9 Asian American Culinary Trailblazers Heating Up The Southern U.S.

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Since the 1970s, the U.S. has celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage every May to honor the traditions and contributions of this diverse community, made up of almost 50 nationalities. Of course, food and beverage traditions are at the very heart of these cultures, and the inspiration, recipes, flavors, and cooking methods they bring to the table are shaping the future of the American food scene.

Here are some of these trailblazing chefs, restaurateurs and mixologists changing the face of dining in the American South.

Jeff Chanchaleune – Ma Der Lao Kitchen, Oklahoma City

Two-time James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef: Southwest, Jeff Chanchaleune grew up eating the Laotian homecooking made by his mother and grandmother, but never saw it represented in mainstream culture. His father, who brought the family from Laos to Oklahoma City, was a classically trained chef who spent his career working in restaurants across his new home town.

Like his father, Chanchaluene found himself drawn to the culinary arts. He spent over 20 years mastering Japanese cuisine before deciding to go back to his roots, opening Ma Der Lao Kitchen in 2021. Since then, the Oklahoma City restaurant whose name is a Lao expression meaning “come eat!” has garnered national recognition, earning its place as one of Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in 2022, The New York Times’ Best Restaurants in 2022, and USA Today’s Restaurants of the Year in 2024.

Lao food is similar to the cuisine of Northern Thailand, packed with umami and favoring savory, salty, sour, bitter and spicy flavors. Served family-style, popular items at Ma Der include spicy papaya salad; lemongrass marinated fried pork ribs; and a crispy rice salad studded with chopped cured pork sausage, mint, cilantro, green onions, ground chiles, lime and peanuts, served with lettuce.

“If I had to use one word to describe my cooking, it would be unapologetic,” says the chef.

As a first-generation Lao-American, Chanchaleune shares a heritage with less than 0.001% of his fellow Oklahomans. Still, he feels confident that anyone who tries his family’s food will find something to love.

“Ma Der means a great deal to me,” Chanchaleune explains. “I created it to honor my family and everyone who grew up not seeing their culture reflected in the mainstream. The Lao community is small but deserves to be represented. The world is ready, and no one should ever be afraid to celebrate who they are.”

The Lao community isn’t just small in Oklahoma–– it’s a country that’s been virtually erased since its political unrest in the early 1960s. To save Lao culture from extinction, Chanchaleune and other chefs across the nation have come together in the Lao Food Movement to evangelize the cuisine. Through efforts to preserve and uplift Lao heritage, Chanchaleune has met Laotian-American chefs and restaurants from all over the U.S., including chef Seng Luangrath of Thip Khao in Washington D.C., who is now a close friend and mentor.

Henry Lu – JŪN, Houston

Hailing from the Bronx, New York, chef Henry Lu recently moved to Houston to open the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant, JŪN, alongside business partner chef Evelyn Garcia. Like Chanchaleune, Lu was born into the hospitality industry, working in his parents’ Chinese restaurants from which he still draws inspiration to create delicious flavors and dishes.

After attending the French Culinary Institute, Lu went on to build an impressive repertoire in the New York culinary scene. As a sous chef at Pearl and Ash and Llama Inn, Lu helped both restaurants earn two stars on the New York Times list. From 2017 to 2020, he was the executive chef of Four Happy Men Hospitality Group and led all concepts. Since 2020, he’s been in Houston with his friend and business partner, Top Chef alum Evelyn Garcia. In addition to JŪN, the pair sells gourmet condiments, snacks, and spice rubs at local farmers markets with their product line, by KIN.

“It’s such an exciting time to be in Houston,” says Lu. “The culinary community is so collaborative here. Evelyn and I are constantly learning from the farmers and chefs we meet.”

The menu at JŪN focuses on “New Asian American” fare that melds flavors from both chefs’ very different cultural upbringings – think fried chicken with shrimp paste, ginger, and Thai chiles, or pork ribs with five spice sweet soy, celery and peanuts.

Yoshi Okai – Otoko, Austin, Texas

Found inside the South Congress Hotel, OTOKO, is a 12-seat, Tokyo-style sushi and Kyoto-style kaiseki haven. At the helm is Kyoto native Yoshi Okai, the restaurant’s tattooed, punk-rock singer chef who engages diners with his bubbly personality and extraordinary tasting menu.

Often lovingly referred to as the “godfather of omakase in Texas,” Okai worked behind the bar at the original Uchi in Austin, then Uchiko, before moving on to open Otoko. Since 2015, he has served as the intimate restaurant’s executive chef, fusing his Japanese roots with Austin’s eclectic food culture, and setting an excellent example as an Asian American making waves in the culinary world.

Since Okai relies on farm fresh seasonal vegetables, and fish flown from across the world, the menu at Otoko is in contant flux, surprising both first time and returning guests on every visit. Thanks to his creativity, knowledge of ingredients and impeccable presentations, Okai has earned national recognition including the Industry Excellence Awards’ ‘2024 Chef of the Year and Food and Wine’s ‘Best New Chef 2017’.

Laila Bazahm – El Raval, Austin, Texas

Born and raised in the Philippines, chef Laila Bazahm has always lived and breathed food. “In Filipino families, everyone hangs out in the kitchen, sharing stories while preparing food,” she says. “Even small families cook large quantities of food for passing neighbors and friends. There’s no planning, either. We go to the market, buy what’s fresh and cook ‘free-style.’ Everything is cooked with love.”

