The noise at the corner of 25th Street and Northgate in Uptown is a blast of a hundred tires on freeway concrete, eclipsed only by the rush and clatter of trains. Interstate 980 and State Highway 24 run together here like merged rivers, coursing above BART’s raised trackbed at the end of a block where the buildings turn inward, fenced off from guys nodding out on the sidewalk and women loitering with a certain purpose.
This is the landscape where James Syhabout, 36 — the only chef in Oakland with a Michelin-star restaurant — first learned about food, taught by his mom in the language of refugees, in a culture of kin related by circumstance.
You might have heard about Syhabout, though it’s just as likely you haven’t. He owns Hawker Fare (the Isaan street food spot) in Oakland and San Francisco and The Dock in Jack London Square. Commis on Piedmont Avenue (his place with the stars, two of them) might be the least-bombastic fine-dining restaurant in Northern California. Syhabout’s food relies on quiet gestures: the subtle juiciness of chervil stems in a pork dish, or the gilded scent of caramelized onion in a savory financier cookie.
Quietness, in Syhabout’s case, is an Oakland value. You might be proud of who you are or what you’ve done, but on the street you carry yourself without flaunting. This is showing respect to the people who made you, the ones who taught and shaped you. It’s a debt.
But Syhabout has a greater debt, one he incurred as a kid on that swarming block in Uptown. In 1981, a two-year-old Syhabout arrived in the East Bay with his parents lugging a couple of suitcases, refugees from Laos via the Isaan region of northeast Thailand. They were settled with other refugee families on 25th Street, in a courtyard building where moms dried spiced beef on the roof to make jerky, pickled fish in jars, and everybody sometimes ate together Lao style, sitting on the floor over sticky rice, double-dipping shared bowls of chile dips and platters of larb.
The Lao community scattered after the Loma Prieta earthquake of ’89. And after high school at Oakland Tech and culinary school in San Francisco, Syhabout turned his back on the food of his mom and non-blood aunties on 25th Street. He traveled in Europe, ate, and cooked at great restaurants. Back in California, he worked at Manresa and Coi.
In 2011, when Syhabout took over his mom’s Thai restaurant in Uptown, so she could retire and return to Thailand, Syhabout had a flash of panic mixed with deep regret. He’d disowned the Lao and Isaan food he’d grown up with to be a chef in gleaming, composed kitchens. He missed the pungency and snarl of his mom’s food, the directness, the everybody sticking their spoons in shared dishes. He opened Hawker Fare.
Syhabout taught himself to cook like his mom: Lao food with the rattle of the BART train up the street. 3869 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CommisRestaurant.com.