As far as Thomas Pisha-Duffly is concerned, Indonesian is the OG of fusion food.
The wildly popular island nation salad that Gado Gado is named after roughly translates to "mix mix," and nothing is more accurate when describing the eclecticism of the Southeast Asian cuisine that inspired his menu. Like most stories that ignite passion in an up-and-coming chef, those that Pisha-Duffly tells about his business are equal parts world history lesson and familial lore.
A good place to begin when examining the origins of WW's Newcomer of the Year is with the cooking of Oma, his grandmother. Born in Indonesia in the late 1920s with stints in Singapore and Malaysia, she grew up immersed in the cooking of Chinese immigrants who traveled south through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand before following the Strait of Malacca, making an imprint on the food in countries along the route. Dishes like Chinese sausage, stir-fried vegetables, and chewy rice noodles cross-pollinated with rich curries, pungent crustaceans and generous doses of shrimp paste. The collision of flavors and textures can be calamitous in less capable hands, but Pisha-Duffly is quick to point out how and why it can work.
"People [in Southeast Asia] are always talking and arguing about food," says Pisha-Duffly. "Even if it's not the focus of their life, it's almost like a second language that we just don't have. Here we call people 'foodies,' but that would just be everyone in Southeast Asia."
By the time Oma left Indonesia for Holland in the 1960s and then, eventually, arrived in Oregon, she'd amassed an impressive collection of recipes that gave rise to Pisha-Duffly's earliest creations under the Gado Gado moniker. But he didn't always realize what he had in those roots or the record of cooking instructions.
After a string of noncommittal kitchen jobs in Boston, Pisha-Duffly found himself with one foot in the restaurant business and the other in academia. He chose to drop out of the University of Massachusetts Boston and invest his efforts in climbing the back-of-house ladder. A friend got him a job at James Beard Award-winning chef Barbara Lynch's Italian spot Sportello, and he soon worked his way up to sous chef. At that point, Pisha-Duffly decided it was finally time to get real.
"The responsibility and pride you get from someone else believing in you created a turning point where I really invested in hospitality and professionalism," says Pisha-Duffly. "When they promoted me to sous chef, I went from being a rough-around-the-edges alcoholic line cook to being a rough-around-the-edges alcoholic sous chef."
But early onset job burnout nudged Pisha-Duffly toward the sidelines. He and his wife, Mariah, then spent a month traveling across Indonesia and Malaysia, "halting in our tracks to eat anything we'd never heard of," he says, and at that point, Thomas realized he'd been ignoring his calling all along.
"That trip totally cracked my head open," Pisha-Duffly explains. "On day one I immediately recognized that this was the food I know—all the smells, flavors and dishes I'd been eating my whole life. I'd been cooking for a decade without looking at this wealth of knowledge I gained from my mother and grandmother, but for whatever reason, I didn't consider it until then. It was revelatory in a way that's really hard to explain. I was burnt out on cooking and this turned the light back on."
After they returned to the U.S., the couple hosted a handful of pop-ups in friends' restaurants in Portland, Maine, with most of the events offering rudimentary renditions of staples from Thomas' youth: an Indonesian braised pork called babi kecap, spicy beef rendang and, most importantly, gado gado—the ubiquitous Indonesian salad that starts with stir-fried veggies, tofu and peanut sauce, and ends with whatever else the chef believes to be a good fit.
When the Pisha-Dufflys moved to Portland, Ore., in 2016, they kept the idea for Gado Gado in their back pocket while they worked their way through a couple of landmark restaurants, like Han Oak and Pok Pok. At the latter, the couple became friends with Toby Roberts, then the president of the Thai wing empire. He noticed the success the two were having with a single prix fixe engagement at Langbaan as well as an after-hours residency at Chicago-style sandwich shop Sammich and approached the Pisha-Dufflys about making the leap to a brick-and-mortar. Any concerns about Portland diners shying away from Gado Gado's unfamiliar dishes were quashed by the considerable lines that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Decades of buzzy Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine primed the city's palates for the next big thing in Southeast Asian fare, and the timing couldn't have been better.
On June 3, Gado Gado opened in its permanent space in the Hollywood District. The décor is a flurry of color, kitsch and giddily mismatched artifacts from around the globe. The walls feature a hand-painted pattern of prawns and crabs intersected by teal lattice, and a portrait of Oma hangs on the wall near the corridor that leads to the unicorn-themed bathrooms. Though only a few dishes from the pop-up era remain on the menu, it's clear to diners that the pleasure at Gado Gado is to be derived from adventurousness rather than familiarity. Anyone who enjoys clams is bound to love the Coca Cola bivalves ($20), regardless of how odd that sounds on paper, and the whole, wok-fried Dungeness crab ($60)—a throwback to the Pisha-Dufflys' salad days in New England, complete with egg yolk butter sauce, Sichuan chile and cheung fun rice noodle rolls—is a luxury item that completely ignores any culinary genre lines that Indonesian food has little use for to begin with.
"What's amazing about Thomas is that he has a million ideas at all times," says Mariah Pisha-Duffly. "When we sat down to write our opening menu he had a 20-page brainstorm session. The food might be super-unfamiliar to some people, but that's not by design. We try really hard not to dumb things down for people in service of making food that we really want to eat and hope that other people have similar tastes to us."
Thomas says Oma, who's still kicking at 93, is ecstatic that she finally has someone to talk to at length about the food of her homeland. He's excited that diners are experiencing that same level of joy at Gado Gado, but there's still a ways to go before Portland is fully up to speed with regards to the tastes and preferences of native Indonesians.
"At the end of the day, I often think, do I wish more people ordered the pig ear salad? Yes, because it's awesome but no one orders it," Thomas says. "I have it on there because I like it, and if 1 in 100 people are stoked to order it, then that feels really good."