Layers of family, flavor at Tin Drum
Tin Drum Asian Kitchen
By Beth Ewen
Traveling is an inspiration for Sylvia Chan, who also called her mother “an amazing, amazing cook.”
Sylvia Chan, executive chef at Tin Drum, grew up cooking at her mother’s side. “She’s an amazing, amazing cook,” said Chan. “She loved friends and community and she always entertained.”
Chan initially helped her husband, Steven Chan, launch Tin Drum’s franchising program in 2001 in Atlanta. Now she has re-enlisted at the restaurant chain serving Asia’s greatest hits, as the company’s website says, after the couple and two new partners purchased majority control from a private equity firm. Still with only a dozen or so locations, they are beginning a second franchising push with Chan’s creations on the menu she revamped.
Traveling, too, is an inspiration, said the self-taught cook who samples dishes everywhere she goes and then works to duplicate them in her “huge, huge” kitchen back home. “I happen to be one pretty lucky person. We get to a lot of places in the world,” she said.
Chan’s parents were born in China, and her grandfather on her dad’s side moved everyone to Thailand to expand their bicycle business in Southeast Asia. Most of her relatives eventually emigrated to Canada, but her father chose the Atlanta area. “He wanted to get away from the gossiping. That’s the joke that he always tells us,” Chan said.
Sylvia Chan added sandwiches to Tin Drum’s menu, including those shown here.
“It’s a very good thing that we did, because living apart from our family, it makes us much closer, and missing each other more and more. The world is so small,” and she likes that she can jump on a plane and visit in just a few hours.
Chan was 14 when moving to Decatur, outside Atlanta, with six siblings, four boys and two girls. “There were hardly any Asians in that neighborhood, so we were the only one. I found it very special, because all our neighbors were very helpful, very caring,” she recalls.
Even her husband arrived by way of family. She went to Georgia State; Steven went to Georgia Tech, and he was a friend of her brother. “We were just hanging in the house a lot. At dinner time he doesn’t want to go home,” because of her mother’s cooking.
They started a “little, cute” Chinese restaurant after college, in Holland, Georgia, then a Thai restaurant in Atlanta with her brother. “Steve, he was cooking in the back,” and decided “to twist this restaurant into more of a casual, quick service type,” and so Tin Drum was born.
When she returned to Tin Drum, it had a classic menu of stir fry, curry noodles and other bowls. “We thought the menu needed some more side dishes, more bites,” so she added salads, sandwiches and wraps to try to appeal to a young clientele from 16 to 45.
“I try to look at the product mix a lot and seeing what’s on trend. I love to bring some new dishes for our customers to explore,” she said.
Her biggest hit: a chicken sandwich that’s a knockout to behold. “Three years ago I happened to be in Seoul, Korea, and it’s very, very popular. I said let’s make this.”
Two kinds of sauces add the kick: sriracha mango— “it’s a little bit of Thai/Southeast Asian flavor,” she said, with her favorite combo of sweet and spicy— plus Korean sesame oil with spiced pepper and hoisin.
Laos and Thailand are the two countries where Chan learned the most flavor notes. She calls that type of cuisine “very natural…very light but big flavor.” For example, her Laos Chicken, borrowed from her mother, mixes rice powder, lemongrass, fish sauce and more, with “four, five, six, seven layers of flavor” that combines into one dish.
For Tin Drum’s popular sandwich, her daughters, now ages 16 and 20, were the inspiration. They previously clamored for Chick-fil-A, along with their cousins—her mother, now in her 80s, has 11 grandkids in town.
“Every time they want Asian food they always scream for Tin Drum. They hate authentic Chinese restaurants, but they can eat Trim Drum all day long,” she said. “It’s an honor.”
Culinary Q&A with Sylvia Chan
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
Believe it or not, lasagna. This time we stay home so many months, and I’ve been cooking a lot of Asian food. So my two girls said, ‘Mom, stop, I need Italian.’
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Dessert, sweet…peach cobbler with a single scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.
If you could have any chef cook you dinner, who would it be and what would you want prepared?
Chef Ramsey. I think he’s very entertaining when I watch his show. I have a lot of laughs. Pasta or steak would be good.
If you could only eat or drink three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?
I love bubble tea. As far as food, I want to stick with my Thai food or Southeast Asian food, that’s one of my favorites. And any type of pasta.
What’s your favorite foodie city?
Paris. French food is amazing. The city is very romantic, very beautiful.