When Talat Market debuted at Gato last April, chef Parnass Lim Savang was nervous. It wasn’t the usual first night jitters associated with the opening of a restaurant. Savang had quit both of his jobs at Staplehouse and Kimball House and convinced friend and fellow Kimball House colleague chef Rod Lassiter to join him. From a tiny kitchen in Candler Park three nights a week, the pair would present Atlantans with a very different version of Thai cuisine than most had experienced in America.
Savang, Eater’s Chef of the Year 2017 and 2018 James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef semifinalist, grew up in the restaurant business. His first memories of his family’s Lawrenceville restaurant Danthai are as a child washing dishes, draped in an oversized apron and standing atop two dish racks his father had stacked in front of the sink. As a teenager, Savang served food to the restaurant’s patrons after school and on weekends. He filled in wherever the family needed him to at Danthai. He grew to resent the restaurant.
“I never wanted to cook because my parents were always cooking. I wanted to be an actor or a breakdancer, anything but a cook,” he recalled.
Savang attended Valdosta State for two years following high school, but after watching the UK edition of Kitchen Nightmares and thinking back on the sacrifices his parents made to build up Danthai, he changed course. Savang graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011. His resume includes Hugh Acheson’s The National and Five & Ten in Athens and Empire State South in Atlanta (where he first worked with Staplehouse chef Ryan Smith.)
But it was his stages at chef Andy Ricker’s Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon as well as at Nahm in Bangkok (ranked fifth on Asia’s 50 best restaurants) which proved to be turning points in his culinary career.
“I’ve wanted to cook authentic Thai food in Atlanta for a long time. My dad is my biggest supporter. He encouraged me to come and cook at Danthai and try out some of my dishes as specials. Some were successful. Some weren’t.”
Savang had been doing pop-ups around town. It allowed him to continue testing out his ideas on people beyond those who frequented Danthai. However, working in the kitchens of two award-winning restaurants was beginning to take its toll.
One night, as he and Lassiter were closing after service at Kimball House, the two chefs began joking about pop-up themes to pass the time. Lassiter mentioned fermented rice. Savang took the joke seriously. Two hours later, the premise behind Talat Market was created.
“I was working for the best restaurants in Atlanta, yet I didn’t feel the connection to the food I was cooking,” Savang said. “I wanted to cook the Thai food my family eats every day and not what you find in the American Thai restaurants.”
Talat Market’s menu consists of five to eight traditional Thai dishes made with Georgia-grown ingredients rather than those purchased from wholesale companies like Sysco. Savang posts each week’s menu on Instagram along with shots of the food he and Lassiter are working on for reference.
Talat Market averages around 60 covers a night with two turns in service. Gato only accommodates 30 people. Every time Savang changes the menu, he must then reconfigure the logistics in the flow of service. It’s a game all chefs play, but few play it in such a small space where people often wait as long as an hour for a table.
“I want people to come to Talat, expats from Thailand, people who’ve traveled there, people who’ve never been, to be transported to Thailand through my food. That takes time.”
When asked what his father thinks about the food he cooks, Savang laughs, “When he gives me a little grunt, that means the food is good. My dad told me once he wished he could cook this food at his restaurant, but it’s not what people want there.”
As for the future of Talat Market, Savang is hoping to be in a more permanent location soon. The space he’s after won’t be much bigger than Gato. The small staff he’s assembled to run Talat which includes Lassiter, front of house Rebecca Turner, and his dishwasher Anna are all on board when the time comes to level up.
“My team is the best part of Talat for me. We’ve been looking for spaces and there are a couple we are seriously considering. The space will be comfortable but basic because the whole point of Talat is for people to see Thailand, my culture, and the food.”
Talat Market is BYOB and is open Friday through Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Gato in Candler Park.