The best part of my job at Flow is learning the stories of everyday folks on both sides of the cameras. What a joy to be able to freeze frame someone’s busy life and capture it on film, heart-to-lens-to-heart. When Forgotten Harvest – metro Detroit’s surplus food rescuers and distributors – asked us to produce their Chop Down Hunger cooking competition with local chefs and Food Network star Amanda Freitag, my appetite was piqued. Here was an opportunity to not only raise awareness and support for the worthiest of causes, but to simultaneously lift up those who work hard and smart each day in restaurant kitchens.
So I found myself in a kitchen made out of a shipping box, chatting it up with an unassuming but fiercely-spirited woman who fled conflict half a world away to start Detroit’s first Thai restaurant - and grew it into a national retail brand and avant-garde local food laboratory, colliding cuisines of polar opposite origin like some massive particle physics experiment.
Roll the cameras, Flow…
Genevieve Vang, founder of the popular Bangkok96 restaurant, remembers when she first met Jon Hartzell of Detroit Shipping Company – the Cass Corridor indoor/outdoor bar and food court constructed entirely of shipping containers. He was clear with her: he loved her existing Dearborn restaurant, which takes its name from the year of its birth, 1996. But he wanted a completely revamped menu to fit Detroit Shipping Company’s urban chic vibe. Think Thai food for the bar crowd – less hearty rice stir-fry and more crunchy, savory street snack, or late-night binge-worthy curry bowl.
Vang was no stranger to reinventing herself: she’s an escaped refugee from Laos who opened metro Detroit’s first Thai restaurant in 1989, staffing it with family who share her tremendous knack for bold cooking. She had bought out an existing Chinese restaurant in a hotel, and acknowledges that the first year or two were not easy. Thai food was far from the trendy staple it is today in the U.S., and many customers would send their food back to the kitchen, unhappily surprised when what they ordered didn’t “taste Chinese.” That’s what it felt like to be a trailblazer to Vang: slightly out of place. It didn’t slow her down.
BEFORE PAD THAI WAS COOL
The explosive growth of Thai food in America might (just slightly) predate Vang, but it’s not hyperbole to say she’s been the Southeast Asian cuisine’s preeminent popularizer in metro Detroit. She’s also helped fuse the uniquely Thai flavor pallet – the citrusy freshness of lime and lemongrass, the rich coconut milk and turmeric-laden curries, the bold red and green chiles - with parallel genres like Chinese-inspired bao buns or even southern-style fried chicken. All of this makes for an eclectic menu, scribbled in chalk vertically down a tall blackboard to the left of the kitchen ordering window. (Every inch of space is precious in her shipping-container-turned-commercial-kitchen, in which she somehow manages to fit four staff at the height of a Friday bar night rush.) When we visited, though, she alone prepared lunch for our crew in a dizzying display of culinary gymnastics that left us scratching our heads. I have to say: the red curry stir-fry (vegan) was one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted.
FROM REFUGEE TO ‘CRAZY CHEF'
Vang will tell you that her husband called her crazy when she set out to again reinvent casual Thai dining for the bar crowd, but she wears the title of Crazy Chef with pride. Only a healthy dose of craziness would lead a chef to remix the classic dish pad thai into a burrito-like roll, sliced lengthwise like sushi for an optimal finger-food sidekick; or to co-found an entire boxed retail food line, Thai Feast Foods, with her son.
Whatever it is that drives her, Vang no doubt gives it her all – just watching her in action can be both exhilarating and exhausting. So when the piping hot food hit the table and she took a moment to pause as she eagerly awaited our taste buds' reactions, I snuck in a final question: what do you like to eat when it’s just you at home after a long day at work.
Vang’s response: a good piece of bread, salami, and cheese. I love cheese.
Catch Genevieve Vang of Bankgok96 and three other local celebrity chefs – Manal Hussein of For the Love of Sugar, Shanel DeWalt of the Kellogg Company, and Allie Lyttle of LaLa’s Ann Arbor – as they compete in Chop Down Hunger, a benefit cook-off for Forgotten Harvest, hosted by Food Network star, Chef Amanda Freitag, on October 14th at 7pm. Exclusive on-demand viewing ticket code available at forgottenharvest.org/2021chopdownhunger.