Chefs to Watch 2018: Thai Dang, HaiSous, Chicago
This year, Forbes dubbed Chicago’s Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood rich with colorful murals, galleries, and cafés, one of the coolest enclaves in the world. But Thai Dang and his wife/partner, Danielle, weren’t trying to start a trend when they opened their Vietnamese restaurant, HaiSous, there last summer; in fact, they were trying to buck it. Their previous restaurant, Embeya, was located in the white-hot West Loop area, and though Dang’s fine-dining Southeast Asian food received accolades while he and Danielle were there (he as chef/co-owner, she as beverage director), the experience also bankrupted the couple.
They were two years in when they suspected the owners of misappropriating funds, and almost two years later, they were both fired. The owners abruptly closed the restaurant in 2016 and skipped town after a federal investigation was opened (they are still on the run), leaving the Dangs out half a million dollars.
“A lot of things go through your mind when you go through something so hurtful and painful, but then, there’s clarity in it all,” says Dang, who’s had time to reflect on the traumatic experience that ultimately fueled the birth of HaiSous and its adjacent all-day café, Cà Phê Dá. “We wanted to control our destiny. We have no investors; it’s just my wife and me,” says Dang. “No one’s breathing down our neck, no investors eating around the city bragging about their investment and how they’re trying to convince their chef to open seven days, and open a patio, and put this or that on the menu. I’m fortunate to be able to rebuild, not just by myself, but with my wife and life partner, personally and professionally.”
HaiSous has allowed Dang to put his heart, soul, and history not only in the décor (a mix of Vietnamese art and imports and murals by Pilsen artists), but in the food, inspired by his upbringing in Southern Vietnam before he moved to the U.S. as a refugee at age six. “I remember coming home to stuff my mom would be preparing, and I would help finish,” he recalls. “That’s where my love of cooking started. I saw the satisfaction my family had after I finished a soup or fried something.” Today Dang is both elevating and changing perceptions of Vietnamese food. “That was the challenge, to change the landscape of what Vietnamese food is,” he says. “You go to every Vietnamese restaurant and see a slice of cucumber cut into a moon shape, a tomato, and maybe a sprig of cilantro. And to them, that’s garnish. To me it’s like, ‘Oh my God, shoot me now,’” he laughs.
Dang’s take includes refined but homey dishes like pork skewers with lemongrass and fish sauce, whole fried fish with Vietnamese herbs, Hanoi-style grilled pork, and a cold octopus and confit eggplant salad he considers “100 percent Thai” (recipe). “The Vietnamese love cold salads and I love the texture of octopus, but I wanted to kick it up a notch, so I added fried garlic,” says Dang, who served a similar salad at Embeya, but for that version, covered the colorful mélange with coconut foam and dehydrated black garlic. “For HaiSous, I wanted to do the same dish, but we put coconut cream on the bottom of the plate instead and add fried shallots and roasted peanuts on top.”
The dish is just one example of how HaiSous has inspired Dang to find the courage and confidence to show his true colors on the plate again. But he also credits his staff: “When we’re asked how we overcame such a painful time in our life, I would say it’s our crew. I live for them. I live to see their happiness. I live to see them inspired because of what we went through,” he says. “I want them to come through these doors swinging, guns blazing, because I want to bring the best out in them.”
Q&A with Thai Dang:
What is your favorite ingredient?
Fish sauce! I’ve grown to love it. With Laurent Gras I made him nuoc mam toi noodles when we worked together at L2O. Then when I started cooking my own food at Embeya/Haisous/Cà Phê Dá, I created some really cool techniques or better yet improved upon it. Even my own family was like ‘Dammmmmmmn Thai!’
How do you describe your food?
Simple but complex. Simple in the way it looks and is presented, but complex in texture and flavor. It’s driven by the techniques I’ve developed.
What cookbook is most important to you?
El Bulli 1998-2002. It was the first cookbook given to me. When I got it, I felt closer to Ferran Adrià. I spent years hearing about El Bulli, reading articles about the chef, reading about how long it takes to get in, and the experiences he was creating for guests, chefs, and cooks. When I opened my present and it was the cookbook, I was filled with joy. Joy from a great gift but also joy to have El Bulli closer. I read through the entire book and at that moment I knew I wanted to push myself more. I knew what I was doing was not good enough. Mind you, the person who gave me that book was the daughter of the owner of the restaurant I was working at while in culinary school. A year later, I put in my notice and moved back to the Washington D.C. area to get serious about cooking. It was not just the book. It was also the moment in my life that inspired me. To see what was possible and if I worked hard enough, maybe one day I would own my own place and create such memories and experiences for my own guests. Well, dreams do come true (minus the drama I went through).
Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
I find inspiration every day. Well, mostly from casual conversation with my wife/business partner, Danielle. She really gets me going. She sometimes asks me questions I can’t believe because she knows my style and flavor so well. That she does her research, then she asks questions. She helps me get more creative and inspired.
What do you do to take care of yourself?
I love to play racquetball and workout. To be honest, I’ve been horrible at it. Soon I’ll get back to it. For now, I like to ride my motorcycle to relax and zone out, but focus on the road, of course. I think finding something you enjoy doing can really relax you and reset you.
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
A messy station. I’ve been known to stop everyone just tidy up or clean.
How do you describe the vibe in your kitchen?
Even though it gets tense and chaotic, I try to keep things calm and casual.
What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
An inventor. Ever since I was little, I messed with things. I’d take things apart, screw it up and then turn it into something else. Even today I think of new things to invent.
What restaurant is your dream stage location and why?
What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit and why?
If Ferran Adrià ever opens El Bulli 2.0, the Dangs will be there. I came so close to dining there years ago when I traveled through Spain and into France to have Michelin food. It’s what inspired me to take a leap and move to Chicago to work at L2O to be a part of what it takes to get a Michelin star. Ferran Adrià inspired me. My first and only tattoo is located on my back with his pictograms and “el Bulli,” the French bulldog.
What city is your favorite eating vacation?
Hoi An, Vietnam. The product/produce can be physically seen grown or harvested from that area. It’s so fresh and you can’t help but to fall in love with this place. It’s my favorite place.
What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
I want to try to cook/learn more about Mexican cuisine. We’ve built our lives back up again in a neighborhood filled with businesses, people and food of that cuisine. Some of my kitchen guys are Mexican and their drive and dedication to cook my cuisine makes me want to learn more about theirs.