THERE’S A FAD FOR MARKETING RESTAURANTS THROUGH social media by getting Instagram users to tweet pictures from their meals. (We talked about it in the most recent Fooditor Radio.) Keng Sisavath is a reformed Foodie Instagrammer. And a born-again preacher for the international diversity of Chicago’s food scene.
Sisavath, 36, was born on the Laos-Thailand border in a refugee camp; after his family found sponsors to come to the U.S., he was raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He grew up with both traditional home-cooked Lao food and the American food scene.
“I had a blog about six years ago. And I traveled all over America. Then I picked here to live because it was close to home, and I ate at all the places I saw on TV. And after I did that, I’m like, where’s all the food? So then I started exploring myself, and there’s a lot of food here from an out of towner perspective that you wouldn’t think that they had, because I didn’t know where to look.”
“After that, I thought that I’m going to start a little platform, because that’s the only way I can have a say. Because I don’t have any education in media, or writing, or all that stuff.”
He started an Instagram account called Strangefoodschicago, and soon found himself swept up into the social life available to anyone doing media about food. “If you do it long enough, you understand that it’s more about them going out, getting the VIP treatment and the free food. The ‘me me me.’ I was like that for a while. Then the owner of Saigon Bistro slapped me out of it. He said, get off your high horse, your number of followers doesn’t mean nothing. Be real to yourself, and don’t expect anything from anybody.”
Sisavath, who works as a dental technician, doing 3-D modeling to make new teeth, turned his focus back to Chicago’s family-run, traditional restaurants, and became an advocate for the places he liked to others in Chicago food media. He ate Thai food with Mike Sula and pointed Steve Dolinsky to a Lao festival held up in Woodstock. (I first met him at the Jonathan Gold dinner.) He advised his favorite restaurants about how to appeal to more customers outside their own group. Most of all, like those of us who started LTHForum more than a decade ago did back then, he burned with the desire to see his discoveries publicized and beloved, and talked them up anywhere he could. He even started making videos, which reminds me of somebody. (See them on his Facebook account.)
And he decided that if people wouldn’t go to all the places where he loves to eat, he would bring all the places where he loves to eat to somewhere that they would go.
THE BASIC FACTS ABOUT SISAVATH’S FIRST Strange Foods Chicago Festival: it will be Sunday, November 6, from 1 to 4 p.m., at Moonlight Studios, 1446 W. Kinzie. Advance tickets will be $40, which gets you all you can eat of the offerings of the restaurants he’s recruited, whatever you want to drink (another Instagrammer, Jed Schwartz aka @Chicagofoodevents, is arranging for that), and some of the proceeds will go to a Schaumburg-based charity called Feed My Starving Children, which works with children in many countries. There will also be dance performances by traditional dancers from different countries. Tickets are here.
So far he has about 15 restaurants lined up, but he’s working on having twice as many. When we met at one of them, Tanuki Sushi in Lakeview, he rattled off some names that gives you a good sense of the variety from all around the world he plans to showcase. Many are Asian, from the Thai restaurant Immm Rice and Beyond to Saigon Bistro (I went there with him a month or so back, and it’s the best of the Vietnamese Cajun seafood places I’ve tried) to the Malaysia restaurant Serai. But there’s also the Moroccan restaurant Shokran, the South American La Humita, and of course Mexican, including two places which bill themselves as Mexican street food, El Carrito and Jarabe.
For sweets, they’ll range from the Cambodian-owned Somethin’ Sweet Doughnuts to Snow Dragon (Taiwanese shaved ice desserts) to a company in Georgia he met at the Lao festival, who make a traditional Lao dessert of sweet rice stuffed in a bamboo stalk.
I’m just going to talk to these restaurants and wing it. Bring my favorite restaurants under one roof—and bring the owners, because a lot of these owners have never met.
“I go from restaurant to restaurant and talk to them in detail because it’s hard enough to get these restaurants to do an event like this, it’s another thing to educate them on doing tasting portions, because they’ve never done that before,” he says. “So I’m working with them to make it as authentic as possible. Also, tell them to bring the flag of their country, to decorate their station. So when you walk in there, it’s almost like going from one world to another world.” He picked the time of Sunday afternoon because he knew it would work for the restaurants—”I picked that time deliberately because it’s dead hours for these restaurants.”
A few things will have a fusion-y feel to them, like Tanuki’s Japanese tacos, but most will be traditional dishes, authentic to their countries of origin. A few will push the exotic foods factor—Immm Rice and Beyond is talking about doing an intestines dish from Thailand, and Jarabe is talking about doing an item legendary at Maxwell Street, eyeball tacos. That brings me to the question of the name, which would certainly have gotten a white organizer grief for othering non-European cuisines.
“I didn’t like that name [for his Instagram account] but it was the only way I could catch people’s attention,” he says. “I couldn’t call it Authentic Foods Chicago, because a lot of places say ‘authentic food.’ It doesn’t really mean anything. But ‘strange’ goes beyond that.”
“When I went to a food and wine festival, I saw a lot of restaurants doing a tasting, and I said to myself, how about we do one for the family-owned restaurants that don’t have the opportunity? I said, I’m going to give it a shot, give these restaurants the recognition. I’ve never done this before, so I’m just going to talk to these restaurants and wing it. Bring my favorite restaurants under one roof—and bring the owners, because a lot of these owners have never met,” he says.
If he can pull it off well enough this first time, maybe it will grow and show off even more diversity and creativity in future years, like Baconfest. So far Sisavath seems to attracting the right kind of genuinely small, interesting and authentic places—in part because he has the model of so many street festivals in Chicago where you see the same not-very-authentic professional vendors from one to the next.
“I want it to not just be a festival that they do so they can make money,” he says. “I want it to give everyone an experience, and bring them more awareness of the cultures out there. What they really want to eat, and really cook. It’s one place where they won’t have to be afraid to serve really strong flavors, because the guests, they know what they’re coming for.”
“I don’t really consider myself a foodie. It’s not like I’m addicted to food, it’s more about letting them know what’s out there,” he says.
Michael Gebert would totally try eyeball tacos, as editor of Fooditor.
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