Q & A with Khe-Yo’s Soulayphet Schwader
Southeast Asian food couldn’t be more popular in New York right now, from Kin Shop to Pig and Khao, and Fatty ‘Cue in Manhattan, to Talde, Pok Pok Ny and Nightingale 9 in Brooklyn. But as familiar as we’ve become with spicy Thai Curries or Vietnamese Bun, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant entirely focused on the cuisine of Laos. That’s where Soulayphet Schwader comes in. The AZT, BLT Steak and Umi Nom alum has just opened Khe-Yo, the city’s first fully Laotian restaurant, with the help of Iron Chef Marc Forgione, his longtime friend and collaborator.
“We’re using lots of fresh herbs, vegetables and condiments, which set traditional Lao cuisine apart from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand,” says the native-born Schwader. “Our food is also authentically in-your-face spicy, with a great depth of flavor.”
Of course, the sleek, industrial space that houses Khe-Yo is way more chic Tribeca than it is secluded Asian village, with brick and metal walls, burnished teak tables and chairs, a massive recessed chandelier, and a giant elephant mural adorning the far wall (Laos is known as the Land of a Million Elephants).
And even though the family-style dishes served at Khe-Yo are inspired by the childhood favorites that Schwader grew up with, most are elevated through the use of local and seasonal ingredients. Instead of traditional Water Buffalo Jerky, Schwader offers smoky and spicy Creekstone Farms Sesame Beef. Line-caught Fluke is used in place of chicken or pork in Laap, a classic minced meat salad. And even the standard sweet and sour Papaya Salad will get a makeover in the fall, when Schwader swaps in autumnal Butternut Squash. “I think it’s important to know the person who grows your food and support local famers whenever possible. That being said, I am so over the phrase ‘farm to table!’” Schwader laughs.
But despite these modern touches, Schwader is dedicated to creating a genuine Laotian atmosphere at Khe-Yo. Which is why he advises patrons to turn down the proffered chopsticks and dive right in with their hands. “The food just tastes better that way. You’re allowing yourself to really open up to the authentic experience of a Laotian meal,” explains Schwader. “Luckily, our guests have been great sports so far. Most people really get in there!”
I am married, lucky for me to a very patient and supportive wife!
What do you think you would have become if you hadn’t become a chef?
I honestly can’t answer that – I play soccer in my spare time but never would have been able to make it into a career.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Becoming a Sous Chef at AZ so soon after starting there ignited my passion for the industry. It’s also where I first met Nick Bradley and Marc Forgione, my partners at Khe-Yo.
You’ve collaborated with Marc Forgione for many years now. What do you think makes your relationship work so well?
We have the same vision regarding food; we want to use the very best ingredients available while staying true to our own personal styles.
What are your favorite and least favorite dishes on your menu right now?
The answer to both of those questions is the Whole Grilled Black Bass. It’s such a beautiful dish, but it’s too popular!! It’s becoming the bane of my existence.
Tell us a bit more about Khe-Yosk.
It’s a takeout window where the former tenant, Duane Park, used to sell ice cream. We are offering simple, good sandwiches to go. They’ll be Banh Mi-style sandwiches, made with the best ingredients we can source.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
Finish strong – the last dish to leave the kitchen each night is just important as the first.
What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?
The ansel system (fire extinguisher) going off right at the end of a lunch service, then scrambling to get ready for a busy dinner that evening. We made it though.
How do you think your line cooks would describe your style as a leader?
I’m definitely not easy on them, but respecting my crew is important to me. The culture of the kitchen often lacks integrity and I try to bring that back into the equation.
What music do you play in the kitchen to get you in the zone?
I love the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, the Pixies, the Shins…
Are there any ingredients or foods you just can’t bring yourself to eat or cook with?
I’ve tried to get on board with stinky cheese but it just grosses me out. Luckily there’s not much cheese in Laotian food, but our house-made Padek is even more pungent.
What’s the strangest item in your home fridge right now?
Salted Baby Crab.
Besides your own restaurant, what’s your favorite place to go for a fine dining meal in the city, and what’s your favorite guilty pleasure dive?
For ‘fine dining,’ Ushi Wakamaru – really beautiful sushi. Guilty pleasure is Golden Forest for hole-in-the-wall Chinese in my neighborhood.
What has been the proudest moment of your career thus far?
Feeding my family at Khe-Yo the week before we opened. That made it real for me.
Besides being an executive chef in NYC, what are some of your other top career goals? A James Beard award? A Michelin star?
I want to run a successful, busy restaurant where the staff and the guests leave happy every night. Awards are a bonus and hopefully, if we prioritize the first part, the second follows.