At age 21, chef Bobby Pradachith is the youngest member of the team at the city's most modern restaurant, Minibar. But although he's inspired by modern cooking and techniques, he's actually a traditionalist at heart, particularly when it comes to spreading the gospel of Lao cuisine.
When he's not working at Minibar, Pradachith is running front of house and working alongside his parents at Falls Church's beloved Bangkok Golden and the just-opened Thip Khao in Columbia Heights, where chef Seng Luangrath — Pradachith's mom — is introducing Washington to traditional Lao food. Eater DC talked to Pradachith, a NoVa native and Culinary Institute of America graduate, about his career so far and his goal of furthering the Lao food movement.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking when I was a young kid, but I wasn’t really interested. I just helped my mom and my aunts at family gatherings. In high school, I did the home ec class and got really into it. I heard that my school had a culinary arts program in the building. It was kind of cool because it had a full functioning restaurant-style kitchen. I got really serious about it and started liking the craft and the profession. Food Network influenced me as well.
It got more serious when my parents decided to open a restaurant four years ago. Which was really surprising. I knew that my mom always cooked a lot. She had a catering business. People said you should open a restaurant so she opened a restaurant. Now it’s a family business. I feel like I got to take food seriously so I can help them and continue what they are doing. I like the idea of nurturing people and making people happy with food.
How old were you when they opened the restaurant?
So you saw the whole process?
I didn’t get to see the whole process, they actually skipped a lot of steps because they took over from a family friend. He had multiple Bangkok Golden locations and was looking to sell the one in Falls Church. That’s when we took over. There’s not really much change to it. The only thing we really changed was a little bit of the staffing and the decoration and ambiance in the dining room. Everything else was kind of still the same. The only thing I got to see is how the restaurant is properly operated. I learned that in school, but you learn it and you don’t really get to experience it. When I decided I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to see how it is running a restaurant. There’s the long hours in the kitchen, but there’s also the business of it as well.
When I work at Minibar, I learn how to be better at my craft, but when I’m working at my parents' restaurants I learn how to manage. It’s cool that I’m doing both at the same time. My goal is that in five or six years when I feel like I'm ready, I can take over and have my parents take vacation. Learning and managing at the same time, hopefully it will all come together and turn out the way I want it to.
It’s so interesting that as you were getting into cooking, your family was getting into it as well.
Yeah, my mom cooked a lot when she was little. She cooked for all her siblings, she had like a mother role because my grandma worked a lot and my grandfather wasn’t around a lot. She liked the idea of nurturing and when we had family gatherings, she was always the person to coordinate what was on the table and what we were going to have. She would experiment so much. My kitchen at home was like a test kitchen. She wanted to get more into it, that’s why she ended up doing catering for awhile and it was a big hit and people were like, "You should do a restaurant."
She was totally in denial. She didn’t think she could do it, just because how much work is involved. My father on the other hand, when he came to America, he had a lot of experience doing front of house. He heard about it and he tried to encourage my mom to do it. I don’t know how they discovered Bangkok Golden, it was a family friend, but they took the opportunity. My mom just went straight into it and she loved it.
But then she only cooked Thai food. She wanted to introduce our culture and that’s when she started to introduce Lao food. It was a secret menu. It was only for Lao people. Then later on Lao people would bring their Western friends. Then later on their Western friends would bring all their other friends and say "Hey, we heard about this secret menu, we want to order something." So then that started to increase. It wasn’t secret anymore. Later on, as Lao food was getting popularized, we started adding more dishes and it became a full menu. We had a full Lao and full Thai menu.
But I would say in the past two years, 90 percent of the customers go for the Lao food. It’s really cool. I want people to understand our culture. I want people to know what Laos is, and introducing them through our food is the best way to get them to know. That’s why we are doing the second restaurant in D.C., actually most of our clientele at Bangkok Golden are from D.C. It’s crazy how they are super loyal to us.
For two years we’ve been thinking about it, thinking it’s going to be too much. But there’s been these opportunities and we took that chance. We’ve come to D.C. and basically we want to show our thank you to our D.C. customers. We want to make it easier for them and they can bring more of their friends and family. Also we feel like in D.C. there are so many adventurous eaters and people who want to look for something new. I think Lao food is still a new concept. That’s why we thought, 'Oh we should do D.C.' It’s really great to see how people are so excited and the buzz we’re already having.
How much input can you give your mom for the new restaurant?
She wants to do so much work, but I kind of fear that. I want to make sure that my father has responsibilities, I have responsibilities. Right now, my mom’s doing the cooking. I can’t be there all the time because I work at Minibar to gain more experience with my craft. Right now I’m managing all around, but mostly front of house, beverage, a little bit in the kitchen.
How did you get into Minibar?
