In early June, Lon Symensma, the exec chef of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, along with his co-sous chef, Jeff Stoneking, traveled to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, a two-week journey that all started because of Symensma's affinity for fish sauce -- specifically Red Boat Fish Sauce, made with salted, black anchovies that are pressed in wooden barrels and aged for more than a year at Red Boat factory, located on the Vietnamese fishing island of Phu Quoc. Fish sauce can be found in Asian markets all over the city, but this particular fish sauce, says Symensma, swims in a league of its own.
"Phu Quoc is this beautiful little island on the southern tip of Vietnam, and Jeff and I got to participate in the process of making fish sauce, but this fish sauce has the highest percentage of nitrogen of any fish sauce in the world, and there's nothing else that comes even close to its amazing flavor," insists Symensma, whose trip was made possibly by Red Boat founder Cuong Pham, whose "first press, extra virgin" fish sauce is all-natural and just recently became available in the United States.
Symensma and Stoneking also attended the World Streetfood Congress in Singapore, which was hosted by Anthony Bourdain, and then they spent several days in Malaysia hanging out with chef and award-winning cookbook author Robert Danhi, who was one of Symensma's instructors at the Culinary Institute of America. "It was fantastic," says Symensma. "We stayed at his house, rode scooters everywhere and went to restaurants where we were the only white people there -- I felt like a local for the first time in all my travels to Asia."
And those travels provided research for Symensma's menu at ChoLon, which now includes ten new dishes inspired by his sojourn, including a brilliant scallop dish with a julienned spring vegetable "pad Thai" crowned with a cashew gremolata. "Jeff and I were looking through all of our food photos and thought that we could reinterpret some of the dishes at the restaurant, and the response has been great," says Symensma, who has now traveled to Southeast Asia with all of his core culinary crew, including co-sous chef Ryan Gorby.
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And Symensma's kitchen crew has just grown by two, with the addition of a duo of externs from the Culinary Institute in Singapore, who will spend several weeks on Cholon's line. "It's quite an honor for me to have them here -- they're both great students and now they're in Denver learning to cook Asian food from a couple of white guys," quips Symensma. Asian chefs, he explains, are "really guarded about their tricks and secrets, but here, these guys can learn a lot and get some real kitchen experience."
They'll be around, too, when Symensma hosts a street food festival at ChoLon on August 22, transforming the restaurant into more than a dozen street-food stalls. Pham, Danhi and renowned Asian recipe food blogger Bee Yinn Low, who was part of the Asian trip, will all be in attendance. "We're going to try and replicate the street-food experiences we had on our trip," says Symensma.
The event, which goes from 6 to 9 p.m, will hustle everything from clay pots, Thai curries and Vietnamese ice cream to Vietnamese crepes, Vietnamese coffee and cocktails made with fish sauce (!). The kitchen's wok station will be open to gusts, and weather permitting, Symensma will have satay stalls on the patio. "I'm ecstatic that all of these amazing culinary people can all come together in Denver and do this incredible dinner together," says Symensma. "People will be able to walk up to something that'll resemble a food stall from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand and feel like they've been swept away to the streets of Southeast Asia."
Tickets to the street food festival are $75 per person, and include all the drinks you can pour down your throat and all the food you can stomach. To purchase tickets, call 303-353-5223.