#MondayMotivation: On Starting Over In A New Country
Chef Soulayphet Schwader and the journey that would define his life.
February 9, 2017
I came to America from Laos in 1978.
My father worked on and off for the American embassy doing repairs — when the communists took over in 1975, anyone associated with the US government wasn’t welcome anymore. We were part of a mass exodus of refugees from Laos who crossed the Mekong River, illegally, into Nong Khai, a city on the border of Thailand with a big refugee camp. We stayed there for a year, and while we were there, my father got sick and passed away. That left my mom with me, my brother, and my sister — I was only a few years old.
But we got lucky. This one guy in Wichita, Kansas — his name was Jack — sponsored a bunch of Laotian families to come to the United States, and provided jobs for them, including my mom, at his screen-printing company. Because of him, there is now this pretty decent Laotian community in Wichita. When we moved to Wichita, my mom cooked every single day, and I would do the dishes. I eventually started cooking and signed up for culinary school.
In both high school and in culinary school, I was the only Asian kid. There was just no diversity at all. I remember taking a “World Flavors” class and thinking, I know more about fish sauce than the instructor. It was really hard — it was expensive, and it was a big class of a lot of the same type of people — but I knew I was just lucky to be there. We came from nothing. I have always taken the mentality of putting my head down, working hard, and hopefully, things will work out. That’s how I approached culinary school.
When I came to New York, I got a great job working at AZ for Patricia Yeo, one of the only big-name female Asian chefs in the city at the time. We got three stars a month after I started working there, which was awesome. But I got tired of working with other people. I started living with Marc Forgione, who I worked with on a few projects, and I would always get high and cook up Laotian food. One day, Marc was like, “Let’s open a Laotian restaurant together.” I had always wanted to cook the food I grew up with; so I scraped together all the money that I could to get this restaurant started.
I went back to Laos for the first time since I fled to do research for the restaurant. It was difficult to go back. It was still pretty poor — life wasn’t easy there. I tried to stay with family, but it turned out they only saw me as a rich American (I wasn’t!) and just wanted my money. But everything happens for a reason: I ended up staying at a hotel located right next to the temple where my dad was buried. I brought my mom out to Laos, and we were able to release my dad’s bones into the water — a Laotian tradition. It was this incredible, spiritual experience.
When I came back to New York to open my restaurant, Khe-Yo, a big challenge was explaining to people what Laotian food was — it’s similar to Thai and Vietnamese, but it isn’t exactly either of those things. I wanted to use traditional dishes, but make them my way, and make the presentation nicer. But then a lot of people would try and criticize my food, saying things like “Laos is a land-locked country, you can’t have seafood on the menu.” It was hard. But in year four, I’m happy with what we put out. It’s amazing to meet so many Laotians who are proud of what I do, and that I’m passing my culture onto others.
On Lao New Year, I serve a super authentic Laotian menu, and I bring in my mom to bless anyone who wants to get blessed — she uses these blessing strings from a temple in Wichita, which we still donate to. I look at her life, my life, and I know we are all living the American dream. I am doing something I love doing. I never thought I would have my own restaurant — much less be able to cook the food from my culture. Yes, the restaurant has had a lot of ups and downs — there’s always some kind of problem, even now. But being a refugee and an immigrant, you learn to not to make excuses for why you can’t get things done. We’ve experienced so much loss, but I know not to complain. Life’s not supposed to be easy.
Looking at today’s political climate — if the U.S. enacted a policy of not taking refugees from certain countries back then, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be a part of this culture. I wouldn’t have been able to add my mark to society. So I don’t take any of the opportunities I have had for granted.