Lalita has been cooking since she was 8 years old, learning how to make different dishes from her grandmother, father, and neighbors. She left Thailand as a teen, attending high school and college in the United States. Out of her college dorm, Lalita ran an inf0rmal pop-up and eventually decided to pursue cooking full time. She has cooked in New Orleans, Chicago, and in Los Gatos, California at three Michelin-starred Manresa. Currently, she’s hosting Thai pop-ups in Santa Cruz and San Francisco through HANLOH.
How did you find your way into the historically male-dominated culinary industry?
Cooking was a role I assumed as the eldest daughter — I learned to cook and clean. By the time I was thirteen and before I left Thailand, I would prepare a few dishes for my family for dinner. Later on in the US, I tried various career paths outside of cooking…but cooking always made me happy, so I immersed myself back into the culinary world. I think what is still keeping me here is that I found cooking to be really challenging, so it keeps me on my toes. To be a great chef and have a successful business, you have to push yourself daily. Cooking has pushed me to perfect my recipes, never give up, and try new techniques and ideas. It’s taught me to listen to my instinct and trust my gut.
What has been a defining moment, either positive or negative, in your career?
My first summer job in the kitchen was at Shai Cafe in Kensington, CA. Shai’s specialty was a decorative hummus platter. They were always so extravagant with colors and textures and of course, best hummus ever. I worked with Shai for four summers, and I always noticed he took his time feeling the texture of each fruit and vegetable. When I finally asked him why, he told me he was colorblind, so he touches everything to make sure it’s in good condition. I couldn’t believe it!
Before I launched HANLOH, I spent two years as a line cook at Manresa. I went in with the goals of learning discipline and commitment to perfection. For a while Chef David Kinch was obsessed with making tamago, a Japanese omelette. He wanted it to be perfect, and he wanted it to be his own. He would constantly tweak the recipe, and all of the cooks would be invited to taste a piece. To be honest, I thought they were all pretty good, but it didn’t appear on the menu for four months! I think one has to be critical of oneself to achieve a goal.
Tell us about the women who serve up culinary inspiration in your life.
My grandmother used to farm mango, banana, papaya, and tilapia. She was a symbol of strength, fearlessness, and caring. I saw her spend time farming and then cooking the family meals, and I have no idea how she juggled everything.
What advice do you have for women trying to build their culinary careers?
Believe in yourself and don’t give up. Most of all, don’t fall for nonsense.