"When you create a perfect bite and then see someone eating that bite... it's the reaction, the look, almost an eye popping. They take an unexpected bite and then, that look. Then I know I've done well. "
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For a city that seems to pride itself on our diversity and regional cuisine, there's been a gaping hole in our restaurant map where Laotian food should be, and Chef Phet Schwader is helping us with that at Khe-Yo. He doesn't really care if you've never heard of Laotian cuisine before, just that you come in with an open mind and the capability for a little bit of play, as he urges diners to eat with their hands and play with the housemade condiments and sauces on the table, much as he and his siblings did as children.
And play you want to do when plates of steaming fish and sticky rice come out, adorned with greens and bright vegetables and little dishes of sauces. Though only open for a few weeks now, Schwader's team is pounding out salads and stinking up the kitchen with sauces daily, and diners are already enthusiastic. We may have had a few bites (read, entire plates) of what we shot, which is not our normal method of operation for these pieces. But with a cuisine this fresh, fragrant and fun to eat, your hands just itch to dig in.
So, why do you cook? Because I love it. When you create a perfect bite and then see someone eating that bite... it's the reaction, the look, almost an eye popping. They take an unexpected bite and then, that look. Then I know I've done well. The balance of sour/salty/sweet Southeast Asian flavors—lemongrass, galangal, kaffir limes, chilies. I've been fortunate to grow up with the flavors that I love.
You didn't live long in Laos before moving to Wichita, Kansas. How were you able to grow up with those flavors there? Businesses and churches out there cut through a lot of red tape to sponsor families—someone I consider almost our godfather, Chad Fishback, sponsored probably half of my family in Wichita and provided everything to start our life in the U.S. We lived in a refugee camp for a year while we waited to come over, and then here I was the first person to speak English in my family—I acclimated fast. So there's a big Laotian community in Wichita with Laotian grocery stores and restaurants, and we never went without. Everything was either imported or grown. We had Thai basil, long beans, things you wouldn't think we could get we had.
Did you recognize quite how unique your cuisine was as a child? Yeah, we always had sticky rice at gatherings and certain dishes that were true to our cuisine, like the coconut rice on our menu now. Everyone always thinks papaya salad is traditional Thai, but it really originated in Laos. So smashed long beans, smashed cucumber, smashed papaya—Laotians are known for that. And then the padek that I just made is unique to Laos and distinguishes our salads, soups, and braises. A couple of years ago I was right on the border of Thailand and Laos, and when you order papaya salad they ask you if you want it Thai style or Laos style, which is the stinky stuff. Thais really don't like the stinky stuff! So that's how I'm really trying to distinguish myself here in the city.
Did you cook growing up? No, my brother did, I was the dishwasher. My brother still makes papaya salad better than I do. Here I have an Italian and a Puerto Rican making my salads. So when I call out "papaya salad" or "duck laap" it's those two guys pounding out on a mortar and pestle. So when I look at it it's really funny. All of my Laos friends or my mom's friends would be like, "You have who cooking in your kitchen right now?"
Would you say the majority of your focus is on teaching tradition? In flavors, yes. The easiest way for me to say it is that we showcase great local ingredients with Laotian flavors. When my mom came in for Friends and Family she'd look at a dish and say, "What is this? I don't eat raw fish." But I got her to take a chance and she was like, "Ah, I know what this is now!" So I knew we were on the right path. She hasn't seen the restaurant buzzing yet, but my sister's been here for the last couple of days and been really amazed and proud that people are eating with their hands; she gets upset when she sees people eating sticky rice with chopsticks because the Laotian tradition is to eat sticky rice with your hands, to really get down and dirty.
How does that playfulness extend beyond the textural sensation for you? I think when people eat with their hands it brings them back to childhood a bit. I tried to stress to my servers that it's about creating the perfect bite. I don't want to harp or preach to anybody how to eat, but when you come into eat you always have a lot at the table to pick and choose from, so it's not so formal. The whole approach to the menu to open up the experience.
Were you afraid people wouldn't embrace it? Absolutely. We thought we were going to charge for the sticky rice, but then I thought that if someone didn't order it they'd really miss out, so we wanted to make sure they'd start off with that and then maybe be adventurous with more.
Was one dish more nerve-wracking to present than another? I think it's always trial and error when you open a restaurant. The bass is one of our best sellers. When you go visit Southeast Asia there's always meat on a stick—chicken on a stick, bass on a stick, quail on a stick. Here, I took bamboo and deboned and stuffed the bass and tied it on it, then grilled and served with these fresh sauces. I really wanted to keep the true flavors and the experience of it. I want people to interact with the food, and that's how you get them engaged. It's just kind of taken off.
Is there a plate on the menu that calls to you really strongly from your childhood? The jerky. My mom always had jerky in the freezer and for breakfast we'd always have sticky rice and jerky. She still makes jerky in her garage in the wintertime, with the fan blowing on it. My mom would always feed us and now my niece and nephew, making the perfect little rice ball and sticking a piece of jerky inside. Those are the memories that we all are going to teach our kids. So that's something that's not traditional Laotian, but that's what she makes for us. I have her make it still. Even though I make it at the restaurant she's like, "Mine is better." So I'm like, "All right, just make it for me mom." She's going to be really surprised when she sees this whole place packed and buzzing.