When Chef Ava Yau and I met for an hour-long Zoom call, her camera wasn’t working, so I couldn’t see her as we talked. But in her voice, I could hear her passion for food and the joy that it brings her to delight others through her cuisine and pastries. At the end of our call, she graciously offered to cook for me and my family. I stopped by Of Rice and Men to pick up my handcrafted order from Chef Ava. I was greeted with warm welcomes from the staff, who all were just as warm when they spoke about Chef Ava. The restaurant feels like something you’d find in downtown Chicago, but with an Ann Arbor hug. As my family enjoyed our meal, in between tasting the duck dumplings and the beef teriyaki udon, my husband proclaimed, “Let’s go back there this weekend with friends!” Chef Ava’s culinary craft is something you have to experience more than once; knowing her story makes it all the more special and savory.
Inspiring and Aspiring
I was born and raised in Thailand within my large extended family. Our family had five homes in one big fenced-in area, similar to how many families live in Thailand. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were all steps away, so we spent time together every day. I remember having so much fun. My family also had a second house right next to the beach that my dad operated as a hotel and grocery store. I definitely started in the hospitality business young!
In our country, we typically eat five times a day. Because of that, I have a lot of memories from my childhood that include food. We would all sit at a big table and have many plates of food to share together. On the weekend, I would wait for the snack lady to come by with her cart. For lunch we’d go get noodles at the noodle shop nearby. Then we’d wait for the ice cream cart to come around. We ate whatever we wanted to eat, and lots of it. I was so accustomed to seeing all these dishes at mealtime that later in life when I would sit down and only see one or two dishes, I couldn’t get that excited to eat.
Our city, Phetchaburi (also known as Phet Buri, located about one hundred miles outside of Bangkok), is known for three key ingredients used in Thai cuisine. Phetchaburi produces high-quality sea salt, palm sugar, and Key limes, earning the nickname “The City of Three Tastes” — salty, sweet, and sour. It has been recognized as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. The farm-to-fork practice is also alive and well in the provinces, where farmers deliver fresh produce and seafood directly to food outlets and manufacturers as well as local households.
All of this exposure gave me an early introduction to the hospitality and food industry. But working with food for a living wasn’t something that I saw myself doing. It was actually my dad who said to me, “Ava, you should be a chef.” I didn’t take his suggestion seriously at the time. I thought I wanted to do something different, but I ended up not liking what I had chosen to study, which was mass media.
So, in my twenties, I went on a journey to discover what I really wanted to do. I enrolled in the Japanese Baking Academy, and later the European Pastry Academy. I was fortunate that Thailand offers many opportunities to study the culinary arts. After my pastry studies, I went on to learn more about Thai and Japanese cuisine.
I like both pastry-making and culinary cooking. When studying bakery arts, you learn that successful pastry chefs must be organized and clean. Everything needs to be measured and perfectly timed. Pastry is concise and precise because of the science behind it. Cooking is less restrictive; you can add a little bit of this and a little bit of that. That’s what I enjoy about it. People usually focus on becoming either a pastry chef or a chef de cuisine, and it’s rare that a chef chooses both. However, I was born a Gemini, so I’m not surprised that I was drawn to two different disciplines!
Viva Las Vegas
When I was twenty-seven, I was accepted into the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where I studied French pastry. Although I had traveled all around Asia and Europe working with organized event companies, living somewhere else year-round was a big move for me.
Soon after I graduated, I was offered a prestigious position as a pastry chef for the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace — the largest buffet in Las Vegas. While I was in Vegas, I had the opportunity to work with Korean celebrity chef Akira Back, who won Iron Chef in 2008.
I also worked with Netflix’s Sugar High Champion, Executive Pastry Chef Mathieu Lavallee, at the ARIA Hotel in Vegas. The pastry shop was like a dream for pastry lovers! Moving to Las Vegas allowed me to work with some of the top chefs in my industry. It also taught me how to organize the way I work and plan out a menu. In Vegas, you can learn things you can’t learn anywhere else because of the access to top talent and high-end equipment that other restaurants just don’t have. I would say that if you want to be the best, go to Vegas. You will learn everything there!
