“How’s your spice tolerance?” Kulap Vilaysack asks me as we settle in at Khe-Yo, one of the few Laotian restaurants in New York City. She’s clearly looking to put her interviewer in the hot seat herself, but fortunately for me, we start not with a lip-scorching delicacy but with a pile of spicy pickled vegetables.
Vilaysack is a jill of many trades. She’s the showrunner of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, a comedy she created, directs, writes and executive produces about real estate brokers. And yes, the dollar sign is officially part of its title. It’s where Property Brothers and Cops crash, collide and blossom into smart, inclusive and hilarious comedy. Formerly airing on the now defunct Seeso, Bajillion is three seasons strong (available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon and FandangoNow), and now looking for a new network home. Vilaysack also co-hosts a pop culture podcast with comedian Howard Kremer called “Who Charted” and has appeared in Parks and Recreation, Welcome to Me, Love, Comedy Bang Bang, I Love You Man and more. Most recently, Vilaysack wrapped shooting on her first documentary, Origin Story. In it, she explores Laos through the lens of searching for and meeting her biological father.
Vilaysack was raised in Minnesota; her family arrived there through a sponsor family, the Danielsons. While Vilaysack’s parents prepared the foods of their homeland, she was also exposed to the likes of cheeseburgers, potato salad and chocolate chip cookies.
“Growing up, I was always in the minority, but then in the minority of the minority because I was an Asian that wasn’t recognizable or understood,” Vilaysack says. “My mom used to own a Thai restaurant called Diamond Thai in Minneapolis, ‘cause nobody knew Lao food. I mean, it’s amazing we’re in a Lao restaurant in New York. It’s unbelievable, it’s thrilling.”
She senses that Lao cuisine may finally gain more exposure in the states. Especially because in recent years, Vilaysack has become more involved in the Lao-American community in Los Angeles, where she now lives with husband and fellow comedian Scott Aukerman. On a more serious note, Vilaysack is also making efforts to educate Americans about the Secret War, where two million tons of American bombs were dropped on Laos for nine years during the Vietnam War. Many of those bombs are still buried there today, and President Barack Obama promised $90 million in September 2016 to help eradicate the decades-old problem.
As she rolls a small ball of sticky rice in her hands, Vilaysack tells me that northern Thai cuisine, Isan to be specific, is similar to Lao cuisine. A major factor in Lao cuisine is padaek. Padaek is to Lao cuisine as fish sauce is to Vietnamese. It’s the fermented, pungent fish paste where a lot of umami stems from, according to Vilaysack.
“You get it at your grandma’s house and she makes it in a big pink pail and puts it in the cellar,” Vilaysack explains. “It’s a very pungent process, but it makes things taste good. I don’t even want to handle it but I like what it does to food.”
She continues to work her rice between her palms as she reminisces about eating it with omelettes and soy sauce as a child. When I ask if there’s a specific hand to eat with, she responds with “No… oh shit, uh-oh. Maybe?” We laugh and use both hands. Here’s more from our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How similar to Thai food is Lao food?
Lao has that padaek. This is most simplistic and not fully accurate, but Thai’s like [British accent] proper and Lao is more down and dirty country. A lot of eating with your hands. It’s earthier and spicier in my opinion. There are different flavors.
Did you grow up eating a lot of Lao food?
I did. It’s interesting because my parents are immigrants, so that was the food that they made. But the food I liked growing up was American food. It was sort of a push and pull and living in two sort of worlds. As I get older, I appreciate it more, I crave it more like it’s comfort food.
Do you have a favorite dish from growing up?
I like something called keng no mai. Keng no mai is a bamboo shoot soup. It’s a little murky and green. When I was in Laos [when I was eight or nine], we had keng no mai and I bit into a big chunk of bamboo shoot but it was actually pepper and it was so hot. I started bawling because it was so hot. Nothing could make it stop being so hot in my mouth.
And it’s hot weather-wise, too, right?
Yeah, exactly. It’s very humid. It was humid in my mouth, humid outside my body. So, my family proceeded to give me fruit, like cherimoya (custard apple) and logans, and finally I basically cried myself to sleep. Like I tapped out on life, it was so spicy. But I love keng no mai.
So I was watching Bajillion before meeting you. I was wondering why there are always baby carrots on the table in the office. It’s always baby carrots and cucumbers or baby carrots and potato chips.
[laughs] Or baby carrots and popcorn. How about that winning combination? That’s so weird. I think that’s our prop master Dan Spaulding. It’s just a food that’s a color and it’ll keep for a few hours. A few times it’s been used as a joke. At one point it was animal cookies. Yeah that’s just our prop master just trying to find something that reads food and will keep.
And a lot of characters are eating them! Is that from direction?
That’s improv, baby! Also, I like to starve my actors. It makes their senses sharper. They’re more compliant when I hold food by the camera. [laughs]
What was like starting out in the entertainment business as an Asian-American woman?
It’s interesting. There are absolute limitations, but I don’t really look at limitations as a reason not to do something. So, as an actor, have I gone into rooms where there’s some sort of call for the quirky best friend? And have I looked in those rooms at the other women and seen a complete diversity within an Asian role? Absolutely. Do I know that on the other side of the room with the people with the cameras, they don’t see that diversity? Yeah. I see that, too. But I have been brought up in a community where you self-generate. I think I’ve learned that you must self-generate. As a personality it’s kind of hard for me to wait for someone to pick me, or I’m impatient. [laughs]
I’m 100 percent for representation. But, the roles that I’ve gotten, I got because I was Asian, too. That set me up and got my foot in the door, and now I want more. My first huge gig was The Office and it was being a Benihana waitress and being Asian. If I was white, I would not have gotten that role. But I got that experience, I got to work on an amazing show with Harold Ramis as the director. That’s an amazing experience that I got. I feel good about my career. I don’t feel like I’m held back in any way, but I want more representation. I think representation is really important, not just in front of the camera; I think it’s important behind the camera and as a show runner and as a producer, I’ve found a lot of fulfillment.
