Managing owner and Chef Vanda Asapahu has spent her life immersed in the culinary world. Her parents (founders of Ayara Thai in 2004) inspired her love of food, and taught her the art of cooking at a very young age. As an adult her job at the UN would bring her to Thailand where she worked for four years. Here she was reunited with relatives. This once again ignited her joy of cooking. She learned traditional recipes from her family, and soaked up the Bangkok street food scene. After retuning to Los Angeles in 2010, she began working with her parents at Ayara Thai.
Ayara Thai has been featured on Jonathan Gold’s List of Best Restaurants, in Los Angeles Magazine, LA Times, Food and Wine, LA Magazine, on the Food Network. In 2019, Vanda won the Rising Star Thai Chef competition and Ayara Thai received a Michelin Bib Gourmand. In 2022, Vanda was the first female Host Chef for the prestigious annual food festival Masters of Taste, as well as a graduate of the James Beard Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program.
Q: I understand your parents (founders of Ayara Thai) both still work in the kitchen, while you are the managing owner…how was that transition?
A: My mom, Chef Anna, still works in the kitchen almost every day, she’s my MVP, my rock, and truly the person who makes sure everything runs on the daily—our team calls her Mama. My dad is more retired although he frequents the kitchen and stops by daily to eat through the menu for quality control (so he claims). We think he just wants to check up on my mom and be a part of the action. The transition for me to be the managing owner did not come without drama. My parents have been in the restaurant business for a large part of their lives and have been doing things their way for a long time. I introduced protocols, systems, controls, marketing strategies, and what they may think of as “more expenses” into an already low margin restaurant business came with push backs. It took years for them to trust me and I constantly had to track my records and prove that my implementations yielded better margins and was better for business.
Q: What is the most important cooking tip that you learned from your parents?
A: How to layer and balance Thai flavors, trusting my tongue, and knowing each ingredient’s flavor and how it peaks and falls.
Q: Tell me about working for the UN….what did you do? And why did it bring you to Thailand?
A: I worked with UNFPA on reproductive health and rights. My last project was on adolescent sexual health and involving youth participation in the design of a national sex-ed curriculum in Thailand. I went to Thailand after graduate school to work on a Global Fund TB program for Burmese migrant workers.
Q: How did the food differ from what Americans know as Thai cuisine?
A: A lot of the food Americans know to be Thai are one-dish plates (your Pad See Ew, Pad Thai, fried rice, etc.) or central region cuisine (your coconut curries). How most Thais really eat, meals (besides lunch) are usually many side dishes eaten with rice. Each dish will have a different flavor, texture, and protein. The idea is to get a mix, a variety. It’s always eaten family style. At this time, Ayara leads on what Americans know of Thai food while constantly opening the conversation and introducing new experiences that are uniquely Thai—like more Moo Krata dinners.
Q: Can you give our ETG audience a glimpse into your experience cooking with your relatives?
A: Uncle Lek, whose passion for food influenced my culinary career, did not have any children, and because he lived with us for a large part of his life, he considered my siblings and I his kids. And I was definitely his favorite (not a secret!).
He taught me how to make curry paste from scratch when I was 9 years old. I always accompanied him on supermarket runs. He taught me how to select fresh produce and fish and how to determine the different grades and cuts of beef when I was 10 years old. When I turned 12, he took me to see a live chicken butchering. I was mortified and a bit traumatized but learned that he wanted me to appreciate the life a creature gives us and to never waste food. He moved back to Thailand when I was 15, and living in Thailand was the first time I ever had a chance to cook with him again. We made simple dishes when it was only the 2 of us, which was always magical. Our most epic feast was cooking for our extended family of 30 for a Chinese New Year ancestor prayer celebration. We sourced from local markets and used ingredients I have never seen or had only heard of in stories.
Q: What was the biggest chef lesson or secret ingredient that was revealed to you during your time in Thailand?
A: Cook what you love to eat, trends will come and go. My most memorable experience was picking a rare wild Mak Kwan peppercorn with a friend in Northern Thailand, and using it to make a Nam Prik chili relish.
Q: What was your favorite part of Thailand?
A: This is a tough question. I love the water, so beach destinations are always fun. Favorites are Samet and Samui. I also love northern Thailand; my mom is from Lampang, and my grandmother currently lives in Chiang Mai. I had the opportunity to travel to the northernmost tip of Thailand in Mae Hong Son and will never forget the morning sea of fog that rolls in to cover the mountains.
Q: Beyond Thailand, do you have a favorite place to visit in the world?
A: Nepal, Peru, South of France—all trips I took with family and good friends in recent years. Best trips and favorite places are those with people you love.
Q: After Thai food, what is your favorite food?
A: Japanese. I could eat it every day.
If you have a hankering for fantastic Thai food, and don’t live in Los Angeles, the Ayara Product line can be shipped to any of the 48 contiguous states. I have tried both the Pad Thai kit and the peanut sauce, and both were delicious.
Ayara Thai is located at 6245 West 87th Street, LA, CA, 90045; Visit the website for more info, and an online menu – https://ayarathai.com