A trip to her native Thailand that lasted four years inspired Chef Vanda Asapahu to open Ayara Thai Cuisine in 2004. While her mother helms the restaurant today, Chef Vanda continues to expand her brand--- most recently with a line of Thai sauces that are currently available across the United States.
The UCLA and Yale graduate credits her time traveling and working in Thailand with helping her learn the intricacies of the Thai kitchen. She explained, “Living and working in Thailand for over four years allowed me to connect and cook with family members; and eat through the streets and country side, understanding and appreciating the regional differences of Thai food. Most importantly, it helped me understand how to work as and with Thais. Odd, right?! I was a junior member of United Nations country team with duties that often included coordinating and collaborating with national and provincial government officials and NGOs. While my age (being in the late twenties at that time), appearance (I'm short, and probably looked like I was in high school), fluency in Thai (I speak Thai with an American accent), and straight shooting goal oriented work mentality (yes, very American) did not play in my favor - against these odds, I learned how to conduct myself to earn the respect of Thais. This skill has allowed me successfully work with my predominately Thai team at Ayara."
Vanda was able to work closely with members of her family to learn how to cook recipes that were passed down through generations then making them her own. “On a recent trip to Thailand, I learned my Paternal-Grandmother's Hor-Mok (steamed fish mousse) recipe from my uncle,” she said. “Traditionally cooked in bananas leaves, I brought a new meaning to it when recently steamed and served on scallop shells (I'm currently obsessed with Peruvian scallops).”
Becoming a business owner has limited her hours of sleep but she’s found the experience extremely rewarding. She shares the following advice with other women considering on taking a similar leap, “Know all aspects of your business, and never stop learning. From washing dishes (not an easy job) to accounting the P&L statement - you have to know it all. You may not be as good as the team members you bring on, but you have to learn it.”
Thai food is often replicated but with so many variations of their most famous dish, Pad Thai, which recipe should home cooks follow? She suggest, “If you want to make a truly authentic Pad Thai - don't omit the key ingredients or substitute it for what is convenient. I was browsing Pinterest the other day and found a Pad Thai recipe that calls for ketchup and peanut butter - I almost died. “
She added, “[Newbies should] start with what they're comfortable, with regards to spice level and flavor profile; but be sure to challenge yourself with something new. Life is too short to play it safe. “