Joe Hatch-Surisook of Sen Yai Sen Lek in Minneapolis
We’re familiar with what local chefs serve in their restaurants. What about the food choices they make at home? This series offers a glimpse into what chefs are eating when they step outside their own establishment.
Joe Hatch-Surisook and his wife Holly opened Sen Yai Sen Lek in Northeast Minneapolis in September 2008. The Thai menu is influenced by Hatch-Surisook’s early childhood in Bangkok and his experiences watching his mom and family cook in Chicago. Prior to opening the restaurant, Hatch-Surisook worked as a baker at Chet’s Taverna and Nicollet Island Inn. He and Holly also sold baked goods (called Frejas Breads, after his two children Freya and Jasper) at the Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market.
On growing up with Thai cuisine
I lived in Bangkok until I was six years old. Then we moved to Chicago. At the time, there was a strong Thai community in that city, with lots of temples and festivals, so I was still surrounded by Thai culture. My mom cooked a lot, and I grew up helping here and there. I was never pressed into any duties other than taking out the garbage, stuff like that. But I wanted to help her in the kitchen. It wasn’t necessarily because I was interested in food. I just wanted to help her. Only when we had a big event was I pressed into duties, like skewering the chicken for a satay or rolling the spring rolls.
When I was learning to cook and trying to cook Thai at home on my own I went to my mother for her recipes. I wanted to replicate the same flavors I grew up eating. Sometimes she’d have specific measurements. Other times she would just tell me what ingredients went into a dish, so you would have to know what it was supposed to taste like. Now when I taste the Thai food I cook, it tastes like I remember it to be. My mom would let me know if it didn’t. She has before. She’ll say, “Joe it’s too sweet, or salty, or there’s too much of this.”
In Thai cuisine there are supposed to be definitive flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter. But I also include in that a spicy and a neutral flavor. So there are six flavor components that you want to try to touch when you are having Thai food. Whether that comes in a single plate or a communal meal, you want to hit as many of those flavors as you can. Take a Thai lettuce wrap. From my understanding it was a dish that developed in the kitchen. At the end of the day, the kitchen staff would put together whatever they had left over. My version has toasted coconut, little pieces of lime with rind, peanuts, dried shrimp, Thai chilies, ginger, and red onion. You eat it with a green and a sauce. When you take a bite out of that, you have flavors and textures that are all very distinctive, but they work well together. You have all your flavors in one bite. If you can’t find all of those flavors in one dish, the idea is to get all the flavors in one meal. That’s why there might be a lot of dishes at one table: a hot curry that is toned down with coconut milk, some raw vegetables with a spicy / astringent dip, and some simple stir-fried vegetables.
On how opening a restaurant influenced the family meal
Since we’re so busy with the restaurant, there isn’t much time to cook at home anymore. When we were cooking a lot at home we ate a variety of foods. For a typical week’s meal, we would have one Thai dish, a pasta dish, and some comfort foods, like mashed potatoes, pot roast, and chili. Before we opened the restaurant I did most of the cooking. Now my wife does. She likes to think she is not a good cook, but I think she cooks quite well. She’s become more liberal about not focusing on recipes, and knowing what to add and what not to add. She realizes it works out just fine.
We still like a variety of food, but we do come back to our mainstays. For example, right now I’m making mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli all the time. While they might not be imaginative, they make everyone happy. Salads used to make their way on to our table a lot more, when we had more time to garden. They were nothing fancy. Tomatoes were sliced and sprinkled with salt, and we considered that a treat. Broccoli from our garden was steamed. We like to use a quick high heat on vegetables so they start wilting but still have some crunch.
Now a typical day is as follows: Breakfast is toast with butter, sometimes Nutella for the kids. I come into the restaurant after I drop them off at school. I don’t always eat my lunch here, not because I’m eating anywhere else, but because I might miss lunch. I eat when I’m hungry, and sometimes I’m not hungry until later in the afternoon. My body has stores of food it can pull from. I pick up my kids from school and we’ll come back here. We’ll have a snack: sticky rice, fried tofu, or wontons. Then I’m here until close. On Fridays and Saturday nights Holly is here. The kids are either with a friend or a sitter, or sometimes they’ll be here at the restaurant. One runs to-go food up front and the other helps seat people until it gets too busy. Since I’m at the restaurant so much, I’ll often eat something off the menu for my dinner. I like our fried rice a lot, and I usually add Chinese broccoli. I think about how often I eat here and I’m surprised I don’t get tired of this menu.
On eating local
We were exposed to one or two co-ops in the Pacific Northwest (Holly attended graduate school in Washington). When we came to Minnesota there was the Wedge, Seward Co-op, Mississippi Market, and so on, and it was hard not to be aware of those places. The more we were exposed to the concept of eating local, the more we realized it was something that was important to us and our values. Using local ingredients falls under one of Sen Yai Sen Lek’s four principles. Local food is important at the restaurant because that’s what we try to do at home. For us to separate what we do outside the restaurant and what we do inside the restaurant wouldn’t be fair to our customers. I want them to benefit from our values at home. But at the same time, we need to draw from the global market. While it’s great to be aware of where our food comes from and support a local economy, we still live in a global society.
I think my kids are interested in where their food comes from. The big summer treat at home are potatoes that grow in our yard. Other than last summer, we’ve been fortunate to have potatoes for the last three or four years. The process of digging for the potatoes is a lot of fun. The kids ask if they can grab the pitchfork and dig and we let them go ahead and get dirty. We usually prepare them in a simple way. We’ll boil or steam them, add a little butter, and chives or green onion.
2422 Central Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
OWNER / CHEF: Joe and Holly Hatch-Surisook / Joe Hatch-Surisook
Mon – Thu 11am-9pm
Fri – Sat 11am-10pm
BAR: Wine and beer
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / On weekends
ENTREE RANGE: $8-14