‘Come Eat’ – in sensational Lao style.
In what is likely one of the most bizarre versions of six degrees of separation ever, Oklahoma City’s Plaza District is connected to Luang Prabang — the former royal city of Laos — by only four degrees of separation. That means that if you’re reading this, you’re connected to Sisavang Vatthana, the final Laotian king, by only five degrees. The connector is James Beard Award-nominated Chef Jeff Chanchaleune, chef-owner of Ma Der Lao Kitchen.
“My grandfather was the postmaster general for the king, so he had to flee the country in 1975,” Chanchaleune said. “The communists were overrunning the country, and no one knew what would happen to the families who worked for the king.”
What happened to loyalists after the country fell to the Soviet-backed Pathet Lao was typically relocation to the infamous re-education camps, where the king and his wife would die — allegedly of malaria — in 1978. Chanchaleune’s grandfather rounded up his family and crossed the border into Thailand, where he settled in a refugee camp before being airlifted to Altus Air Force Base in southwest Oklahoma. The chef’s mother, then a teen, followed in the early 1980s.
His father, Sengdalack, who goes by Lack, and his mother, Naly, met at Northwest Classen High School; he was from the royal city, and she was a country girl, but both were bound by their commonality as refugees and by being part of a very small community — it still is — of Lao immigrants in the metro. After high school, Lack enrolled at the American Culinary Federation, where he became a certified chef. His career includes executive roles at popular upscale OKC restaurants Eagle’s Nest and Michael’s Grill.
“My father is the one who pulled me into the kitchen,” Chanchaleune said. “Eventually, he opened his own American-style diner in Mustang called J & L Restaurant, and when he closed it, we moved to Guthrie. That’s how I ended up at Guthrie High School.”
Perhaps this is a good time to pause and imagine a Lao teenager who was headed to high school in a small town north of Oklahoma City, where, according to his recollection, he was one of only two Asian students and who was coming from a country with which most Oklahomans had little familiarity. The only reference point his classmates had was an episode of Mike Judge’s “King of the Hill” in which title character Hank Hill has a conversation with his Lao neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone.
“So are you Chinese or Japanese?”
“I live in California last 20 year, but first come from Laos.”
“Laos. We Laotian.”
“The ocean? What ocean?” another character asks.
Chanchaleuene remembers the ocean part as the only semi-joke about Asians he heard from his classmates. “It was the only thing about Laos many of them had ever heard,” he said. “No one at the school even knew where Laos is. My friends would come to my house, and the funky smells coming from the kitchen were all new. They loved my mom’s food, though, especially the sticky rice with Golden Mountain Seasoning.”
At Northwest Classen, his younger sister Jeslyn Chanchaleune, bar manager and cocktail genius at Ma Der, had a similarly warm reception. “I never felt like a minority in high school,” she said. “It was mostly Hispanic kids then, and there was a handful of Lao students. We all knew each other, and even now, many of them call my mother ‘Mom.’ She always had an open invitation for our friends to eat with us.”
The connection of food and hospitality has been made uncountable times, and when adding the connector of culture, the trinity embodies what Chef Jeff is doing at Ma Der. He’s not just cooking, and he’s not just putting himself and his food on the table; he’s offering a glimpse into Lao culture. The flavors run from bright to umami, and from zippy to pungent, but the balance he achieves in all the dishes is impressive.
“I want Lao guests to be proud of the food here when they introduce their friends to it, and I want them to be proud there is a Lao restaurant moving Lao food forward,” Chanchaleune said. “I’ve tweaked the recipes a bit, but I’ve stayed true to Lao cuisine.”
His problem is similar to that faced by young Korean and Vietnamese chefs who want to present their traditional cuisine with a modern, cheffy twist. When Chae, the utterly brilliant modern Korean concept on NW 23rd St. (R.I.P.), first opened, the owner and chef would get regular complaints from older guests who were upset that the restaurant did not offer banchan, the bowls of pickled vegetables and other specialty items that accompany meals in traditional Korean restaurants. That the food could be modern and still respect tradition seemed to be a hard right turn for the traditionally minded.
Immigrant populations bring recipes with them from their home countries, and three generations later, without connections to the cuisine in their old homes, the food ossifies into the styles, techniques and ingredients the immigrant population brought with them. It stops evolving and can be a comfortable reminder of home for the original generation, even as successive generations become more acclimated to the new culture. Chefs raised in the new culture are understandably eager to bring their education and experience to the cuisine of their childhood. That can create a disconnect between generations, while those outside the community remain blissfully unaware of the conflict.
Forward movement — a phrase that is admittedly a matter of perspective — requires sensitivity and respect, and it’s this challenge that Chanchaleune has mastered at Ma Der. His approach might not have been intentional, but it certainly provided the best way forward: He worked on recipes with his mother and grandmother, as well as James Beard Award-finalist Chef Seng Luangrath of D.C. area Lao restaurants Padaek and Thip Khao.
