Donny Sirisavath—the chef and owner of lauded Lao restaurant Khao Noodle Shop in Dallas, Texas—has been interested in food for as long as he can remember. In fact, it was this curiosity and obsession with trying new things that landed him in the hospital to get his stomach pumped after mistaking a box of rat poison for Nerds candy (in his defense, he was around five and the rat poison made the same clanky sound as a box of Nerds).
“A lot of my childhood was just trying to survive with refugee parents and eat what was available to us,” he explains, chuckling. “I was a curious kid and got into things that I didn’t need to get to.”
Growing up, Sirisavath spent his childhood in the kitchen with his Lao mother, who always provided him with cooking tasks, passing on her knowledge to him. Sometimes he pounded chilies and garlic in a large wooden mortar and pestle, known as a krok, or chopped vegetables. He never shied away from funkier ingredients: “My mom just gave me all kinds of stuff—fish sauce, shrimp paste, just funky stinky stuff.” When Sirisavath’s mom opened a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas after moving there in 1989, Sirisavath was there bussing tables and helping out.