Born in Laos and raised in Seattle, Chef Varin Keokitvon is the creative spark behind downtown restaurant Heartwood Provisions, where the food is informed by his Laotian heritage, his time spent cooking in Spain, and his roots in the Pacific Northwest. Keokitvon also has a special connection to FareStart, as former head chef of retail operations for the nonprofit that provides culinary and life-skills training to students who have dealt with everything from poverty and homelessness to drug and alcohol addiction. Besides working on the business end, he also trained students and saw firsthand how FareStart changes lives. On July 27, he’ll be back at the FareStart Restaurant, helping students again at a Guest Chef dinner that will feature global flavors and the bounty of summer. He spoke with us about his ties to the organization, his culinary background, and why puffed rice is an important ingredient on the menu.
You’re really connected to FareStart, having actually worked for them. Tell us a little about that.
When I was young, there were times when people helped me out and steered me in the right direction when things could have gone badly. In my case, it was the Service Board—an organization that works with at-risk youth—taking them to the mountains to snowboard and, in the process, teaching them about activism. Learning about volunteerism gave me insight in how you can make an impact in people’s lives. It made me want to give back to my community. What I miss to this day is seeing the (FareStart) students go on to bigger and better things—whether that’s getting a job or a home.
You’re from Laos, and I see from the Heartwood Provisions website that your favorite “secret” ingredient is fish sauce. What are your other favorite flavors from that part of the world?
We have these kaffir lime meatballs that also use lemongrass. There’s also a snack that’s one of our hallmarks, the Wagyu beef jerky. Every culture has a version of jerky, and it’s the very first provision in history—something people could dry out and travel with. In Laos, it’s typically made with buffalo and seasoned with galangal and fried sesame seeds.
You also spent some time in Spain. Did you find any particular culinary inspiration there?
I lived and worked in Barcelona. There’s paprika, for instance. I didn’t know how incredible it was. I use it in sauces, vinaigrettes—anytime we want a spicy/smoky complexity. We also use a lot of vinegars, sherries, and white anchovies—and less butter and more olive oil. The charcuterie culture is huge in Spain, so we have an jamon Iberico (acorn-fed pig) that we serve as a 1½-oz portion.
For your Guest Chef Night at FareStart, you’ll serve a seared scallop served with puffed rice, summer vegetables, cilantro and mango-chili sauce, as well as a puffed rice salad. Can you tell us a bit about puffed rice and why you like working with it so much?
It’s one of the things that has a sort of secondary usage in Laotian cuisine. Sticky rice is a staple, but after cooking it, you can dry it out or puff it up and eat it as a snack. And because we don’t want to waste anything, the puffed rice can be mixed with an aromatic spice or broth and pork, then pureed to make a rice hummus. It’s a very humble ingredient.
Chef Varin’s dinner at FareStart is on July 27 at 5:30pm. Dinner is $29.95. To view the full menu and buy tickets, visit the FareStart website.