Delaware’s Thai Guy

Rehoboth’s Own McDang is the World Guru of Thai Cuisine

photo by Sirichalerm SvastiMom Luang Sirichalerm Svastivadhana still calls Rehoboth Beach his home. 

The celebrity chef—known internationally by the nickname McDang—is Thai royalty. His great-aunt, Queen Consort Rambhai Barni of Siam, led the ruling family of the country’s last absolute monarchy. Since growing up in Bangkok’s Sukhothai Palace, McDang has become the worldwide authority on Thai cuisine, appearing on TV shows, in syndicated columns, and at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas, where he is a guest-lecturer. He is the man that Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain called upon to teach them the essence of Thai food, and his book—“The Principles of Thai Cookery”—is considered the definitive English-language tome devoted to the subject.

But some of the chef’s happiest and most formative times—after spurning a life of diplomacy for a career in the kitchen—happened inside Rehoboth’s landmark Back Porch Café, where he worked his way up from lunchtime cook to part-owner and co-executive chef, alongside the late, legendary Leo Medisch. 

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The chefs, together with Back Porch mainstays like Keith Fitzgerald, Marilyn Spitz, and the late Ted Fisher, pioneered modern fine dining at the beach during the ’70s and ’80s by ditching the white linens and seafood platters that ruled the region’s restaurants in favor of creative, globally inspired and locally informed cuisine. 

Says McDang: “I still feel like I belong there. It’s home. After 12 years, how could I not?”

McDang will make his Delaware return at this month’s MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival, where he will appear in three events: “Soft Shell Crab Nouveau” at the Buena Vista House in Wilmington on May 15, the “I’ll Have What She’s Having Lunch Adventure” at a(MUSE.) in Rehoboth, and a “Barefoot Black Tie” dinner at the home of Alex Pires, both on May 16. 

Long before he was a worldwide sensation, a younger McDang was, during the mid-’70s, enrolled at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., and vacationed occasionally, as many Beltwayers do, in Rehoboth. The plan, according to his family, was to complete his schooling and begin a career in foreign ministry. But McDang had other ideas. 

“I had been looking for something to be passionate about, and it wasn’t diplomacy,” he says. “But I had been cooking, and a lot of watching Julia Child on TV. She was my religion. So finally I wrote to my parents, and the queen, my great aunt, and I said that I want to not be a diplomat, I want to be a chef. They wrote back: ‘But what do you do for a living?’”

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Meanwhile in Rehoboth, he became fast friends with Medisch and his partner Tom Wilson, and took a meager job at the Café. “It was like someone took me into a room that didn’t have any lights on, and all of a sudden this light was switched on,” he says.

Several years later, when founding owner Ted Fisher passed away, McDang inherited a share of the restaurant. After several years of running the Back Porch kitchen, he eventually moved onto Key West before returning to Thailand in 1993, where his passion for food ignited a global empire. 

And while Thai cuisine has exploded in popularity around the Western world, McDang remains an outspoken and often feisty defender of Thai authenticity. He also takes umbrage with his Thai countrymen, who he claims don’t take enough ownership of their culinary culture. 

“My pet peeve is that all these Westerners are trying to cook Thai and they don’t know jack about what Thai food is all about,” he says. “I don’t mind that they’re cooking it, but they don’t understand the structure or the history of Thai food.”

Peggy Raley-Ward, owner of Nassau Valley Vineyards, got to know McDang (who is known to his Delaware friends as Siri Svasti) and his wicked sense of humor during his Rehoboth days through her longtime friends, Medisch and Wilson. The two remain good friends to this day, she says, and the Thai superstar usually makes an annual trip to Delaware. 

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“It was great fun watching his stature grow,” she says. “Sometime around 2010 or so, we were together at Leo’s and Siri was very excited about this cookbook he had put together. And he was showing us the folio pages on his Mac, and we were all just laughing and drinking and having a good time, but we were all looking at what was about to become the pre-eminent cookbook of Thai food in the world. We stopped and realized just how far he’d come.” 

McDang still relishes the kindness and sincerity he remembers from his onetime home—that, along with his customary Nic-o-Boli from Nicola Pizza. He misses the slower pace and the simple house he kept on Grove Street near the cemetery, far from celebrity life and the royal palace. Mostly he misses his friends. 

“Delaware is my home. To me, it means happiness,” he says. “People say you can’t choose your family, but I chose Rehoboth to be my family.”

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