Seng Luangrath was 12 years old when she and her family fled from Laos in order to escape political unrest from the war in Vietnam. They spent three years in refugee camps in Thailand before they could finally relocate to the U.S. While Luangrath's grandmother first taught her how to cook, it was in the refugee camps that she honed her skills, learning from elders who hailed from different parts of the small landlocked country in Southeast Asia.
So for Luangrath, who runs two beloved D.C.-area restaurants with her son Bobby Pradachith, the Day Without Immigrants protest wasn't simply another political event happening in the nation's capital—it was personal.
The protest, designed to highlight the vital and often overlooked contributions of immigrants by removing them from the workplace for one day, closed dozens of bars and restaurants around D.C..
Coming to America brought us opportunity. In my case I came to America because of politics, with refugee status," said Luangrath before the protest. "I try to avoid politics as much as possible, but I will support this because I am an immigrant."
It wasn't an easy decision for the increasingly famous chef-owners, who over the past three years have accumulated mentions from Bon Appetit, D.C.'s Michelin Guide, and most recently, the James Beard Foundation, which has freshly bestowed Luangrath with a nomination for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.
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When Luangrath and Pradachith told their employees they would closing for the protest, the staff didn't seem to know how to respond. "It was a mix of responses, and I got the sense they were confused," said Pradachith.
It probably helped calm some nerves when Luangrath and Pradachith told their employees they would have the day off to either protest or spend time with their families and would be paid as if they had come to work.
Closing still meant taking a financial hit at the two restaurants Luangrath and Pradachith own and operate together—Bangkok Golden, a Thai restaurant located in Falls Church, Virginia, and Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant in Washington D.C. Plus, both locations already had reservations on the books, meaning they would need to make a number of potentially awkward phone calls to guests who might not be sympathetic to their cause.
The issue is a deep and complicated one for Pradachith, who was born in the United States. The CIA grad, who has recently gained attention for his creative interpretation of Lao flavors, said it was difficult on both a personal and professional level. "I was talking to a chef friend earlier today and he was like, 'We're not politicians, we're cooks'," said Pradachith. "But, at the same time, the United States is supposed to be a country that provides opportunity, including opportunities for immigrants who want to provide for their families or for themselves."
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While some D.C. establishments chose to open with a limited menu or kept their bars open while closing down their kitchens, Pradachith felt it was best simply to shut the doors and let employees have the day to protest, reflect, or do whatever felt right. It was a sign not just of solidarity, but of appreciation, he said. "Their jobs are the most labor-intensive and they get the lowest pay. Without them who's going to be washing dishes, or cooking your food, or bussing dishes? Who's going to be changing sheets at hotels?"
Thankfully, the chefs' customers seem to wholeheartedly agree with them. "It was quite an incredible response when our manager called this afternoon to let people know why we were closing," Luangrath' said. "All of the responses we got were very positive."
Despite the positivity, the mother and son do worry about the political climate, and about how the restaurant industry at large will be impacted by crackdowns on immigration. "We don't know what's going to happen," said Luangrath. Her son quickly followed by adding, "I can't imagine how a business owner, including myself, would be able to run their business without immigrants."