Chef Jabthong “G” Benchawan Painter, the James Beard-nominated chef behind Houston’s Street to Kitchen, and Choctaw chef David Skinner of the elaborate fine dining Kemah restaurant, Eculent, are teaming up to put their Indigenous foodways at the forefront of the Houston area’s dining scene.
The two chefs are opening Th Prsrv (pronounced: “The Preserve”) on Thursday, May 4, in Kemah. The reservations-only restaurant will display the evolution of Native American and Thai Indigenous cuisine, allowing diners to taste each culture’s history from pre-colonization to today and beyond.
“Our joint goal is to spotlight the old world and at the same time, bring forth an even newer world of progressive cuisine,” Skinner said in a statement. “From the pre-colonial era to the present, food has been largely dominated by European techniques and approaches, leaving lots of native wisdom by the wayside.”
Merging modern presentation and Indigenous and foraged ingredients with ancient techniques like fermentation, smoking, and pickling, the tasting menu will be a chronological experience that harkens back to 2400 BCE — some of the earliest on record for Indigenous cuisine; the vehicle being various bites — some served simultaneously, others sequentially, says Skinner.
Skinner says diners are invited as archeological excavators — “discoverers of their food as it spans time, as we embark on Indigenous journeys, starting with our own Native American and Asian roots.”
Developing the menu took over a year of planning, researching, and sifting through historical documents, artifacts, and recipes, Skinner says. Even the spelling of the name — th Prsrv — is a nod to pre-colonialism, Skinner adds, a way to pay homage to ancient languages and Thai script, which often uses consonants clustered together and vowels indicated through accents.
Graham Painter, co-owner of Street to Kitchen and th Prsrv, and husband to chef G, has witnessed chef G and Skinner’s creative processes.
“As the food comes in, some of it will be Native American, some of it’s gonna be from Siam (Thailand’s historical name after contact with Europeans),” says Graham, who will handle wine pairings. Each course progressively introduces ingredients as the cuisine changes through time, Graham says, and as guests near the end, they’ll find a glimpse into the future.
The concept came together shortly after the trio became friends and fans of each other in 2020, the same year that the Painters opened Street to Kitchen. After Skinner began visiting Street to Kitchen almost weekly, and chef G Eculent for her birthday dinners, Skinner made a proposal. What if they did a restaurant together?
The Painters were blown away. “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it … but okay, let’s do it,” they recall saying.
The group found that there were more similarities than differences between Thai and American Indigenous foodways. Both had rich histories that went back thousands of years (chef G and Graham were surprised that fava beans have been used for 9,000 years, Graham says). Both were affected by colonialism, some of which wiped out Indigenous populations and ingredients and introduced new crops and spices that changed the local cuisine. Modern Thai, for example, is heavily influenced by the Portuguese bringing ingredients, like chiles, potatoes, and tomatoes from the New World, and both have been drastically affected by their respective governments. The U.S. government’s rations to Native Americans resulted in survival foods like fry bread and Indian tacos, and in Thailand, its government’s desire to increase tourism has ushered in more accommodating but watered-down or Americanized forms of Thai cuisine for foreigners.
Both chefs also started cooking at young ages — their grandmothers serving as gateways to their Indigenous roots.
In her hometown of Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok, chef G began helping her grandmother craft Central Thai classics from scratch at their neighborhood restaurant at age 6 before moving on to other restaurants and pastry shops in Bangkok. Five years after meeting her husband Graham in Thailand, she moved to Houston, beginning her career at lauded restaurants like Justin Yu’s Theodore Rex and the now-shuttered Saltair Seafood Kitchen. Then, in 2020, chef G and Graham created their East End dream restaurant, ensuring “unapologetically Thai” cuisine with staples like pad see ew, massaman curry, and drunken noodles — their way.
Similarly, Skinner has taken on an unabashed approach to his cuisine — using Indigenous ingredients to wow patrons with his molecular gastronomy at Eculent.
The Oklahoma native learned early on about his Native American traditions, spending summers harvesting, canning, and storing crops with his grandmother, Mimi, who encouraged him to pursue his interest in cooking and to learn about his heritage. He opened his first restaurant — a French fine dining spot called La Vie en Rose — in his grandmother’s gourmet store in high school, and his second, a French Californian cuisine restaurant, while in college. And after 30 years in other industries, he decided to return to cooking. In 2014, he opened Eculent, an ambitious restaurant known for packing big flavors into Willy Wonka-esque morsels.
In 2019, for example, Skinner assembled 43 chefs from 10 countries to offer a 101-course “Around the World in 10,000 Bites” experience at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Local chefs, like Navy Blue’s Aaron Bludorn, Himalaya’s Kaiser Lashkari, and Emmanuel Chaves of Tatemo, participated, producing an extravagant dinner that took more than six hours.
Now, Skinner uses what was once described as “sorcery” to put Indigenous foodways centerstage. The restaurant has received immense support from the community, including the Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma, of which one of its few native speakers has helped translate the menu.
The chefs realize that the concept almost seems like the beginning of a joke, Graham says: “A Choctaw chef and a Thai chef walk into a bar.” But this work is serious, they say. Healing even.
The Prsrv opens on Thursday, May 4. Open on Thursdays only through May. Reservations are required and can be made on Resy. 709 Harris Avenue, Kemah, Texas.