“I asked Chef Seng how she brought Lao food to U.S. diners,” Chanchaleune said. “She gave me great feedback, and the last time she was in Dallas, she drove up here to eat at Ma Der, and she again offered excellent feedback. The approach is to keep the food as traditional as possible while using techniques, seasonings and high-quality ingredients to move it forward.”
The best examples are his pork belly dishes. Pork is not a traditional protein in Laos, but Chef Jeff loves it, so he offers it at Ma Der. He adopted the same approach at Gun — now Goro, where he remains a partner. To help translate, he used catfish for the kara age dishes because it was more familiar to Oklahomans; catfish is popular in Lao cuisine, as well.
“Lao food is regional, just as it is in most countries,” Chanchaleune said. “The food in the south is more rustic and more pungent, and the food in the north is fresher and lighter, with citrus and herbs. Both have the same base proteins, though: beef, chicken and fish, especially catfish. You don’t find pork in Lao cooking as a rule.”
He grew up eating his father’s northern food and his mother’s southern cooking. “I could tell they were different, but as a kid I didn’t understand regionality,” he said. “I just learned to love both.”
You can taste both in his dishes at Ma Der, too. If there is a divisive dish on the menu, it’s the papaya salad. The Thai version is fruity to the point of sweet, but papaya salad from southern Laos is made with fish sauce — some diners unfamiliar with the style would say too much fish sauce — leading to a funky, umami flavor quite unlike what you expect when the menu says “papaya.” His larb, meanwhile, is popping with acid, fresh greens, zippy ingredients and a satisfying freshness that leaves you wanting more. There is much to be loved in both approaches, and Chanchaleune nails the balance throughout the menu.
“I’ve been saying it for years and I’ll continue to say it: Jeff is the best chef in Oklahoma,” said Rachel Cope, founder and CEO of 84 Hospitality, the parent company of Goro Ramen and Izakaya. “I mean this with no disrespect to some of the other greats, but the guy’s imagination and palate are really incredible. He can cook anything, and he always manages to put his own spin on it, so you know it’s his just from tasting it. He’s also the most humble and hard-working. I’m proud to call him a partner at Goro and wish him all the good things in the future.”
Chanchaleune is easy to like, which is an important quality in hospitality. Matched with a tremendous work ethic, it makes him a chef that other chefs like, too. His enthusiasm for Ma Der is bone deep and clearly genuine, so much so that it’s infectious, and his pedagogical approach is more as a friend and fan of food encouraging you to love what he loves via experience than a chef talking down to unenlightened diners. It’s honestly the best approach when the menu contains words like jaew, larb, nam khao and sai oua.
Some of that is just Chef Jeff, but some is the family he was raised in. He met his wife Rachel (nee Arthur) Chanchaleune when they both worked at In the Raw in Norman. She speaks of the experience of marrying into a Lao family with visible fondness.
“There was never any ‘outsider’ talk,” she said. “They were so welcoming, and [although] there was some amusement at a white girl eating Lao country food, I was never allowed to feel out of place. This was my home; they were my family.”
She is an excellent guide to educating Oklahoma diners who know little to nothing about Lao food. “My experience with Asian food growing up was a favorite Chinese buffet, and my experience of seafood was going to Red Lobster for my dad’s birthday. Papaya salad was a tough one, and so was the fresh fish, but now I’m OK with both. I always loved the sai oua.”
Loving the sai oua is the easiest thing to do for anyone who loves house-made sausage — or what is easily a top 10 dish in Oklahoma City. While it’s not designed for this, adding it to the nam khao (crispy rice salad) is so delicious that we’ll just call it an evolution of the cuisine rather than some westerner mashing two dishes together.
While Oklahoma City has slowly become more appreciative of what Chanchaleune is doing, the rest of the country’s progress is faster. After positive words in Saveur, the national press started hearing about this small Lao joint in Oklahoma City. On his birthday this year, Chef Jeff woke to discover that Bon Appetit had named Ma Der the best new restaurant in Oklahoma, and two weeks later, the New York Times included him in its annual list of 50 favorite restaurants in the U.S.
“Our business has doubled, and it started the Thursday night the Bon Appetit article dropped,” Chanchaleune said. “Once we made the Times, we started getting guests from all over the country.”
As if having nationally famous food on plates and in bowls (his khao soi soup is a must) wasn’t enough, Ma Der also features one of the city’s best cocktail programs thanks to the aforementioned Jeslyn Chanchaleune and Daniel Johnson. In Oklahoma, it’s a rare thing for an Asian restaurant to have a stellar bar program, but Ma Der’s is special. The tamarind whisky sour will convince any cocktail fan that they’ve arrived at a bar that understands craft.
Add to that Ma Der’s Monday pop-ups, when Chef Jeff plays with flavor combinations that stretch the parameters of Lao food, and which are so popular they typically sell out, and we’re left to wonder how he is able to do everything so well.
“I’m just trying to make Ma Der what I want it to be, expand the menus and work on the pop-ups,” he said.
That’s the humility that Cope mentioned, and we’re grateful he decided to combine that humility with hard work and natural talent — and more than that, we’re grateful he’s trusted us enough to try to translate Lao food for us.