic wrap. "Krup khun kha," I said warily, taking a seat on the nearest curb and peeling back the film. The stench hit me like a punch to the face. The thing was oozing and warm almost hot from sitting in the sun. But there was nothing left to do but close my eyes and open my mouth.
It felt like biting into a sodden diaper, with a sulphurous sweetness verging on rot. The look, the smell, the texture, the temperature, the flavor: all merged together into one indelible episode, still etched deeply in my memory. I looked down and watched a rat scurry out of a split-open bag of garbage baking on the curb beside me. That's part of the memory, too. We made eye contact. His look said, "Did you really just eat that?"
I know now that this was not a good durian, but the damage had been done. In the years that followed, my palate grew bolder, and I developed an intimate, joyous relationship with Thai food, miles past the milky curries and peanut-buttery noodle dishes I used to order from Top Spice in college while stoned. I built up a spice tolerance, learned the difference between nam prik ong and nam prik num and came to believe one should never trust a pad thai without tiny dried prawns. I ate congealed cubes of pig's blood, bamboo worms with salt, live shrimp, several varietals of fried insect and a chicken's foot. But nothing and no one could convince me to try durian again.
That is, until I moved back to Atlanta, and met Parnass Savang.
Chef Savang's first experiencewith durian was different than mine. Though he was born in California and raised in Georgia, his father hails from Laos and his mother is Thai-Chinese by way of Bangkok. He spent his early years, as many children of immigrants do, living much like his parents did back home. And in Savang's case, this meant an early introduction to durian. "To me it smells so good!" says the 27-year-old chef. "No one ever told me it was bad. When I was growing up my mom was like, here, eat this."
We're at Candler Park's Gato Bizco Caf̩ on a rainy Thursday afternoon. The kitchen is stocked with traditional Thai cookware: a granite mortar and pestle, a bamboo basket for steaming sticky rice. Savang unpacks a box of baby potatoes, just dropped off by a local farmer. He has close-cropped hair, thick, tattoo-free arms, a youthful openness that belies his culinary confidence. Mustachioed sous chef Rod Lassiter shucks corn and plunges it into an ice bath. The pair is prepping for weekend number 10 of their self-described "Georgian Thai" pop-up eatery, Talat Market. The menus, printed weekly on yellow cardstock emblazoned with a multilingual pineapple logo, define the concept as "traditional Thai cooking using organic and locally-sourced produce and meats as much as possible.?
Savang turns to a football-size durian on the counter, imported from Thailand's Samut Prakan province and purchased for $26 at Your DeKalb Farmers Market. Cradling it like a beloved child, he demonstrates the proper way to slice off the prickly husk, quick but careful. Gato's owner, Nick Stinson, sits at a booth nearby, tallying checks and occasionally joining the conversation. He, too, has a tale of how he came to hate durian, mostly because of the smell. But Savang knows what he's doing, and we've all learned to trust him.
This particular durian will be used to make a weekend's worth of khao niew durian, which means durian sticky rice in Thai but is not a traditional Thai dish. Savang says the idea came to him in a dream, after he'd gone to bed thinking about mango sticky rice, wondering what would happen when mangos go out of season in Georgia. Beets, though, grow here both in late spring and early winter. And beets, the dream told him, just might work as a substitute for mango. When he awoke, he went to the kitchen. "I'm a vessel," he says with a laugh. It just happens, like magic." What emerged was a mound of sticky rice, melded with pur̩ed beets, coconut cream and palm sugar, topped with a layer of sliced beets. Then, the raison d'etre: a scoop of custard made with eggs, melted palm sugar, coconut starch and... durian.
I had seen this dish listed on Savang's weekly Instagram menu and started psyching myself up days before entering the restaurant, prepared to take one polite bite and foist the rest upon my long-suffering boyfriend. But when the dessert arrived, y'all, it felt like a damn revelation. The beet melded like a song with the creamy, chewy rice. The custard, just enough to add sweetness, was at once silky and fluffy, the durian's sharpness dulcified by sugar and coconut, the salty, toasted shallots setting the whole thing into orbit. Holy shit even the durian is good, I wrote in my notes. How did he come up with this?"
And just like that, I was converted.
Though he's never workedas an executive chef before, Savang's no newcomer to the business of food. For 23 years, his family has owned and operated a popular Thai-American restaurant in Lawrenceville called Danthai. "On Fridays I'd be washing dishes while all my friends went to football games," he recalls. "I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be something that was not my dad or my mom. But eventually, I ran out of ideas."
Growing up in a Thai restaurant, Americanized though it was, Savang picked up the tenets and tastes of Thai cooking through osmosis. He counts off his trips to Thailand on one hand, categorizing them by how old he was. "Five, 14, 16... those were the times I went to Thailand but didn't care. I was like, 'everything's dirty here.'"