Prior to my bachelor’s, I had a small stint at Toki. It was an awesome experience. The food is awesome, the people there are super talented. At the time, that’s when I met Johnny Spero. I knew of him because of his reputation and I knew that I wanted to work for him. But then I had to go back to school. He had Suna for awhile and I was like after school, I gotta go work for him. But unfortunately things didn’t work out for him and Suna closed and I was bummed. I was like, I hope he doesn’t leave D.C. I don’t want to leave D.C. because I want to be as close to my family as possible.
Then I found out that he got a position at Minibar. When I was deciding my externship I wanted to work at Minibar, but that’s when Minibar was a 16-seat restaurant. They had a really tiny staff and me there wasn’t going to do much. When they relocated to a bigger space and they said that Johnny was there, I had to take the opportunity. And every three months the CIA hosts a career fair, and ThinkFood Group was there. I talked to one of the ladies who works for the home office. I gave her my resume and I brought up, "Have you been to Bangkok Golden?" She said, "That’s my favorite restaurant," and I said, "My parents own that." She was freaking out and I said I kind of know Johnny Spero and she was like "Oh, really." She said she’d contact him right away.
And a few days later, he emailed me and asked when do you want to stage? I staged during July 4th weekend, he was super knowledgeable, super nice. The stage went really well. He’s like, when you’re ready, contact me and I was like I want to work for you. For me, if I want to gain more experience, I want to work at the best restaurants I can think of, and I always wanted to work with Johnny and this was the opportunity, so I took it.
So far it’s going really well. He’s always doing something new and inventive and I always ask him because I want to know what he’s doing. He’s tough on me, but just because he wants me to be a better cook. I love it there, it’s different than what I thought because I haven’t had a lot of experience doing modern techniques, modern foods. I don’t want to go there to become a super modern chef, but I go there for the experience. Maybe later on, I was thinking of opening a modern version of Lao food, but not to the point where I break tradition. Seeing the techniques and the methods, I want to see how can I incorporate it. The people that work there are super talented, super driven. If I work with these people, they will help me to push myself.
People wonder why I work so much. I only work so much because i really care about my profession, and for me, at a young age, I can’t lose time or opportunities that I could have. So I just go for it.
Are you one of the younger people there?
I’m actually the youngest person there. I’m the baby there. They literally call me Baby instead of Bobby. It was funny but then later on it kinda got annoying. Alright, you guys can stop. Most of them are like mid-twenties, thirties. They are like, 'You’re really young.' It doesn’t matter to me. The only thing that matters is getting better every day.
If you haven’t tried Lao food, what dish do you recommend?
When people at the restaurant tell us they haven’t had Lao food, we like to give them very classical introductory courses, like naem khao, which is the crispy rice salad. Sai oua, Lao sausage or tam muk hoong, payapa salad. Also introducing sticky rice, this is our staple food and how we eat it. The coconut curry noodle soup with cabbage and bean sprout. Our flavors are so unique, it’s similar to Southeast Asian flavors like Vietnam and Thailand, but I would say our flavors are more pungent, funky, fermented with the shrimp paste. It’s acidic and salty. It’s more fresh. Lao don’t use a lot of frying with oil, they do steaming and grilling and satay-ing.
Will diners see you at Thip Khao and Bangkok Golden on your days off from Minibar?
They'll definitely see me on my days off because I'll be in the front. I'll be the face of the front of house for two days a week. Minibar closes on Sunday and Monday so that gives me time to be there.
I always put my family first in everything. My parents work so much. I never seen my parents work so much in the past four years. I want to help them as much as possible. In the end, when I take over, I want them to relax as much as possible.
A month before I graduated, my parents were like "You're working with us right away." I'm very confident in my decisions, but I want to still learn and I want to be persistent in my learning. I need time to do that. It took awhile for them to understand.
My mom started to understand it, and my dad still didn't understand it. All my cousins, aunts, and uncles talked to him. He finally understands what I meant. He thought after I said that, that I was going to leave, that I wasn't going to be part of the restaurant. He thought I was going to do my own thing. I'm like, 'No, I'm actually trying to help the restaurant. I don't want to be this ambitious 21-year-old trying to take over the restaurant. I learned human resources, managerial, accounting, through all these classes I've taken, but it's not the same as when you experience them. I want to learn how the system works and me working at these best restaurants and how they take their work very seriously, I've got to understand that more before I go to the restaurant.' At that point, he truly understands it.
The main goal for me is doing what my mom is doing, which is the Lao food movement and hopefully inspiring future Lao Americans to not be afraid to open a Lao restaurant. Right now and back then, there are so many restaurants that are opened by Lao people but it's not a Lao restaurant. It can be a Peruvian chicken restaurant, Thai restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant, Chinese restaurant. We've had so many people email my mom and say how inspiring she's been. She's kind of an ambassador for Lao food movement. I hope to be the forefront of the movement too, and I want my people to join with me and show who we are through food.
Are they proud of Minibar too?
They’re proud of me. They know Johnny, too, and they thank him a lot of the opportunity he’s given me. They fully support my decisions and hopefully one day they can eat there. I’m actually surprising them, trying to make a reservation for them. They do so much, they support me through school, I gotta do something for them.