Ayara Thai: A family legacy {Giveaway}

Ayara Thai Cuisine - Nam Prik Kor Sang

Vanda Asapahu – owner of Ayara Thai Cuisine restaurant in Westchester and Ayara Products – remembers the house she grew up in smelling of the garlic and chili that flavored the abundant food that her parents would make. Born in Thailand and the oldest of three siblings, Asapahu’s parents – Andy and Anna – uprooted the family in the 1980s to Los Angeles when she was four years old for better educational opportunities. Her entrepreneurial parents who previously worked for Thai Airways had various odd jobs and businesses over the years, including catering out of their converted home kitchen and two restaurants that closed prior to Ayara Thai Cuisine’s opening in 2004. Asapahu recalls her parents regularly opening their home for joint dinners with Thai family friends who couldn’t afford to eat out and to host VIP guests from Thailand. Recently, Asapahu and restaurant staff – many which are family members – warmly welcomed Savor Good and other bloggers for an unforgettable media dinner at the soon-to-be-expanded space next door. Off-the-menu, seasonal, and weekend special dishes were served, along with a freshly squeezed grapefruit tequila cocktail that had been infused for two days. With each bite of the flavorful food and drinks shared at the communal table, a taste of the tight knit family that has shaped Asapahu’s unique journey was experienced.

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From a young age, Asapahu knew the importance of hard work, education, and a family that supported each other. As children, she and her brother helped scrape gum from the driveways of gas stations while their parents cleaned bathrooms. “On weekends, my dad loaded the van and we went with him wherever he needed to go. All the janitorial supplies were back there. My mom would pack us a lunch. We would stop by the beach with our sticky rice, sun dried beef, a little bit of papaya salad, and eat at the beach. We had a really good time,” reminisced Asapahu. When business declined, her father soul searched while touring the country for a few years to become a professional golfer – and the family came along to support him.

In other ways, Asapahu felt different from others. Going to college was always a given. “I remember as a kid, we would get money for Christmas or for our birthday, but half of that needed to be put in the bank. We lived in a neighborhood [Montebello area, then later Westchester] with lots of kids who were also children of immigrants. We were always the odd kids out. A lot of kids said, ‘Why would your parents ever do that?'” Although her parents value higher education, Asapahu says she is thankful they have always allowed her and her siblings to explore and do what they wanted to do.

Along with the priority of working hard in school, Asapahu would help her parents grill meat for beef salad and make sauces at home for their previous catering business that served the Thai Airways crew that flew in and out of LAX. “There was always something to do at home,” she said. Although the food and restaurant industry was not in her trajectory at the time, Asapahu continued to support her parents in their journey as restaurateurs, even while at UCLA as an undergraduate. After being forced to close their two previous restaurants – one because of an armed robbery and the other due to lease issues – her parents decided, after much deliberation, to put their finances and house on the line to open a new restaurant in 2004 – Ayara Thai Cuisine. “With my brother and my help, we put the restaurant together a little smarter this time. We were lucky to find a place only a fence away. We knew that if the restaurant didn’t do well, we’d lose not only our house, but everything, our livelihood. So it was an all or nothing kind of deal. It’s that mentality that pushes us to know we’ve got to work hard on this, when everything’s at stake,” said Asapahu. The name Ayara was chosen to root the restaurant in the family’s heritage; it was the name of a royal elephant in a children’s book (from her father) that carried a prince who believed everyone in his Thai kingdom should be fed fairly.

Due to various delays, the restaurant’s grand opening took place the same day Asapahu started her graduate public health program at Yale University. Originally interested to become a doctor, Asapahu discovered her strong interest in public health policy and administration. She spent four years in Thailand after the tsunami working with World Vision amongst migrant populations and the United Nations on adolescent sexual health, sex education, and male participation in maternal health. Although she grew weary of the bureaucracy and political turmoil that stood in the way of real policy change, Asapahu’s travels throughout Thailand and exploration of regional foods – including southern Thai Muslim and northern hilltribes – expanded her palate and reconnected her with her passion for food.

“I went in with so much ambition. I needed a change and so I quit,” said Asapahu on her decision to leave her post with the U.N. “A lot of people said, ‘This is career suicide.’” After moving back to LA, she traveled with her siblings, Peter and Cathy, for a few weeks and took several months off. When her parents’ restaurant was slammed in 2010 with lawsuits and labor disputes, Asapahu jumped in to help with significant operational changes – and she has never left the business since.

Recognizing her parents’ limits and the significant contribution of their food businesses toward the family’s livelihood throughout her life, Asapahu saw the potential of Ayara Thai. “To abandon that would just be wrong. I can see potential in the business being so much better and doing so much better. The driving force was all of the food I’d experienced and had eaten throughout the countryside and the cities in Thailand. I wanted to bring that back as well. With all of that together, the timing, and feeling a little lost with what I wanted to do with my life, it kind of fell together perfectly,” recalls Asapahu.

