Soulayphet Schwader’s Journey from Refugee Camp to NYC Chef

Soulayphet “Phet” Schwader is the chef and co-owner of Khe-Yo, a vibrant Lao restaurant located in Tribeca. At Khe-Yo, Phet is cooking traditional Laotian cuisine with modern touches, an homage to the food he grew up eating in Laos before immigrating to the United States. Chef Phet was born in Laos and came to Wichita, Kansas through a refugee resettlement program as a young child. We sat down with Phet to hear the story of his journey to the United States and how it shaped his passion for bringing Lao cuisine to NYC.

Chef and Refugee Camp Escapee Soulayphet Schwader

Let’s start from the beginning. What’s your earliest childhood memory?

I guess my first memory would be getting off the plane at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. I was three years old and I was meeting my cousins and aunts and uncles— they were all greeting us. And then I remember just being in the ‘burbs, living on a dirt road, playing with the kids and it was just, it was normal. I was so young that I acclimated to my surroundings and I just took it all in and it was just something new and different. But from my mom’s point of view, she was probably taken aback. I remember we have pictures of us in these big heavy coats with snow and she was telling us stories of the first time she saw snow, she freaked out. I always love listening to the stories of my mom telling us about when we came over—the difficulties, the travel, all the different experiences to get us to where we all ended up in Wichita, Kansas. Wichita’s great. I love the Midwest. I love Kansas. It taught me respect, you know, just like saying hello to your neighbors. It was a typical Midwest suburbia childhood.

Bowl of Pasta at Khe Yo

Do you have any memories of your time prior, in the refugee camp?

No, I just have stories and pictures of us in the refugee camp, but no memory whatsoever. So when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, communists took over, but they also took over the country of Laos. And at that point, anybody who was associated or affiliated with the US government was probably fearful of living under the communist regime. Families would cross the Mekong River and that’s what we did. My mom tells a story of us crossing and she didn’t know how to swim, and she was holding on to me as a baby, and my brother and my sister sitting next to her, being five or six years old. She was just worrying that if the boat capsizes, how’s she going to swim? She’s worried about three kids and my dad, just making sure that we get to the other side. It just makes me appreciate where I am to this day.

We ended up in the refugee camp in Nong Khai and spent almost a year waiting for the paperwork for us to leave. Basically my uncles went to the United States before us and they started the process of getting the paperwork over.

So businesses and churches sponsored refugee families that were seeking asylum. And he ended up in Wichita, Kansas, working for a random business and the business got to know him and listened to his story. The person who owned the company, his name was Jack Fishback. He’s kind of like the Godfather of a lot of Laotian refugee families in Wichita because he went through the red tape of doing all the legal paperwork to get the refugees to come over. So he sponsored my family, he sponsored my uncles, he sponsored a lot of families in Wichita.

Bowl of meats and greens - refugee

So what was it like growing up mostly in the Midwest?

I tell people that I had a typical normal upbringing. I played club soccer, I hung out with friends. We went camping, we shot guns. Me and my brother would go to the shooting range and the lake. And it was just, it was a very normal way of life.

Did you ever have a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese?

We did, yeah. Definitely a couple of times. And I was like, man, I love the games but like, the pizza’s weird.

It sounds like you truly are living the American dream.

I’ve traveled to a couple of different countries and you know, going back to Laos, there aren’t as many opportunities as what we get here in the United States. Growing up in a normal Midwest childhood, I could be anything that I wanted to be. There were no restrictions to what I wanted to be. I ended up being a chef. I ended up having my own restaurant because at the end of the day, I think the Midwest culture is to put your head down and work hard and things will happen for you. That’s what my mom always taught me. And, you know, anything is possible. Literally anything is possible. I can’t complain about my life. Is it easy? Absolutely not. But I get to promote my culture every day. So I appreciate every day that I have this restaurant. It’s a struggle, but when it’s buzzing and it’s busy and people are saying “your food is amazing,” I love it. So the American dream is whatever you want and that’s what people forget. You can do it. Just go and do it—just try and be good to people when you do it.

Interior image of Khe-Yo Bar in NYC

To hear more of Phet’s story, check out Season Two, Episode One of the Open Belly podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.


157 Duane St, New York, NY 10013

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Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations) & Chris Dolt (@cdoltbike)