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Chef Saengthong Douangdara on Getting Closer to his Laotian Roots Through Food

Saengthong (Saeng) Douangdara is a Cooking Instructor & Personal Chef raised in the suburbs of Wisconsin. He is currently based in Los Angeles producing delicious Laotian food tutorials out of his home kitchen. Check out his work and watch his engaging and fun cooking videos at "Saeng’s Kitchen Lao Food & More” YouTube Channel and website at

Saeng in a handcrafted Laotian "pha biang". (Photo provided by Saeng Douangdora)

Saeng talks to us about being a refugee and his family's journey transitioning and integrating their life to the United States starting as a “cheese head” in Wisconsin. He also talks to us about pursuing a mental health Master’s program dabbling in his early careers as a Youth Counselor until he realized later in adulthood his passion for cooking, which led him to become a Cooking Instructor & Personal Chef specializing in traditional Laotian cuisines.


How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)?

I identify as a Queer Laotian American. Discovering my identity was a combination of my understanding of myself when I was growing up in Wisconsin. And asking myself “what did it mean to be gay and being gay in a really white town?" But also, “what did it mean to be gay and in the Lao community?” I think in that moment what really resonates higher is just my Lao identity. Because it has become my career, my passion, but I think it's also important to try to be transparent that I am a Queer Lao American Chef. For me, I am putting a big spotlight on Lao food, the Lao community, but I also don't want people to forget who this person is that’s putting the spotlight on the food. I think Queer and LGBTQ people and community also need a huge spotlight.

Has cooking Laotian food helped you in any way to help you have a stronger tie to your identity?

I think with my identities they were conflicting a lot of the times growing up. Growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, it was your outside identity: you look Asian, you look different, and of course you want to fit in. But then internally I was battling with a lot of my sexual orientation. I didn't know what was involved or whether there were people like me. On one hand I wasn't accepted into the white mainstream culture, but also on the other hand, I, in my head, I wasn't accepted in my own Southeast Asian Lao community. What brought me solace or discomfort was actually leaving both communities and finding my way. I think at times I had to leave in order to know who I was or what I valued. You can see that as “rebelling”, but I don't think that the term rebelling necessarily equates to what people do. These people like me, I am trying to find my voice and right now my voice is diminished with the people around me or that you have an internal struggle.

"On one hand I wasn't accepted into the white mainstream culture, but also on the other hand, I, in my head, wasn't accepted in my own Southeast Asian Lao community."

My first action of leaving was leaving the town and going to college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison meeting so many different people of all backgrounds, all identities, feeling somewhat part of a group. Then leaving to Hawaii to find and to feel okay to discover my own sexuality and who I was within the LGBQT community. I think it wasn't until I moved to California that I finally felt at peace with myself, and with where I could put value into both parts of being Laotian and Queer. I don’t have to be one or the other, but I can be both.

Saeng making sticky rice. (Photo provided by Saeng Douangdora)

When you were growing up what did you want (or still wish) to be?

When I was presented with this question through email I had a really hard time answering it, because I think back as a refugee kid. I don't think we were presented with many options, they just say this is what you can do- option A, B or C, but we're given the idea of what the American dream could look like through a very narrow lens. And I don't know if it was through my parents or through TV, but in my head, I was like, I need to be a doctor to give my family the American dream. From there it was very much tunnel vision. I was a great student K-12. It wasn't until college that I was failing and not doing so well in a lot of these science classes, I struggled a lot. It just wasn't resonating with me. I think that was all about exploration of my interests finally in college. I was able to finally explore my creative side. I joined a hip hop dance crew. I joined a Bhangra hip hop dance crew- I didn't know I was going to do that. I was a DJ. I list all of this because I feel like the inner child of myself when I was in college was craving so much for that creative life that I finally was able to give some freedom to explore it in college. I usually tell people, I try not to box myself. Even my LGBTQ identity,

"I use Queer as a more broader term. But I think that kind of transcends my career, my passions. Yes, there's a center focus of who and what the public sees who I am, but there's a larger picture of what I want people to gain from all the things I do."

What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?

I'm usually a person that's very optimistic and looks at the positive thing in life even if it doesn't look like that. I'm always able to find a positive spin to hard situations. I think I'm just a person with born optimism for some reason. I'm always happy. I think growing up as a kid, my family was really poor, but my Mom didn't make it feel like we were poor. There was always like a Thanksgiving meal on the table even though it wasn't Thanksgiving.

"I think that really centers on what food really does for a family, especially for a refugee family that comes from somewhere else, they bring a piece of them to the kitchen and that becomes like the safe space where: I can love my child. I can give them all that they need in this place."

The extent of barriers outside of the kitchen, the main barrier would be my LGBTQ identity. It suffocated me quite a bit and when I was a kid, because I didn't want to be different. I was the only male in my family- I was expected to having a wife and kids and all that. Knowing that I would be somewhat of a disappointment at that time, at least. At the same time, I think barriers are also something that kind of pushes people to do better, be better or push them towards something. With that barrier, I feel I have excelled in my career and what I want to do, and that it pushed me also to leave my town. I knew that because I'm not accepted as Asian and also not accepted as a LGBTQ, then I'm just going to leave and find some kind of peace.

Saeng in his kitchen in Los Angeles where he produces his cooking videos. (Photo provided by Saeng Douangdora)
"The solution was higher education at the time. I think the thing was that higher education was actually the thing that saved me in giving me freedom from the pressure that I felt growing up."

I thought I was actually going to be a Professor. Other than a college Professor I still think I'm a professor in some way with the work I do in teaching people how to cook on my YouTube channel. Another barrier would be financial, but I agree when I learned and realized I can ask for help you don't have to just obey. I can ask whether financial or something else, I will be given whatever answer, but you're always going to get a “no” if you don't ask so it is a big, thing to tell people always and you never know.

What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?

I have a hard time answering this question, because I don't remember, as a kid, I remember watching Access Hollywood and just seeing, “oh, is that what LA is so beautiful? That is so glamorous.” I want to go there. I mean, I'm here now, but it's not that glamorous. I would watch Food Network, and I loved Emeril Lagasse. I mean,

"I am trying to think of an Asian actor, but this is a hard question because no one pops into my mind as a little kid. But now as an adult, I see all my friends, friends of friends or people that are Asian and getting these opportunities. And that makes me really happy to know that if I was a kid, I would be so happy kids now have at least some options to see themselves on screen."

I think for me, because I didn't have that one significant figure as a kid that I look up to. It became my siblings, it was my older sister for a period of time because she was like the mother, a mother figure, because Mom was at work. She went to college and did so well so I wanted to do the same thing. I thought, I want to do well and go to college. Eventually switched to being able to see other mentors at the university level Professor that would take me in to help me figure out my way. Even now in Hollywood, you help people. you need to know people to help you figure out the way. Now my mentor now, my adult people that I look up to.

Saeng in a handcrafted Laotian "pha biang". (Photo provided by Saeng Douangdora)

What would you say to young girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?

What I would say to my past little kid- I would tell him that you can be anything you want. You just gotta put your heart and your passion into it and it'll come to creation. I think that's what I tell people now. It doesn't matter how many numbers, or people. Do you, be who you are! There will be someone that's going to accept you.

"There'll be more than just someone, but there'll be a lot of people. You need to show your authentic self in order to thrive in this world."

That's what I wish I would've known as a little kid, but as a little kid it was me protecting myself. That was my safety, and my coping mechanism, not coming out and trying to go undercover. Then come out when I'm in college.


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