Ayara Thai Cuisine - Thai Paloma Ayara Thai Cuisine - Rubies Tap Tim Grop coconut dessert Ayara Thai Cuisine - Pumpkin Crème Brûlée Ayara Thai Cuisine - Pumpkin Crème Brûlée Ayara-Media-Dinner-0750   
Today, immediate and extended family members continue to work together at Ayara Thai. “My brother does the numbers- he’s really good with that. I do the operations and marketing. My sister is art-oriented. My mom works seven days. She’s probably the hardest working person I know,” said Asapahu, whose mother directs the kitchen staff. Asapahu’s father spends half his time in Thailand working on other businesses and bringing on board two new chefs from Thailand to join the sizable kitchen staff as a part of Ayara Thai’s on-site expansion that is projected to complete by early 2014.

Asapahu credits her parents for inspiring entrepreneurship in her and her siblings. “They would always try to find the gaps and the needs of things and try to fill that with a service,” she said. When Thai customers frequently requested the restaurant’s sauces to take back to Thailand, Asapahu – with the help of experts and hot bottling training – launched a line of bottled Ayara Thai sauces in 2012 as a way to brand the restaurant’s products. “We hope one day to scale it so we don’t have to bottle them at the restaurant, but I think part of the charm of it is we make it at the restaurant. My mom makes the sauces every Tuesday.”

During her journey, Asapahu has learned to ask for help and to collaborate more. “We all grow together. I’ve learned over the years- why not call on the contacts I’ve made and ask for help? Don’t think that means you’re incompetent. Knowing your weakness and facing it, being humble about it has been a big thing,” she said.

Wherever Ayara Thai heads, Asapahu knows she will continue to grow alongside her family. “People ask if we think we’ve achieved the American dream. I don’t think so. We’re still working hard and doing it. There’s always something to do. People ask, ‘Is it a waste of your degree that you’re not working in that field?’ Even though I went to school, it’s what I’ve learned from my family that can’t be learned elsewhere.”


{Photo courtesy of Ayara Products}

Stay tuned for a post soon on an original Savor Good recipe created using an Ayara Thai sauce!

*{GIVEAWAY}

Savor Good is honored to partner with Ayara Products to give away one set of seven signature house made Ayara Thai sauces to a lucky reader. ($68 total value) The beautifully bottled sauces make great gifts that can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. and can be easily incorporated into your holiday meals.

To enter this giveaway:

  • Visit the Ayara Thai Products page and leave a comment at the end of this post telling me which sauce you would choose and what food you would use it to make. 
  • Follow Ayara Thai on Twitter and spread the word about the giveaway.

Entries must be posted by this Friday, Nov. 22, at 5 p.m. PST. One winner will be chosen at random after comments close. The winner will be contacted by email. The giveaway is limited to readers in the U.S. only. $68 USD total value.

*Congrats to giveaway winner, Charmain! Thanks to everyone who entered.

Ayara Thai Cuisine restaurant is open Sunday – Thursday, 11am-10pm, Friday – Saturday, 11am-midnight and is located near LAX at 6245 W. 87th Street, Los Angeles, Calif. 90045.

Connect with Ayara Thai elsewhere: Facebook and Instagram

{Photos by Howard Lee for Savor Good}

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9 responses to “Ayara Thai: A family legacy {Giveaway}

  1. So many options! Why cook my own food when I can just get the real deal at Ayara?? Well, here’s my top 3 & since I HAVE to choose I’ll let you know below.

    1. If I’m going for a quick meal: Thai Peanut Sauce. No need to cook anything. All I need is a spoon when I’m having the best peanut sauce in LA for dinner…
    2. If I want something fresh: Thai Chili Lime Sauce. SPICY BEEF SALAD! Maybe, do a twist on this and make it with shrimp? Use both if I can’t choose? Or I might even add some mango to go for a sweet & sour combo. Yum. I can taste it already.
    3. If I want something sweet for Thanksgiving: Thai Cucumber Sauce. Last year, I remember Ayara posting a recipe for a cucumber cranberry sauce using this. I think I may go hunt the recipe down now and use it for this Turkey Day!

    Now, out of my top 3 I would have to go with the Thai Chili Sauce. So versatile and I’d love to give it a try in a Spicy Beef/Shrimp Salad. Plus – it beats making my own!

  2. I would create my own Asian inspired chicken salad using: canned chicken and the THAI HOUSE DRESSING! Throw in some diced cucumber, a bit of cilantro, and maybe some chopped water chestnuts, and you’re good to go! Eat on top of a bed of butter lettuce or between your favorite toasted bread. It’s a tasty fusion treat that’s healthy for you too!

  3. I would use the Thai Cucumber Sauce in a Chambo (Malawian fresh water fish) cerviche with fresh ingredients from our backyard garden in Mangochi!

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