The hottest chef in the Southwest

Life’s heating up for Jeff Chanchaleune outside the kitchen too.
Jeff Chanchaleune in the Ma Der Lao Kitchen dining room.

Jeff Chanchaleune is a chef, entrepreneur, community leader, and avid traveler living in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 2023, he was named a James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Chef Southwest and his Ma Der Lao Kitchen has been listed as one of the Top 50 restaurants in America by The New York Times and Bon Appétit. He filled us in on why the family-centric feel and diverse food scene of Oklahoma is the cherry on top of his flyover life. 

Excited to talk with you, Jeff. Give us a snapshot of your life here in Oklahoma. 

I am the chef-owner of Ma Der Lao Kitchen in Oklahoma City’s Plaza District. I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and I live and work in the urban core — my house is in the Gatewood Historic District and the restaurant is just three minutes away. If I’m not at the restaurant, I’m home with my wife and two kids or traveling for food.

You’ve racked up prestigious awards. Your food has gotten national attention. Your restaurants are on people’s foodie bucket lists. Why has it made sense to stay put in Oklahoma? 

I’ve lived and worked in Portland and Chicago, but Oklahoma has always been home. People think I’m younger than I really am. I’m going on 38, but I started cooking pretty young. My mom told me that the house she and my dad lived in when I was born used to be a duplex directly behind Ma Der on 15th Street and Blackwelder. I was a restaurant brat. It’s really the only life I’ve ever known. 

Over the years, I’ve traveled every chance I could, and I noticed one thing every major city had in common: a very delicious, diverse food scene. I wanted that for Oklahoma City, and I wanted to be a part of that journey. 

What makes Oklahoma City’s food scene so interesting?

Oklahoma City’s food scene is very underrated. It’s been like that for several years. What’s interesting is that, while the rest of the nation and even many Oklahomans believe we’re just a steak and potatoes state, a lot of our residents are very open to trying and appreciating new foods. We have a lot of unique restaurants that are putting out some amazing food.

What are a few of those must-try OKC restaurants? 

Sedalia’s Oyster & Seafood, VII Asian Bistro, Chow’s, Szechuan Story, Cafe Kacao, and Sheesh Mahal are just a few of my favorites. I’d find a restaurant in the Plaza District, Paseo Arts District, Asian District, Uptown 23rd District, Midtown, and then the Southside for great Hispanic food.

Outside the kitchen, you’re a husband and dad of two. What kinds of things do you do with your family? 

Living in Oklahoma as a dad has been great. We usually kick the soccer ball outside in the yard, chalk the sidewalk, and play hide-and-seek. I’ll probably start taking them around to places like Mount Scott, Turner Falls, and Scissortail Park in downtown. If I ever have free time, I also like to try new restaurants. We live a really simple life. It’s either restaurant, home, family gatherings, or travel.

What opportunities has living in Oklahoma given you and your family? 

Living here has been great personally and professionally. The lower cost of living is amazing. It’s allowed us to own a home, have a family, and travel often. Professionally, living here has given me stability and opportunity to create new businesses that help impact and grow the city. The growth and forward movement of Oklahoma City is a canvas with a lot of room for more creators to build something great.

You’re a lifelong Oklahoman. What misconceptions do you always hear about living in the Sooner State?

It’s the usual cowboys and cowgirls. Horses on the streets. Nothing to do or see. Steakhouses everywhere. The reality is we’re a pretty diverse state that’s becoming urbanized and diverse. Oklahoma has a lot of potential and endless possibilities. At Ma Der, we get guests from all over the U.S. that tell our staff Oklahoma is actually way cooler than they thought and that they’ll be back.

You have three sentences to flip an Oklahoma naysayer. What would they be? 

  1. You can probably squeeze in an extra two to three — or more — travel destinations per year with the money you save from a mortgage or rent in a big city like Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City.
  1. Oklahomans are some of the nicest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
  1. Oklahoma is a great place to raise a family because of all the space available. It’s peaceful, and there are plenty of things to do, see, eat, and drink.
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