Chef Soulayphet “Phet” Schwader doesn’t have a single memory of his father, but he does have laap. The dish, a minced-meat salad, will be the centerpiece of the Lao New Year meals that the chef and his mother will prepare at Schwader’s Tribeca restaurant.
For most Laotians, this fragrant staple of Laotian cooking is as simple and comforting as spaghetti carbonara for Italians. But for Schwader, laap represents a complex connection to a homeland and father he barely knew.
Schwader’s life took him from war-ravaged Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand before his family came to get a new start in Wichita, Kansas. He finally ended up in the moneyed canyons of downtown Manhattan, with his own restaurant. At Khe-Yo (157 Duane Street; 212-587-1089) Schwader and his mother, Soubanh Whitson, will lovingly prepare the holiday meal all week long.
The two lost everything when they fled Laos, but found themselves in a community of immigrant Laotians who came to call each other “brother” and “sister.”
“Growing up in Wichita, we always had laap, no matter whose house [we were at],” says Schwader. “It can be chicken, pork, or raw beef with blood in it.”
This week at Khe-Yo, the New England Culinary Institute–trained chef will make his laap with duck for Lao New Year, which is also called Songkran or Pii Mai.
“Laap means ‘good luck,’ ” adds Whitson. “You have to have that.”
After what the family went through, it’s disarming to hear them speak of luck.
Schwader’s family knew they were in danger with Pathet Lao, the communist government that came to power in the 1970s and purged Western influence from Laos. Estimates claim up to 100,000 people were killed in the Hmong genocide, and more than 30,000 people were sent to re-education camps — often with life sentences. Schwader’s father, Thongsavanh Vilaythong, was a prime target for the regime, since he had worked for the United Nations before the Pathet Lao came to power.
Vilaythong, Whitson, and their three young children fled across the Mekong River to a Thai refugee camp. While they awaited U.S. visas, Vilaythong passed away from mysterious causes. Three-years old at the time, Schwader doesn’t remember his father.
The family moved to Wichita in 1978. Two years later, Whitson married Jesse Schwader, the adoptive father of her three kids. While Phet was still a child, Jesse died of a heart attack. Whitson remarried, and later lost a third husband.
“My mom has been through so much, but [she] is the most positive person I know,” says Schwader. “When she comes to the restaurant, everyone wants to talk to my mom.”
Whitson still lives in Wichita, but for the second year in a row, she has made the trek to New York to help Schwader cook traditional Laotian dishes at Khe-Yo.
Together, the mother-and-son duo will prepare authentic Laotian family-style meals. Whitson will also perform su-kwan, a blessing ceremony intended to cleanse the spirit for the New Year — a holiday honoring elders and relatives who have passed away.
Usually, Schwader’s personal expression influences his style of cooking. But for this annual period of commemoration, Schwader focuses on tradition, and Whitson helps him prepare time-honored recipes.
As they cook, mother and son talk about how appreciative they are to be in the United States. “Growing up, I would always ask questions about my dad and how my mom grew up,” says Schwader, “She always told me how poor they were in Laos.”
Like many Laotians forced to live off the land, Whitson’s own father was a fisherman who regularly went to sea for days at a time. Whitson thinks of him whenever she makes ka-poon nam pa — red snapper coconut curry with fresh vermicelli. In Wichita, she made massive pots of the dish on a candy stove in the garage for Songkran each year, and the family’s Laotian friends would stop by and eat throughout the day. This is one of the special dishes Whitson will help prepare on Khe-Yo’s menu this week.
Mok pa, another Laotian seafood staple, will make an appearance on this week’s menu. Made with steamed fish and banana leaf, the dish is seasoned with dill and padek, a Laotian condiment made with fermented fish. (With tiny fish in the liquid from start to finish, padek is funkier, brinier, and chunkier than fish sauce.)
Schwader always waits for Whitson to arrive in New York to make gaeng no mai sai yanang — a bamboo stew with baby prawns, lemongrass, galangal, onion, padek, and yanang water, thickened with toasted rice. He’s watched Whitson make it numerous times, but this is a dish that takes ample practice to get right. “Some dishes take a good twenty to thirty times to get it like my mom’s,” Schwader explains.
Dohm-kem pops up in several countries — there are Chinese and Vietnamese versions, too. The dish is composed of pork braised in ginger, onions, coconut juice, and oyster sauce with hard-boiled eggs. Unlike most Laotian dishes, this one is served with jasmine rice rather than sticky rice. Schwader’s version of dohm-kem features Berkshire pork belly and quail eggs.
In Wichita, Songkran customs differ slightly from those in Laos. Abroad, revelers take to the street for a three-day celebration from April 13 to April 15, and people douse one another with water throughout cities and towns. On Whitson’s last visit to Laos during the holiday, she was waiting in a cab with the windows down. A little girl took a bucket of water and poured it into the car. Soaking wet, Whitson just laughed.
In the Midwest, festivities are a little more subdued, with water guns and water balloons at the Buddhist temple. “[In Laos], little kids can take big buckets of water and throw them at old ladies,” says Whitson. “Over here, you cannot do that. People get upset.”
“I have pictures of my mom soaked in water,” Schwader recalls. “They’ll do shaving cream and powder, too.”
Faith has a lot to do with Whitson’s positive outlook on life, and she is actively involved in her Buddhist temple in Wichita. Schwader asks his mother to perform su-kwan, a spiritual cleansing exercise, every time he goes home. However, Whitson says the ritual isn’t necessarily religious — it’s more about opening space for good energy.
Traditional su-kwan involves an elaborate display of silver bowls and group prayer. Whitson’s version is more to the point: The person Whitson blesses opens one hand like a cup, with the other in prayer. Whitson then says a blessing as she ties a string around the person’s wrist.
“Young people can give old people blessings. Anyone can give anyone blessings,” Schwader explains. “To me, it’s about a positive vibe.”
Whitson is proud of Schwader for carrying on Lao New Year traditions. To her, the holiday has served as a link between her adopted homeland and the place she was born. When she left Laos, she didn’t think she would be able to continue observing Songkran. “I was never thinking we would have this [Songkran] in the U.S.,” says Whitson. “When we had the celebration, I felt like, ‘Oh my god, I was really home.’ ”
Lao New Year will be celebrated at Khe-Yo nightly from April 11 to April 16. The traditional family-style meal costs $68 per person. Check out the full New Year’s menu here.