Change came, as it does, with a late-night YouTube binge of "Kitchen Nightmares" (the British version). Inspired, Savang transferred from Valdosta State to New York's prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
Studying food in an academic setting gave him new appreciation for his own culinary heritage. In 2011, the James Beard Foundation gave regional best chef awards to Saipin Chutima of Las Vegas' Lotus of Siam and Andy Ricker of Portland's Pok Pok, both of whom cook exclusively with Northern Thai food. "That was like, wow," Savang says. "It gave me motivation to go on this journey." Then and there, he formulated a plan: He'd return to Georgia after graduation to learn the art of Southern cooking, then eventually make his way back to Thai food.
At 22, Savang returned to Thailand, this time hoping to find cultural context for the food he'd taken for granted growing up. "I spent one entire day at the market just to see how it transformed," he says, recalling mornings driven by wholesale produce deliveries and steaming bowls of rice porridge known locally as jok; sun-soaked afternoons of soup noodles and stir-fries; then the large crowds that arrived after nightfall, washing down spicy dinners with cold beer.
He spent his next trip roaming the country on his own, taking the sleeper train down south to the islands, then up to the mountains. He observed the regional and seasonal differences inherent to Thai food: fermentation for times of scarcity in rural mountain villages, an abundance of coconut milk and tropical fruits on the coasts. He staged for a month at David Thompson's Michelin-starred Nahm in Bangkok, and spent a day cooking 30 baht khao kha moo (stewed pork leg with rice) at a street stall with his uncle, the entire day's profits adding up to less than the cost of a single entr̩e at Nahm. He ate the best tom yum he'd ever had, served on a plastic Est Cola-branded tablecloth at a roadside shophouse whose name he can't remember.
When Savang returned to the States, he would often argue with his parents, wondering why they wouldn't serve these kinds of regional, seasonal dishes to their customers at Danthai. "I mean, we ate this stuff when I was growing up," he recalls. "Thai omelets and bitter melon soup and neckbone. I'd be like, 'Mom, why don't you serve this at the restaurant? It's so good.' She'd say, 'Because 'they' won't eat it.'" "They" being Danthai's long-term customers, who Savang says expect familiar flavors, large portions and cheap prices. He sighs. "Thai people are very polite, and they want to make people happy wherever they are. They'll go to the extent of changing their cuisine, changing those dishes to fit the palate of the community."
After culinary school, Savang landed a paid gig at Empire State South, where he worked the line for two and a half years, learning valuable lessons about Georgia's growing seasons and the farmers who work them. Next came overlapping gigs at Staplehouse and Kimball House. It was at the latter that he met Lassiter, a seasoned chef from Tallahassee, Florida, with executive experience at Wrecking Bar and Ration & Dram. "We both had been grinding, working long hours for someone else and doing the same old, same old, and I think we both knew we wanted something different," Lassiter says. "[Savang] started joking with me about doing a pop-up with him, and I was throwing out crazy ideas. And then one day I was like, let's do a fermented rice pop-up. And he stopped and was like, let's do it."
From that point, things moved fast. Savang quit his line cook gig (Lassiter would follow soon after) and the two camped out in Lassiter's home kitchen, experimenting with fried chicken's feet and fermented rice ice cream, blowing through their budget and pickling more than a hundred pounds of cabbage in cases made from repurposed sheetrock. Their efforts paid off: Within a couple months, they'd not only landed an inaugural gig at the Sound Table but also the coveted weekend pop-up spot at Gato, newly vacated by chef Jarrett Stieber, who'd moved Eat Me Speak Me to S.O.S. Tiki Bar in Decatur.
Stinson, Gato's owner, had high expectations for Stieber's replacement. "My big criteria is: Is this happening in Atlanta anywhere else? If the answer is yeah, then I don't want to do it." But Savang's concept impressed him. "He's going for a lot more complexity than you get at a typical Atlanta-style Thai restaurant. He's creating a new, hybridized cuisine."
Lassiter nods, carefully removing the pale yellow lobes of durian and handing them to Savang for mashing. The two work quickly, with an easy intimacy, the air of two friends on the verge of something big. They hope to someday transform Talat Market into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but they're in no rush. "When we came together, it just worked out perfectly. I can't imagine anything better, honestly," says Lassiter. "This is what a lot of people search for and never get to find."
