At the start of a weeknight meal service, a young, curly-haired commis, or assistant chef, asked his boss if he was plating an oyster dish correctly. Chef James Syhabout studied the plate for a nanosecond before directing the commis to rearrange the layers. Unlike a reality TV kitchen, the Michelin-starred chef of Commis didn’t shout at or berate his employee. Syhabout answered the question simply, neutrally, without an emotional flourish. The commis nodded, replied with an affirmative acknowledgment and returned to his station for a second attempt.
Dressed in black, Syhabout stood facing the prep station. He appeared to be ready, willing and able to answer any of the other three sous chefs’ questions or to take up knife and tweezers himself to finish one of his meticulously composed dishes. But the thought of his intervening began to seem unnecessary. Each chef was stoically attending to the precise arrangement of ingredients like jewelers hovering over the settings of precious stones. Their faces were marked by the same, concentrated expression. They largely ignored the presence of an outsider looking in on them.
The resulting dishes impress with a dazzling sense of finesse. I tasted a quenelle of off-white parsley root, whipped to a creamy consistency and topped with a few dark briny dots of Kaluga caviar. Surrounded by a miniature moat the color of a melted emerald, the sauce inexplicably combined French sorrel and apple molasses. It was as if the chef had tapped into the heretofore dormant sweetness inside sorrel leaves that had only woken up on the palates of forest creatures.
In his 2018 cookbook, Hawker Fare: Stories and Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai and Lao Roots, Syhabout tells his origin story. The 300+ pages include biographical anecdotes, recipes, photographs and a comprehensive glossary of herbs and sauces for “The Lao and Isan Pantry.” It’s notable that his first cookbook doesn’t lead with the name Commis, or recipes from Commis’ prix fixe menu—even though the chef opened Commis in 2009 before opening (and later closing) Hawker Fare’s Oakland location.
In his approach to fine dining, Chef James Syhabout’s Commis dons the carefully sculpted mask of haute cuisine. The staff at Commis is uniformed in various black and white ensembles. The décor and general ambiance conjure soothing words—sedate, subtle and subdued. To all appearances, the dishes are informed by European culinary techniques—by the chef’s training at the California Culinary Academy, by his years working for Chef David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos and by his travels abroad to investigate the kitchens of celebrated restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli.
When Syhabout spoke with me after my visit to Commis, he had just been to a farmers’ market where he’d found fresh persimmons (he likes to simply peel and then eat them as is). He drew a parallel between restaurants like Commis and the performing arts, such as ballet and the symphony. “There’s a certain amount of dedication and craft,” the chef said. “And a lot of discipline. We’re used to mise en place and organization,” and noticing little details like observing if a diner is left- or right-handed. “If you’re paying attention, you create a very bespoke experience.”
But underneath the shimmering lights of that luxe façade, the chef incorporates ingredients from his Lao heritage onto Commis’ expensive plates. For Syhabout, MSG isn’t verboten. “Natural MSG is in everything,” he explained. “Tomatoes. Parmesan cheese, cheese in general. Anchovies. That’s why people like it. The whole ‘MSG is bad for you’ is bullshit.” Bitterness, he adds, is the most complex flavor profile, and umami. “If you go out to eat in Thailand or Laos, to a noodle stall on the street, your condiments will be salt, sugar, fish sauce, chili sauce and MSG,” he said.
Outside of coffee, bitterness on the plate is unfamiliar to most American palates. “It took a long time for people to like kimchi,” the chef notes. In talking with some of his Korean friends, back in the 1970s, they used to serve sauerkraut and tabasco and called it “kimchi.” Nowadays, the people who shop at the Korean plaza at 27th Street and Telegraph Avenue, where Syhabout grew up, come from a variety of diverse Bay Area communities.
That faint note of sweetness I tasted from the apple molasses might be his way of catering to a Western diner. But even die-hard fans could still find plenty of bitter notes in the combination of parsley root, caviar and sorrel. Little by little, the chef said, he has been introducing fish sauce in some of his dishes. Instead of using salt, it’s a reliable way to coax out those umami flavors.
For five years, Syhabout commuted an hour each way to Manresa in the South Bay while he was living in Oakland. The genesis of Commis dawned on the chef over time. He asked himself the question, “Why can’t a fine dining, Michelin-starred restaurant like Manresa exist in the East Bay?” He acknowledges the presence and influence of Chez Panisse, but he wanted to create “something more contemporary, more modern and more personal.”
After having worked in one and two star Michelin-rated restaurants, Syhabout realized that he’d been part of the teams that earned those stars. If he could achieve that kind of success for other people’s restaurants, the chef wanted to know if he was capable of earning those stars on his own. The stars are definitely a goal, and an ongoing one. “When you put in so much hard work, you gotta have something materialize,” he explained. “It [a Michelin star] makes you feel good about yourself. It’s more like self-esteem for me.”
The chef accepts that it takes a certain type of personality that pursues Michelin stars. “I have to admit I’m pretty much O.C.D. I love 90-degree angles, clean surfaces. I don’t want to see a grain of salt on the counter. It freaks me out.” But when it comes down to what he and his staff accomplish every day, the stars aren’t the driving force. “It’s the discipline of it, exercising the mind, exercising the craft.”
Having established the Commis name and brand, Syhabout wants the restaurant to get better at what it does with every passing year. To do that, the chef makes another analogy, this time to sports. “It’s repetition, right? Sometimes you have to tweak things because systems aren’t working,” he said. “Or we find a way to do things either faster, more efficiently, until it becomes second nature to us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic posed a particularly difficult problem for prix fixe menus like the ones Commis serves. As Syhabout put it, for a 12-course meal, “How many to-go containers are people going to throw in the trash?” In March of 2020, the chef furloughed 90% of his employees. He still had to pay rent, utilities, the alarm company, workers’ compensation and health insurance. “Somehow, we had to get our doors open, but how were we going to do it?” he asked.
After being open for over a decade, Syhabout understood that, despite the circumstances, people still want to celebrate the milestones of life: promotions, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Commis shut its doors for six weeks so he and his remaining staff could figure out how to come up with an abbreviated version of the menu. “We did family-style meals for two people at a much more reasonable price point,” he recalled. “And we turned the bar into a wine and cocktail shop.” The menu changed every week, despite having to work around the purveyors’ new schedules. Some farmers were just not going to farmers’ markets either. “So how do we get product?”
“We had to think outside of the box and make it work,” the chef said. The staff still wore suits and uniforms. The reheating instructions were still very specific and regimented. And the neighborhood responded. “I’m glad to have a very talented team. We all collaborate together.” But when the restrictions started to relax, some of his furloughed employees had moved away from California for good. “Getting staff to come back was hard, when people just wanted to feel safe,” he said.
For now, Commis is back to regular dining hours. Chef Syhabout is standing at attention with his many chefs, readying each elaborately constructed course for delectation. Masks are, temporarily, a thing of the past.
Commis, open Tues to Sat 5-10pm, 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. 510.653.3902. commisrestaurant.com.