Khe-Yo's Soulayphet "Phet" Schwader: "Opening a Restaurant Is Challenging, but It's a Simple Formula. We Overthink Things."
Soulayphet "Phet" Schwader may have grown up in the midwest--Wichita, Kansas, to be precise--but his upbringing centered on preserving traditions from Laos, his homeland. A Laotian community thrived in Wichita, he explains, and so in addition to traveling around the country with his Laotian soccer team and becoming involved with the Laotian Buddhist temple, he ate feasts prepared by his mother, who shopped at Laotian grocery stores for ingredients prevalent in Asia.
So when Schwader moved to New York City to begin his culinary career, he was shocked to realize Laotian restaurants were non-existent in the Big Apple. And after he attended culinary school and then worked through the ranks with Iron Chef Marc Forgione at AZ and BLT, Schwader decided he was ready to go out on his own with a restaurant that would pay homage to his heritage. With Forgione's support, the chef opened Khe-Yo (157 Duane Street, 212-587-1089) in Tribeca earlier this year, playing with the flavors of his childhood in an upscale setting.
The Lao canon, he explains, crosses Vietnamese and Thai influences and highlights dishes like Vietanmese influences. Sticky rice, papaya salad, grilled chicken, grilled pork ribs, and laap (chopped meat salads). Dishes are light and bright, and many pack significant heat. "I thought about all the dishes I grew up with that I love eating when I go back home," Schwader explains, "and I did my take on them."
Once rolling with his main menu, Schwader also rolled out Khe-Yosk, a takeaway Vietnamese sandwich joint that operates in a sliver of the Khe-Yo space.
In our interview, the chef weighs in on a stinky Laotian classic he wishes he could put on his menu, why Asian food isn't vegetarian-friendly, and why he'd take jerky to a desert island.
Describe your culinary style. Traditional Laotian flavors in a modern, updated take on food. I focus on highlighting great ingredients, and I work with great local purveyors.
How do you develop your recipes and menu? I think about achieving the flavors that I grew up with and then develop the recipe around that idea. Take the braised pork belly: We'd sit down at home with a big bowl of braised pork belly, a big bowl of pork broth, and individual bowls of rice. So I think, how do I do this portion-wise? How do I do a bigger batch for the restaurant?
Who or what inspires you? My mom. She's had such a beautiful and hard life, and I'm really trying to make her proud of what I'm doing and make her think that our cuisine is more than a lower-relegated cuisine.
Is there a food you won't eat? Stinky cheese. I didn't grow up with a lot of dairy in my life, and then I went to culinary school and there were all these different food items that were not part of my culture. The hardest to overcome is stinky cheese. The more it oozes, the more I want to step away from it.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won't accommodate? I try to be really accommodating, but the one thing I don't like about people's perception of Asian cuisine is that it's vegetarian-friendly. Even if it looks vegetarian, it probably has fish sauce, pork broth, or some sort of protein to make it taste good. I'll do what I can to make a really good vegetarian dish--baby shiitakes, fresh herbs--but I don't have a vegetarian item on the menu.
Is there an ingredient you won't work with? I'm not scared to use any ingredient that I know of, but I personally don't like tripe. My mom would make pigs intestines, and it would make the house smell for three days.
What do you hate seeing on menus? If I look at a menu and something reads delicious and awesome, I feel like I'm going to be disappointed because it's not going to be as good as it reads.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen? Beers for the guys. They're sweaty and under pressure from me, so they deserve it. People we've worked with usually bring a 12-pack for the kitchen. We take care of the people in the industry.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene? Hands-on eating. We had a great meal at Jeepny. On Thursday nights, they really push that no silverware rule. Sometimes we're too cautious about food and too cautious about how we eat.
What do you wish would go away? The whole burger movement. How many more burger shops can we have in the city? I love burgers, but I don't know.
What's your guiltiest pleasure? Eating the chicken skin on the line during service. My sous chef smacks my hand so I don't have a heart attack during plating. But there's this whole container of chicken skins sitting there and looking at me!
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I make padek in house--it's a fermented, concentrated anchovy paste. When I make it, the whole kitchen clears out. They're like, there's no way that tastes good. It's labeled the funk. The funk can become a sauce called jaew padek. At home, my mom would have big chunks of fermented fish in there, and you'd dip it with the sticky rice. I think that would freak people out. And I think once it got to the table, the tables next to you would have to leave. But true Laotians would love it.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self? Be more patient. When I was young, I wanted to learn everything as fast as possible and do everything as fast as possible. But in the end, I needed more patience.
What's the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene? Being profitable. Opening a restaurant is challenging, but it's a simple formula of providing good service in a good environment and putting out really good food. We overthink things.
What's your proudest culinary moment? Opening my own restaurant. It still hasn't sunk in, to be honest. I'm still worried about all the details and if people are happy. I'm lucky to open my own restaurant with my own cuisine. I have to remind myself of that.
What's your desert island food? Sticky rice, bang bang, and jerky. Jerky because it will last.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? Dried sea cucumber. It was the texture--it's not very flavorful. They pack it and season it with MSG.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making? My mom. This dish mee kati. It's curry noodles. I think kati is a really phonetic translation of how someone would say curry.
Have a hobby that's totally unrelated to work? I play soccer, but I blew out my knee two months ago, so my career is over.
What's next for you? I'd really like to do a fast casual version of what I'm doing here.
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