Appropriation and ethnic foods as trends have been a hot topic in the food sphere and in general. What’s your take on that?
I have a friend named Jenny Yang; she does a lot of funny videos on that. I forget what the source video was, but it was like how to make pho.
From Bon Appétit?
Yeah, so she made one about making PB&J. It’s pretty funny. But like, the two white ladies who essentially stole a tortilla recipe from a lady, well that sucks! And I know there’s been controversy with [Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker], but at the same time he’s bringing that food. As long as we have authentic people coming to back it, getting people used to the idea and understanding the flavors and then they can get it more authentic [elsewhere]. For every Jitlada—an amazing southern Thai restaurant in L.A. that’s world renowned—there are so many mom-and-pop Thai shops on every other corner.
It’s hard. Appropriation happens in so many ways, on every level. You just don’t want the wrong person to be the definitive voice in something. That doesn’t feel right. It’s a tough thing. And then it’s interesting, like Chipotle did Chop House. It bona fide failed. It was interesting that Chipotle was trying to do northern Thai, southern Myanmar, southern Chinese in a mixture. It’s a little ambiguous. I mean, do I like any movement towards diversity in mainstream American culture? Yeah, I do.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Mac and cheese.
Do you have a go-to recipe?
When I would make it, it would be from Barefoot Contessa. Many cheeses. It’s really hard for me if there’s a lobster mac and cheese anywhere, and not to order it. I’m about it. I love seafood. I love crab legs. I like the decimation, the deconstruction. I just really love food. Oh my god, there’s this amazing barbecue in L.A. called Park’s Finest. It’s Filipino barbecue. So freaking tasty. I’m not kidding, their cornbread [makes fainting noises]. It’s like coconut milk, and there’s a texture to it. It’s—oh my god—it’s so good. It’s a sweetness, and coconut-y and a sort of spongy texture like an Asian dessert cornbread. It’s crazy, crazy good.
Do you seek out food crazes, like the ramen burger or the Cronut?
No, I’m okay with not knowing about the ramen burger. I’ve had an off-brand cronut. It’s good. I don’t like lines in general. I mean of course I’d want to try something. But it’s like if you hear of a good food place, people are like I gotta go, I gotta go. I want to know why they’re dying to go.
So, have you been to Howlin’ Rays?
Lines! Those lines! Here’s the trouble: If I’m going out to eat, I’m already hungry. I can’t wait long. Like, I go to Boiling Crab on an off-time. It’s tough when you can’t make a resy. [laughs]
What’s your biggest food pet peeve?
Yesterday, Scott was like, we passed by a coffee place or something, and he was like “Oh, a matcha latte, you’ll like that.” I’m like, “I don’t like tea and milk.” I’m just like that. I like matcha alone. I don’t like the combination of the two. He’s like, “Do you like a chai latte?” It’s alright, but it’s not a thing I’m gonna have. It’s weird to me. And I don’t like sweet tea. I love iced tea but I’ll never put sugar in my tea.
I don’t like game meat, like deer. I think in part it was like, my dad in the winter, there’s roadkill, I don’t know how long, I don’t think he knew how long. It was cold. It was fine. Put it in the backseat of his Honda Prelude, take it to mom’s restaurant, back of the kitchen, butcher it in front of me. There I am, nose-to-nose with Bambi. Make a kid not want to eat it. But I’ll have duck. But growing up, my parents would have live geese; they’d buy live geese to butcher. There’s a laab with fresh blood. Not only could I not play with the goose that’s all tied up — they’re not in the mood — but I’d go, “Oh little goosey, I’ll name you Drew.” Then my dad, sitting with a bowl underneath him and just slitting this goose’s throat, slowly draining it, adding flour to the blood to coagulate it, thicken it up. I’m not interested in that.
So, no pig’s blood.
I do enjoy boat noodles, the hot and sour element. I love a hot and sour. But I don’t like the pig’s blood jello. I’m never thinking that’s what I want in my life. That’s a lot of iron, too.
So, you make a lot of frittatas. How’d you get into that?
My doctor’s like you need to live a more updated Atkins life. Now Atkins is vegetables and protein. Back in the day it was just protein. So he told me to start making frittatas. Make a frittata and eat it throughout the week. So that’s where it started. I enjoy making frittatas. You can add various veggies. It’s great.
What’s the best frittata you’ve made?
I like a frittata — again, what I’m giving you is high-fat content — you’ve got eight or nine eggs in it. In a separate pan, before the eggs, I’m sautéing the veggies, mushrooms, asparagus, purple onions. Then I mix up the eggs, add a little parmesan cheese — when I say “a little parmesan cheese,” it’s not a little — sour cream, goat cheese, mix that up, salt and pepper, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, then I add the cooked veggies to that. Then in a cast-iron skillet, little bit of oil, pour that mixture in. Cook that bottom up nice, a good ten minutes, probably, and finish it in the oven.
Then I’ll bake some bacon, that’s how I rock the bacon, I do it on wax paper, then I don’t get splattered and it’s nice and flat, a nice shape.
What’s your spirit food?
It’s not accurate, but this made me think of that Sanrio character Gudetama. [laughs] So, what’s my spirit food. I think it’d have to be in the flavor profile of a hot and sour, something spicy and lime-y. Maybe like a ceviche! With a little shrimp, a little squid and white fish. It’s a little sour, it’s a little hot and a little raw. Ha! High five!
[we high five and laugh]
I like that you did it because you didn’t want to. It’s hard to deny a high five. I meant emotionally [raw].