With its elegant presentation and medley of vibrant flavors, the papaya salad at La Thai Uptown masquerades as a perfectly modern dish, appropriate for an adventurous clientele.
But like many of the menu items at the chic restaurant, this salad — Som Tam — also holds a rich history.
Chef Diana Chauvin, the owner of La Thai, remembers when she was a girl sitting on a blanket alongside her mother and grandmother, grinding papaya with a mortar and pestle. Prepping meals “on the floor” is a common practice in Thai culture, the chef explained.
She still prepares Som Tam and other ingenious eats, with her mother, Pannee Varnishung, in the restaurant’s kitchen. The refreshing salad recently debuted on Chauvin’s new small plates menu.
“Of course, at La Thai, we don’t use a mortar and pestle on the floor, but that’s how we cooked at home,” Chauvin said.
The dish is just one example of the way the women — the daughter raised in New Orleans, the mother in Thailand — have honored Thai food customs while updating the traditions for local fans of popular Thai cuisine.
“I like using local produce and seafood, and I tend to take inspirations from other chefs,” Chauvin said. She said she borrows ideas from various cultures. Meanwhile Varnishung — a native of Thailand — favors authentic Thai fare.
Varnishung, an entrepreneur who has run a handful of Thai restaurants, introduced her homeland's cuisine to New Orleanians more than three decades ago.
Varnishung and Chauvin’s father, Merlin, an engineer from Louisiana, met and married in Thailand. In 1971, a year after Chauvin’s older brother was born, the family moved to New Orleans. In 1978, Varnishung opened a restaurant called Mai Tai and served Thai food, along with popular Chinese dishes.
“That was smart, to reel people in with food they already know,” said Chauvin.
The quaint restaurant was on the West Bank and attracted people from all over the metro area. Chauvin became part of the bustling business before she even knew it — as an infant, sleeping in the kitchen.
By the time Chauvin was 5, she was assisting her mother with simple tasks, like scooping rice into bowls. And as a teenager, she helped create the meals.
“I remember prepping certain things with her — cutting vegetables, soaking noodles, frying the spring rolls, making salads … and seeing how the sauces are made,” she said.
Although Chauvin tried to leave the restaurant business and studied broadcast journalism at Loyola University, she discovered her passion for culinary arts while living in Los Angeles, where Thai food is common.
When Chauvin returned to help her mother run one of her restaurants — La Thai Cuisine on Metairie Road — she brought her West Coast inspirations with her and continued to hone her cooking skills.
In 2008, almost immediately after her family lost the lease for La Thai Cuisine, they launched La Thai Uptown under Chauvin’s leadership. The locale includes a special events room and an outdoor patio.
Curtis Herring — the interior designer behind restaurants Shaya and Willa Jean — recently revamped the space. The walls were painted in a vivid teal and embellished with metallic accents. Modern-style chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.
A new lounge area — the Nit Noi lounge — features bistro tables and cream-colored, leather chairs. Diners in this section can order from the small plates menu and sip specialty cocktails.
“We wanted something where people could hang out, eat and drink and not get full on big meals,” Chauvin said. “ ‘Nit noi’ means ‘little bit’.”
Several dishes were concocted by Varnishung during her Mai Tai days. The Duck Delight, for example, comprises pulled duck confit, cubed, fried and served in a spicy brown garlic sauce atop steamed jasmine rice.
“That’s something she came up with, before pulled-style meats were in even style,” Chauvin said.
Mama’s Stuffed Chicken Wings — another Mai Tai original — are deboned and filled with minced pork, shrimp, glass noodles, “the holy trinity,” and spices, and plated with a peanut sauce.
Chauvin’s influence appears in the BBQ Shrimp, with Louisiana seafood swimming in a curry sauce next to warm roti bread.
La Thai’s menu is still growing, and so is the family behind it. Chauvin has a 1-year-old son, whom Varnishung babysits, and she’s expecting a daughter in March. But what the two women share extends beyond food and family; they’re both ambitious and business-savvy.
“Sometimes we get in each other’s way because we’re both Type A,” said a smiling Chauvin. To avoid stepping on toes, her mother works in the kitchen while Chauvin greets guests, and vice versa.
But, she added, "My mom has a huge work ethic. She’s 65 and she can retire, but she loves working. ...The main thing I’ve learned from her is loving what you do, yet staying strong. She always says: 'Stay strong, teach people, and treat them well.' ”