WASHINGTON — The Southeast Asian countries of Laos and Thailand have shared many aspects of culture, cuisine, and language for centuries. Sharing the border of the Mongkok River and parts of Cambodia, many traditional elements such as ingredients, recipes, eating customs and cooking methods have integrated throughout both countries.
During the Vietnam War, thousands of Laotians also migrated to Thailand, creating a sizeable Lao population in the northeastern region of Isan. Many other refugees also emigrated to the United States, one of those being Seng Luangrath, Head Chef and Owner of Thip Khao and Padaek restaurant in Washington, D.C.
During Chef Seng’s time in a Thailand refugee camp, she learned how to cook Lao cuisines from her neighbors and elders. Although Chef Seng spent most of her adult life making catering orders for her husband's clients, at the age of 40, she finally pursued her passion for
cooking and opened up her first restaurant.
In 2010, Seng Luangrath took over what used to be a Thai restaurant called Bangkok Garden in Falls Church, VA. Bangkok Garden had a menu of mainly traditional Thai dishes.
However, despite her love for Lao tradition and cuisine, Chef Seng thought it’d be best to stick to the Thai menu instead of creating a Lao one. After adding a few Lao dishes to her menu over the years, it became apparent that customers were receptive to her traditional Laotian foods.
Chef Seng isn’t the first Lao chef to shy away from Lao cuisine. Many Thai restaurants have menus that include Lao and Isan dishes, but these recipes rarely stand alone.
It wasn’t until her husband told her to take some time to find her passions that Seng Luangrath found herself back into the art of cooking her native foods from Laos. Years later, her son Bobby Pradachitch also followed in her footsteps and pursued culinary skills, with a specific drive to learn more about his Laotian culture through cuisine.
On Oct. 9, Chef Pradachitch spoke to a group of Asian-American/Pacific Islander students in Washington, D.C. to discuss his Lao/American identity and keeping his Lao tradition alive. Pradachitch reflected on his parents working a lot while growing up in northern Virginia, limiting time between him and his parents.
“Once I had the chance to be with them, they really tried to teach me Lao culture. But because I was so passionate about the American lifestyle, I didn’t give my parents time to teach me,” Pradachitch said.
When aunts and uncles tried to speak to Pradachitch in Lao, he couldn’t understand them, and his family members told him he wasn’t “Lao” because of this.
“If I can’t learn my language, I want to make food from my language,” Pradachitch said and has been passionate about cooking and Lao cuisine ever since.
Although Pradachitch’s mother is a chef and restaurant owner herself, his parents “were not very happy” when he first told them he wanted to pursue a career in culinary arts. “I think Asian parents always want their kids to not do anything that is more suffering than what they went
through… they went through a lot of difficulties to make their way to America, but I think what brings people together is food.”
Pradachith is now leading the Thip Khao restaurant located in the lively neighborhood of Columbia Heights. He loves understanding more about his culture through cooking.
“I got to basically continue their story and the success that they’ve created,” Pradachitch said.
“And it’s my job for me to keep that consistent, grow within that and continue the Lao tradition.”
Even his mother Chef Seng has gone to spread the tradition of Lao food outside the kitchens of her restaurants. Seng has created the “Lao Food Movement,” a movement that brings awareness to the contributions of Laotian cuisine to modern Thai food.
Chef Seng hosts events for “Lao Food Movement” and spreads awareness via social media (#LaoFoodMovement). Chef Seng and Pradachitch are mother and son who saw the uniqueness of their culture and dared to shine it under its own light.