The Woman of Rice and Men
After living in Las Vegas for about four years, I started to plan my move out to Ann Arbor. I narrowed my search to jobs in fine dining, such as in a luxury hotel or a resort. I was lucky to learn about the Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor. I contacted Chef Louis Goral, and he asked me to come out to Ann Arbor to do some testing and get to know each other. Our excitement to work together was mutual. I packed my bags and moved out to Ann Arbor to work with Chef Louis to open a new concept in town.
We opened Of Rice and Men in March 2019, next door to the Blue LLama Jazz Club, at 312 S. Main Street. It was an exciting first year. However, in March of 2020, we had to close both restaurants for indoor dining due to the pandemic. We continued to operate with a very small staff and found ways to offer unique carryout experiences to our customers.
One day, I had a thought: People should be making more bread so that they can stop thinking, at least for a couple of hours, about all the hard things in the world. So, during the take-out only time at our restaurant, we created a breadmaking kit for our customers. We gave customers the ingredients with instructions so they could bake the bread at home themselves. I believe that making bread helps release the stress as your hands move and work with the dough. Making bread can magically help you to relax.
During 2020, it was all hands on deck with the crew that we had. I was cooking and washing dishes; we all did whatever we could. It was rough for everybody, but we made it. We were happy to fully reopen in May of 2021.
When I wasn’t breadmaking, working to continuously improve dishes, and washing dishes, I was reflecting. The pandemic gave me the gift of time. I had time for the first time in many years to think more about my life and the people that I care about. I believe this pandemic brought people closer to one another, even though we couldn’t physically be together. For example, I have a step-sister who lives in a different state. Previously, I had never reached out to her in the many years I have lived in the US. But during the pandemic, I contacted her and invited her to visit me. We finally met last year, and I’m thankful that the pandemic pushed us to make that effort.
Experience the Difference
Of Rice and Men is not a big Las Vegas-sized restaurant. We have a smaller kitchen, but we have dishes you might not find anywhere else. Because I’ve traveled all over Southeast Asia, I wanted to bring a fusion of cuisines here to our restaurant. It’s not the typical American Asian cuisine, but something deeper, yet still presentable to the American palate. I would say it’s Asian with a modern twist. We feature a menu that is Thai-infused, but also includes dishes with Japanese and Korean influences. Some of our sushi is similar to what you can find at other places, like California rolls, but a few varieties are more unique, like our Miyazaki A5 Wagyu Nigiri or Seared Foie Gras Nigiri.
I hope our guests have a palate-pleasing experience from tasting our hand-crafted (never frozen!) food. Nowadays it’s hard to find a restaurant that makes and handles their food that way. Just today, I was interviewing a new hire and she was actually surprised that we do everything here by hand. People tend to forget that when you do everything by hand, it takes time because we don’t use machines, and it costs more because of the quality. I hope people can see that in our dishes and appreciate that.
I also hope that everyone has a good time when they’re here in the restaurant. The atmosphere depends on the day, and sometimes even changes with what music we play. Some days the vibe is a little “hippy” and some days it feels more modern. It’s not a traditional Asian restaurant with a quiet atmosphere and soft music. We are a bit livelier than that! People love to come and sit up at our bar, or eat before or after seeing a live show next door at the Blue LLama Jazz Club. I’d say music is a special ingredient in our success.
Never Give Up
While I was studying out in California, my dad passed away in Thailand. To date, this has been the biggest challenge that I’ve faced, and it totally changed me. It shifted my focus and purpose. It has compelled me to do everything I can to make him proud, even though he’s no longer here. To this day, I’m grateful to my dad for seeing something in me at a young age that I didn’t yet see in myself.
When I’m asked if there’s something that I feel accomplished about in my life, I have to answer, “Not yet.” Maybe I have too many goals. I’m sure my mom is proud of me; I just feel like I need to continue to work to make my dad proud of me.
My close friend in Indonesia, who is a lot like my dad, told me “Ava, keep doing what you’re doing, and you will be a success.” There are moments when I feel so tired and want to give up, but I don’t. I go to sleep and wake up the next day and I start to fight again. As I always say to my cook, everybody wants to be the chef, but how far are you willing to go to become the chef? If you’re really committed to something, then I say “OK, then never give up!”