This is a first part series on Lao food in the mainstream food scene.
The Modern Lao Chef with Midwest Roots
It starts with the smells. Tasting it comes second. In its traditional form, the sight of it scares the hell out of you. Then when both senses cancel out what the eyes think they see as exotic and weird, a magical dance occurs on the tip of your tongue. It’s not your usual sweet and sour takeout that it should remind you of. It’s new, different and yet so comforting. It’s bold, a bit pungent, and delightfully bitter. Your mouth becomes happy at the joy of the unknown flavors the typical American would never imagine as being delicious. And that’s how a typical beginner’s love affair starts with Lao food.
In the heart of Tribeca village in New York City, there are two Lao chefs. At Khe-Yo, Kansas-based Chef Phet Schwader is a no-nonsense Lao American food scene hustler who enjoys playing with flavors of Southeast Asia. Across the street is Chef Jeannie, a low-key mom from Southern Pakse who serves up mom’s homecooked Lao favorites. She knows of the famed Chef Phet. “Yeah, he’s new to this town. I’ve been here forever!”, she exclaims. Chef Phet, on the other hand, had no idea there was another Lao chef in the same vicinity. They’re both convinced there’s enough space for more than one Lao chef to rule the town. To start, we focus on Chef Phet, who I visited back in July.
At his roots, he’s Lao. He’ll tell you he just wants to make good food, but New Yorkers are in a tizzy with the Lao food scene, which has been taking its rightful place among foodies in the East Coast. In this side of town, New Yorkers can be a tough crowd.
“What the f!ck are you doing? Get the pot off the cutting board!” Chef Phet screamed at a young sous chef who pulled a kitchen sin. As he walked us through a maze downstairs through the back kitchen, I expected a touch of Hell’s Kitchen-like atmosphere with short tempers that matched the flaring knives of when fish heads quickly met their demise. “Sorry about that. It’s not a cheap cutting board”, he explained to me. I keep quiet to not mess with the king of the house. We made it to the freezer, which was Lao in all its finest fridge hoarding. “Look at that bin of dried fish. My uncle in Laos sent it. You can smell it from here, right?” Chef Phet’s temperament scales back a bit as he re-connects with his ingredients. We meet the staff of over 30 people behind the curtains and make our way back to the lunch table. “On a Friday night, we average around 800 hungry people who want a taste of Lao food. Mom usually pulls up a stool in the middle of the kitchen to just watch me. I’ll yell at my staff and she’ll give me the eye and remind me to be nice. That’s my Lao side that keeps me grounded.”
We started our conversation over banh mi sandwiches (with pork belly, of course).
Tell me a bit about your family’s journey to the states. How did you get here?
I was born in Nongkhai, Thailand. My father passed away there and I recently went back to find out what happened. I was three when I got to America. Our sponsor had a printing company, and wanted to sponsor Lao folks. His name was Jack Fishback. Growing up in in Kansas, there was a huge Lao community in Wichita, Kansas. Mom is huge in the temples. I have one older brother and one younger sister. Mom cooked a lot of food. Our treat was KFC and Pizza Hut on Fridays. When I went to field trips, I always wanted a ham & cheese dish but mom always made me a banh mi sandwich. Father passed away in Nong Khai. I didn’t have a father figure until my mom remarried an American and that’s why my last name is Schwader.
What does being Lao American mean to you?
I get the best of both worlds. I have another culture that I can relate to. I relate to the American and relate to the Lao. Karma, respect to elders, the idea of string tying. I’m not spiritual. Mom had a lot of loss in her life. When my stepfather passed away two years ago, there were a lot of Lao community members, but not very many came from the American side. Shit happens. If you have a community who you can go to, then go to it.
I went to Laos in 2011 for the first time and then this past March. The Lao mentality of giving is what made me feel connected to who I am. Seeing my relatives for the first time and seeing the village of where I came from. It gave me a sense of: no more questions. This is where I came from. I was the only Asian kid in high school. The Lao were in one side of town and the rest of us on the other side. I would have friends over for dinner and they thought the vegetables were weed. Growing up, the house stunk and I would be embarrassed. It was hard to identify with the Lao. I’m Lao and my wife is Colombian.
How did you start a love for cooking? Describe your cooking.
In Kansas. I went to a community college in KS. I wasn’t serious about it. I ended up working in kitchens. The people I worked with had saw my potential. I was in my 20s. I went to culinary school and came in the city in ’99. I worked with a Malaysian chef at AZ. It really opened my eyes about what a good restaurant and good cooking can do. I got a look at the good, bad, and ugly of things. I didn’t want to make other people money and I got burnt out. About three years ago, I quit and went to my friend at a restaurant around the corner. He won Iron Chef, and had a lot of noreity. He wanted to open a restaurant with me. Overall, my food is Southeast Asian with heavy influence of Lao flavors, which is a balance of sweet, sour, salty. I say to people; the best way to describe Lao food is sticky rice (khao nieow). It’s the defining aspect of the cuisine.
How has the restaurant business been so far?
It’s been good. When I first came, I didn’t know if it would work. If you look at the menu, the flavors are traditional, but the presentation is different.
Success is a relative form. The city is a hustle. You have to make yourself different. It’s a niche that is filled right now. I don’t want to be regulated to just Lao. In the Fall, I make the squash and not just papaya for salad. I have regulars. The Lao who come say it’s just like their mom and dad’s cooking. It’s the best compliment. It’s all of the things my mom cooks.
What do you think about the label that you’re a Lao modernist on food?
I can’t make everyone happy. I put out what I feel has substance and character. It doesn’t bother me if I can’t make something that people think it isn’t Lao. People still come in happy and leave happy. As a chef, you want people to like it, but as a business owner, I have to make money.
Tell me a bit about your journey here in New York.
We’re living the dream. We got opportunities. My mom always said: appreciate what you have. Being a Lao American, I appreciate the fact that I was able to come here. I try to remember where I came from and what I have. Growing up in Laos, you get a little bowl of rice and a bit of meat. Here it’s endless. You have to be reminded where we came from. Life is a work in progress. There’s always challenges.
How is the scene for Lao food here?
When people eat it, people love it. I cringe when people use spoons and forks to pick up sticky rice out of the thip khao. I try to influence people to eat a different way. I want to open more restaurants and in different cities.
What would you say to other aspiring Lao cooks?
Practice makes perfect. I worked in kitchens for 20 years, but I started only cooking Lao food a few years ago. It’s about how it tastes as you’re cooking. Practice and experiment. Eat as much good Lao food as possible. Make your own flavor profile. I always think to myself: will I like this dish? And not if people will like it. Get in the business to get out. I sacrifice a lot. I work 7 days a week, 15 hours a day, but it’s not work to me. It’s my happiness. How many people can say that? You have to balance your life out. I told myself I always have to be able to go back to Laos. Because New York makes you crazy and you have to know how to hustle, but as a Lao person, I look at my mom and I remember how to treat people.
Khe-Yo is located at 157 Duane St., New York (212) 587-1089.
For more on the Lao Diaspora, go here.
-Chanida Potter, email@example.com