At Talat Market,Savang's penchant for tiny, evocative details from the pandan-steeped table water to the flimsy forks and spoons he had an aunt pick up for him in Bangkok transform the tiny, temporary dining space. There's a photo of long-revered but recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand taped above the stove. (According to royal protocol, no one's head should ever be higher than the king's.) Jangly luk thung music echoes from the speakers. The smell of garlic and lemongrass wafts through the air, and the caf̩'s OPEN sign casts a garish hot pink glow over the whole operation. I'm instantly transported back to Chiang Mai's steamy night markets, where old men sat in shadowy corners sipping Hong Thong whiskey and beer with ice.
Like most restaurants in Thailand, Talat's menu is designed for sharing family-style. Offerings change weekly, with some repeats and some variations, but typically consist of six smallish dishes, which arrive at the table one or two at a time. The flavors bump up against each other, harmonizing like a symphony, each course paving the way for the next. If you have at least two hungry people, just go ahead and order the whole dang menu, which shouldn't set you back more than $80 total and will feed up to four. The pop-up is BYOB; pick up wine from Candler Park Market next door, or better yet, a few bottles of Singha or Chang beer from a nearby Asian market just don't forget the ice.
A typical night's menu presents one or two traditional Thai dishes coupled with several more fanciful creations. One such evening began with sai krok issan ($12), a classic northeastern Thai sausage made with fermented pork and rice. At markets in Chiang Mai you'll see street vendors grilling the puffs of protein on bamboo sticks or roped into a long spiral. An order gets chopped up with scissors and served in a clear plastic bag with fresh bird's eye chilies, raw cabbage, cilantro, sliced ginger and peanuts. Savang's version comes on a plate but the flavors are all there: the slightly sour fattiness of the meat lightened by the fluffy bits of rice, the fresh ginger undercutting the sting of the chilies.
Tom yum hoi, too, is straight Thailand: a traditional hot and sour soup packed with lemongrass, galangal, enoki mushrooms and shucked clam bellies ($14). Savang says this is one of the only dishes on the menu his mother didn't criticize on a recent visit; knowing how to construct a good tom yum is one of Thailand's culinary building blocks. One might be tempted to dub such a dish "authentic," but then they'd have to contend with Savang. "I don't like the word authentic because even in Thailand everyone has a different version of pad thai," he says. "I can't make authentic Thai food in Georgia, so I might as well just make it an experiment. Like, what would happen if a Thai person moved to Georgia with Thai techniques, but they wanted to use the best of everything? What would the cuisine become?"
Savang's dishes attempt to answer these questions. Take for instance the savory-sweet yum phonlamai ($8), which translates to "fruit salad." Here, Savang and Lassiter make use of classic Thai ingredients like shallots, coconut flakes, fresh mint leaves and dried pineapple dusted with lemongrass powder but centralize Georgia peaches and blueberries, two fruits that don't even have their own Thai words.
Then there's the massaman neua ($15): a Muslim-influenced beef curry dish you'll find at nearly every Thai restaurant in Atlanta. Talat's is different: made with fresh coconut milk instead of canned and filled with a Georgia-grown cornucopia of skin-on baby potatoes, whole roasted pearl onions and pecans another completely un-Thai ingredient. The result is a dish at once rooted in tradition and wholly original. And the flavor? Stinson puts it this way: "Most curries I'd ever tasted had three to five different elements that hit your palate, and they all hit pretty hard. It's kind of like a one-shot. But [Savang's] have 12 different things going on at the same time. They're complex but subtle, like fine wine."
Some dishes pull more from the Lao or Chinese parts of Savang's heritage, like the phat lo bak go ($15) – a spin on a dish he remembers his grandmother making at Chinese New Year. One day his family got a load of free turnips and lacking the Chinese sausage and dried shrimp he'd need to make his grandma's classic dish, he decided to improvise, adding country ham, shishito peppers, trout hot-smoked over coconut shells and a fried egg on top. It took a while to get the combination right, but once he did, the flavors popped. "A lot of my cooking is all about reactions," he says. "I like to use whatever I find laying around."
Savang is humble but refuses to pander. Rather than catering to American taste buds or relying on hot chilies as a crutch to prove his credentials, he cooks for himself, hedging innovation with practiced discipline. Each and every dish carried out of Gato's tiny open kitchen feels like an extension of Savang the person, a part of his many-layered story. It's all here: the ingrained knowledge of growing up Thai, the technical finesse of a CIA grad, the experience of a seasoned Atlanta line cook and above all, a palpable sense of joy in the process.
Savang has been waiting a long time for Thai food to have its gourmet moment. "I don't see a lot of Thai cooks like me in Atlanta, so I guess that's one of the reasons why it hasn't popped," he says. "I was tired of waiting, so eventually I was like, OK, I'll just do it then. Who's gonna be first? Guess it has to be me."
Talat Market is open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Walk-ins only and BYOB. 1660 McLendon Ave. N.E. www.instagram.com/talat_marketatl.
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