In 1987, when Dr. Rommanee “Foo” Swasdee opened her upscale Thai restaurant Satay, she was a culinary pioneer.
Southeast Asian food was scarce in Austin at that time, but in recent years Thai restaurants have multiplied, with newcomers like Sway and Spin Modern Thai bringing new energy and technique to the cuisine.
Amidst the changing food culture of Austin, Swasdee, a 65-year-old with the energy of someone half her age, is determined to keep innovating.
Hailing from Bangkok, Swasdee faced challenges from an early age. When she was a teenager, a fire ruined her family’s home and destroyed most of their possessions. After that, all six family members had to live in one room, and as the oldest of four children, Swasdee was expected to contribute to the family’s income.
While cooking for her family, she learned how to stretch a budget and creatively transform one dish into three. Her mother taught her to taste for the four flavors — salty, sweet, spicy and sour — that make up the full experience of a Thai dish.
Without a lot of money to spend on food, the smells and tastes of simple dishes made the strongest impression on Swasdee. At home she remembers cooking rice soup, Thai omelets and pickled radishes. When she started tutoring for extra money, she would buy coconut rice cakes as a breakfast treat from a food stand on the way to school.
Although Swasdee was a bright student, she lacked the money to take the required college entrance exams. A family friend and Buddhist monk named Luang Thia gave her 500 baht so that she could apply to college, which became a life-changing moment.
Her grandfather advised her to make a career out of one of humanity’s four basic needs (food, medicine, clothing and shelter), so Swasdee enrolled as a pre-med student at Chulalongkorn University. When she found she lacked an appetite for biology and dissections, she switched her major to food science.
After college she worked for a food research institute in Thailand but dreamed of going to the United States, a vision she credits to the television show “Bonanza.” “Anytime I walked by shops with TVs, I would watch this show with cowboys riding horses across big fields,” she said. “I wanted to go see cowboys.”
She got a short-term scholarship at Texas A&M that allowed her to work on a project creating new foods for developing countries, with the possibility of staying on for a master’s degree.
When she arrived in College Station in 1974 she experienced serious culture shock. The weather was cold, her English was halting, and there were very few Asian students on campus. (Lucky for her, her future husband was among them.) With encouragement from her host family, she gained fluency in English from reading the newspaper and watching “I Love Lucy.”
At work, she developed a way of extracting coconut protein to add to basic ingredients like rice, beans and flour. After her masters she completed a PhD in food science while working as an assistant at the food protein research and development center, helping to create the hot dogs eaten by astronauts in space.
After a post-school stint working for Kellogg in Michigan, Swasdee thought about what she really wanted to do. She thought back to her time at A&M when she had to drive for hours to find an Asian market that sold Thai ingredients.
She realized that she wanted to make Thai products accessible for the U.S. market, so she moved back to Texas in 1983 with that as her goal. A cautious friend advised her to first find out if there was a demand for the products.
Swasdee’s scientific mind kicked into gear and she developed a survey to find out whether Texans had tried Thai food before. When only 13 percent of the respondents had a positive response to Thai food, Swasdee held off on the food project and opened a high-end clothing boutique called Kikuya instead.
Four years later, Swasdee surveyed Austin residents again. With 37 percent responding positively, she decided to move forward. She opened her restaurant Satay, serving food from several Southeast Asian countries (including Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam).
When she served diners she would bring them a survey asking which sauces they liked the most. Based on the responses, she developed several sauces for a product line: spicy peanut, ginger sweet and sour, and Bali BBQ.
In 1990, some buyers from Whole Foods were lunching at Satay and complimented her peanut sauce. Seizing the opportunity, Swasdee started producing jars of sauce after work and ended up with a contract to sell at Whole Foods. At the peak of her retail success over the next decade, Swasdee had 16 products in 300 stores.
But in 2001, serious health issues forced her to slow down. Adding to her troubles, Swasdee had a major contract with Schlotzsky’s Deli and the company’s 2004 bankruptcy hurt her business. She scaled back production of the sauces and currently sells only big jars directly to businesses.
In 2009 Swasdee launched a new venture, the fast-casual Get Sum Dim Sum with chef-partner Chi Keung Chan. The restaurant was a hit with critics and customers, but making dim sum required special skills and high labor costs, leading to a slim profit margin. Facing a huge rent increase in their third year of business, they decided to close. Reflecting on the experience, Swasdee says she has learned important lessons about risk and collaboration.
Now focusing her attention back on Satay, Swasdee keeps things fresh by continually creating new dishes. On her menu of rotating specials she has some traditional Thai dishes such as Kao Soi, a northern Thai specialty featuring egg noodles and meat in a spicy curry broth, topped with crispy noodles, fried garlic and shallots. She also experiments with her own fusion creations, such as Chu Chee, a dish of pan-fried salmon topped with a red curry sauce and Thai basil from her garden.
The inexhaustible Swasdee is now writing a cookbook and planning to lead culinary tours to Thailand. With so many new Thai restaurants in town, Swasdee continues to keep long-term regulars but struggles to reach out to a new generation of customers. “I have to learn how to do Facebook,” she says with a laugh.
But the longtime ambassador for Thai food and culture has nothing but positive things to say about the more modern Thai places now popping up all over Austin.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a blessing for people to realize that Thai food can be flavorful and healthy.”
Open: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (until 10:30 p.m. Friday); 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: 3202 West Anderson Lane.
Information: 512-467-6731; www.satayusa.com.