After four years’ training in Singapore, including stints at chef Emmanuel Stroobant’s Saint Pierre and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and a two-month program at San Sebastian’s Basque Culinary Center, Bazahm landed in Barcelona, where she launched Hawker 45 in the Raval neighborhood.

Bazahm and her wife, German-born, French-educated Laura, reveled in the area’s vibrant energy, rich history, and cultural heritage molded by the contributions of generations of immigrants, with whom they identified. Finding pandan leaves, Thai lime leaves, and fresh calamansi in Raval’s ethnic grocery shops allowed Bazahm to draw from the flavors of her childhood to create and refine her unique culinary fusion. The restaurant was named one of “Barcelona’s Top 30” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2018 and 2019; and “Barcelona’s Best Asian” by Lux Magazine in 2018 and 2019.

Bazahm arrived on the Austin scene in 2022, briefly taking over the kitchen at Eberly before opening El Raval, a tapas bar that fuses Asian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern flavors, reflecting her very personal style of cuisine. She also loves to travel, so a lot of her food comes from things she’s tried in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Bangkok.

Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee – Duckstache Hospitality, Houston

Chefs Patrick Pham and Daniuel Lee are co-owners of Duckstache Hospitality, an innovative Japanese restaurant group that includes Handies Duozo, Himari, and Aiko. Together, they boast 20 years of combined experience specializing in sushi.

Pham studied culinary arts at the Art Institute of Houston and joined Uchi Houston right after graduation as part of the opening team. He started as a line cook, then transitioned to the sushi bar where he worked under Yoshinori Katsuyama for four years before taking over as head sushi chef.

“As a first generation Vietnamese American, my heritage played a huge role on my culinary background because everything revolved around food for us,” says Pham. “When my parents moved here during the Vietnam War, they eventually opened their own restaurant where I worked and learned the grind of becoming an entrepreneur.”

Lee started working in kitchens at the age of 16. He honed his skills at Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, where he attended a Culinary Arts program, and went on to cook in kitchens across the country. Following three years as a sushi chef at Uchi Houston, Lee branched out to bring his own creativity and enthusiasm to the Houston culinary scene.

“With 18 years in the restaurant industry, my cooking journey blends my diverse Korean roots from growing up in Houston with my American upbringing and a deep dive into Japanese culinary techniques,” explain Lee. “This mix shapes my personal style, inspiring dishes that honor my heritage while exploring new tastes and ideas.”

Heading the bar at Aiko is Gin Ju Im, a born-and-raised Texan with 20 years of restaurant and bar experience under her belt. With a bartending career that began in Denver, she trained in the city’s competitive cocktail and dining scene before returning to Texas as the resident bartender at Aiko.

Im finds gratitude in the opportunities, creative freedom, and support that it takes to build a bar menu complimentary of beautiful food. Her menus include beverages ranging from zero to low to full ABV cocktails. “Being a Third Culture kid has been my biggest creative advantage, and the rich Mexican culture of Texas and a love of American pop culture are obvious influences on the various Asian flavors in my beverage menu.”

Anne Ng – Bakery Lorraine, San Antonio

Born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, to Chinese parents, Anne Ng attended The International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management and later became a pastry chef. After moving to San Antonio, Ng and her partner Jeremy Mandrell opened Bakey Lorraine, which quickly became a local sensation.

The artisanal bakery went on to earn national recognition as one of the best new bakeries in the U.S. by Food & Wine as well as one of the “13 Destination Bakeries” by Conde Nast Traveler. At the locations in San Antonio, Boerne, and Austin, they serve breakfast and light lunch fare alongside delectable bread and pastries, including their famous Parisian macaroons, which come in seasonal flavors and are available for shipping nationwide.

In 2023, Ng and Mandrell were named James Beard Awards Semifinalists for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.

“Growing up in the Philippines, food and family are two things that always come together and this is the atmosphere we work so hard to recreate at Bakery Lorraine,” says Ng. “We strive to exude the warmth and welcoming nature of Filipino culture through our food and ambiance.”

Claudia Lee – Underdog, Austin, Texas

Claudia Lee is a first-generation Korean-American who began exploring her heritage through family recipes. This journey ultimately inspired Underdog, the Austin wine bar known for beguiling flavor combinations and praised by local media as one of the city’s best new restaurants. The New York Times recently named Underdog one of the 25 Best Restaurants in Austin Right Now.

“My mom never had the confidence to serve Korean food, so she invested in sushi restaurants instead,” she says. “I wanted to show them that their heritage and customs have a place at the table, too.”

Lee and her partner Richard Hargreave moved to Austin in 2021 to open their dream restaurant. Together, they built a food menu that pays homage to Lee’s family with an ever-evolving wine list focused on thoughtful producers with a commitment to sustainable farming and labor practices.

Underdog presents traditional Korean flavors distilled through the best of Texan produce. Charcoal grills are used to layer elements of char and smoke not usually found in classic Korean restaurants. Overseen by Hargrave, whose previous credentials include Momofuku and an upscale resort in Bali, the wine program is an eclectic mix of small, hard-to-find producers, with the spotlight shone on Asian and female winemakers wherever possible.

Each of these AAPI culinary leaders are influenced differently by their heritage, but all display bold ingenuity, resilience, and creativity in shaping the cultural landscape of the U.S.

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