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Growing Up in the Midwest Didn't Make Me Forget My Laotian Heritage

Growing up as a Laotian immigrant in Kansas, I've had many influences in my life. So when people come in to my restaurant expecting traditional Laotian cuisine, I tell them that it’s inspired by my country, but I won’t be held to one type of cuisine.

I look at my background of growing up Laotian in Wichita, Kansas as having the best of both worlds.

There's a pretty decent Laotian community in Wichita that stems from the refugees who fled from Laos when the communists took over and ended up in refugee camps. From '75 until the mid-80s, Laotian people were migrating to the United States. But the only way that you could get to the United States was a sponsor, which was either a business or a church. My family landed in Wichita because we got sponsored by Jack Fishback, the man who is considered to be the godfather figure to the Laotian community in Kansas. Jack sponsored almost 80 percent of my family—my aunts, uncles, and cousins—and provided jobs for them at his screen-printing company.


WATCH: Chef's Night Out with Phet Schwader of Khe-Yo

Growing up, it was one of those weird things where I had Laotian meals every day except Fridays and Saturdays, when our treat would be KFC or Pizza Hut. To this day, Sonic is my religion. Whenever I visit Wichita, I have to get a Route 44 Cherry Limeade—the biggest one you can get, at 44 ounces—and onion rings. It's one of my first food memories. The first time I took my wife to Sonic, I ordered one and she drank it all, so we had to get another. I knew I had picked the right woman.

There's Laotian grocery stores and little mom and pop Laotian restaurants there, too. I was raised with the typical things that you would grow up eating in Laos, other than the fact that instead of using a Mekong river fish, we'd use catfish or large-mouth bass to fry for a Laotian dish. I didn't go without growing up. I didn't lose my Laotian identity, either.

When I went on school fieldtrips, my mom would pack me a banh mi and I would get upset. I just wanted the fucking ham and cheese sandwich just like everybody else.

To me, I think it's my name that throws everybody off: my first name is Soulayphet, so people always mess that up. My last name is Schwader, so people are always like, What the fuck? and wondering where I'm from. And then they listen to me speak (I have no accent), so they wonder, What's the deal here? My father passed away in the refugee camp as we were coming over to the States, and my mom re-married in 1980. Her new husband, Jesse, adopted us kids—me, my sister, and my brother—so we took on his last name, Schwader. He passed away in '85 because of a heart attack, but he was my father figure. He was the first person who showed me the way. There was always this strong Laotian community, though, that supported us throughout my childhood. At the same time, I always I felt like the outsider in my community because I was the only Asian kid in my grade in middle and high schools—other than my brother and sister—but I grew up early in that system, so I wasn't the oddball out at school. But then when I would go to the Asian community on the East Side, they would be like "Oh, you're not that Asian because you grew up on the West Side with the white kids." I've gotten the best of both worlds, but I also have experienced living on the outside, too.


MAKE: Phet Schwader's Dungeness Crab in Black Bean Sauce

People say Laos is a landlocked country—which it is—but I grew up eating seafood: frozen shrimp, mussels, calamari. In Laotian culture, we preserve a lot of things, like sun-drying fish and making beef jerky—so I didn't feel limited in terms of how that effected what food I consumed growing up within the Laotian community in a landlocked American state. When I went on school fieldtrips, my mom would pack me a banh mi and I would get upset. I just wanted the fucking ham and cheese sandwich just like everybody else. Looking back, I got the best thing out there.

There are not many Laotian cookbooks out there, and the ones that do exist are pretty traditional from people like Phia Sing, a former chef for the king and queen of Laos. When I opened up my restaurant, Khe-Yo, I based our menu on my mom, who has never cooked from a recipe and who tends to cook things that have been passed down through the family from elders like her dad. In the beginning, my business plan wasn't based on Laotian cuisine, but on what I like to eat with my background behind it. When I stood back and looked at it, it made me wonder: Is this who I am and what I want to put out in the world? So then I refocused and started thinking about all of the simple dishes that I grew up eating and reinterpreted them so that they were inspired by home cooking: chicken laap, for example. But when we eat chicken laap at home, my mom takes a bird and utilizes the whole thing. She takes the breasts and thigh meat, and minces it up. Then she makes a broth from the carcass and we eat it with sticky rice and hot and sour soup.


When people come in expecting traditional Laotian cuisine, I tell them that it's inspired by my country, but I cook whatever I want. I won't be held to one certain type of cuisine.

That's the way it is now. When we opened up for friends and family, my mom visited, so I made a fish laap—minced fish salad. Instead of the normal approach, I took sashimi—the local fluke—but then added the flavor profiles of laap and drizzled it on top to deconstruct it. When I gave it to my mom, she looked at it and was like, "This is not laap," so I told her to give it a try. When she did, she said, "Oh my god, this is the exact flavor of laap." I knew right there that I was on the right path. She was worried that when I made things like our green papaya salad, Tam-Mak-Hoong, for example, that "the white people don't want that." So she'd advise, "Don't put in the padek—the funk—inside." I'd convince her by telling her, "They want it and they're ready for it." It was trying to get her out of that mentality.

To this day, when I ask her questions about recipes, I tell her to avoid thinking about cooking for koyhn kow—Caucasians—but consider how we would eat it at home. Don't think about anything else. I'm always looking for different recipes and there's never a written recipe, but often certain flavor profiles that she's giving me that I'm trying to recreate. That's the way that I think about the menu today. I tell people that it's not traditional Laotian because there's even a dish I took from chef Marc Forgione—the chili lobster dish over at Marc Forgione, one of their most popular dishes—and switched it to chili prawns instead. When people come in expecting traditional Laotian cuisine, I tell them that it's inspired by my country, but I cook whatever I want. I won't be held to one certain type of cuisine.

My family started from nothing. It's hard for me to think that I'm an immigrant, but I came over to the United States when I was three years old and was the first person to speak English in my family. I feel like I was born here, but I want people to be able to understand the idea of Laotian cuisine through what it's like to eat at my mom's house. It's a feast there every day. I would love to find a way to have my customers experience that and get a feel for the heart of Laotian cuisine: eating on the floor with your hands and having different combinations of dishes.

Thai Lao Café is a mom-and-pop spot owned by my mom's friend in Wichita, and they've done what a lot of Laotians do when opening up in the Midwest: call it "Thai" out of concern that people won't know what Laotian cuisine is. There's also My Tho, which is hands down the best pho I've ever had—and I've eaten pho in a lot of places. It used to be a pool hall, and then the Wichita masses found it and now they love it too. Now I'm like, Shit, it's gonna be different in a year or two. You want keep the secret good things to yourself so that it doesn't change, but you also have to have other people discover and experience it, too. Hopefully, its success will help other people open up similar shops.

The greatest thing about my life in this moment is that I feel like I'm living the American dream. As much as running a restaurant and your own business involves a lot of things, I sit back and think, I get to wake up every day and think about making the food that I grew up eating. Getting the chance to recreate those flavor profiles or some sort of sense of that is helping me to leave a good legacy behind. This is my way of how I look at things, but I'm also taking on the name Schwader. I love being a Schwader—that's who I am and I'm never going to change that. But thinking about legacy and whatever they could say, "Hey, he showed us a little bit of Laotian culture." Was it authentic? Maybe not, but at least it's a different way to showcase the Lao people.

This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in March, 2015.