Chef Vithoun keeps things from getting stale with fresh recipes for cafes’ menus
It takes a small village — and a reliable alarm clock — to keep hundreds of state lawmakers, aides and Capitol staff fueled with food during the legislative session.
Chef Vithoun Saysopha chops away at a seemingly endless list of breakfast, lunch and snack options served at the Capitol and Lucas cafes. The year-round staff of seven swells to close to 20 when the legislators come to town. Saysopha is in the kitchen by 5:30 a.m.
“We do as much prep as we can the day before, get everything started and then cooked fresh that day,” he said.
Saysopha started his career in food service by cooking in a pizzeria in high school. Other shifts at local restaurants and culinary courses in college led to the job as the chef at the Capitol three years ago.
He stayed on when a new company, Taher Inc., took over the Fresh Season Cafes last year. A Taher chef council travels the world to learn new recipes and broaden their kitchens’ menus. Saysopha is rolling some of those out this session.
“That’s been exciting, to learn new dishes from different cultures,” he said. “It’s a seasonal menu. It changes every couple weeks.”
It’s hard to say how many people are served during a session day, Saysopha said, but it is likely 300 to 400. While most of those diners come through the cafeteria, the company’s catering services also deliver meals to lawmakers around the Capitol complex.
Patrons have welcomed the new options on the menu, Saysopha said, but the standbys are still popular. The staff served about 100 burgers in just one day last week. Simple snacks are snatched up to keep legislators’ energy high through the long days.
“Everyone just loves cheeseburgers, really,” he said. “And the popcorn — they love popcorn.”
Saysopha talked to The Des Moines Register about preparing food for lawmakers and Capitol staff and visitors.
Q: How did you get started in the culinary industry?
A: My first job in a restaurant was in high school. And then in college, I would just cook for friends and kind of learned how to cook there and then that’s when I realized that this could be a career for me and enjoyed it.
Q: Any new dishes that you’re serving up this session?
A: (Jan. 15) we did a Lomo Saltado — it’s a dish from Peru, which is where the chef council went one year. It’s like a Japanese/Peruvian fusion dish. The former president of Peru was Japanese, and that’s where the influence comes from. It is a stir fry dish with beef, onion, tomatoes, soy sauce and sriracha, served over rice and topped with French fries. The potatoes are the Peruvian influence.
Q: Are there lighter dishes served along with the traditional, comfort-food items?
A: We have a salad bar at both cafes every day. There’s healthy options — we try to have some kind of vegetable, something that’s not deep fried. We make a mango black bean burger that we actually make in house. That’s very good; that’s been very popular.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: The positive feedback. Everyone so far has just had nothing but great things to say about the food and the friendly staff and service we have here. It’s rewarding in that sense, when someone enjoys something that you made for them.