Celebrated Chef Finds Courage in Her Immigrant Roots

Immigrant chef digs deep to become one of the most celebrated up-and-coming chefs in the country

Chef Seng Luangrath’s first restaurant was only hours old when she locked the door and said, “I can’t do this.” The restaurant was emptied of the lunch crowd, but her self-doubt was palpable. “I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t easy, and I couldn’t do it.”

She took a walk. Reflected. Refocused. Regrouped.

And then just before dinner, she reopened.

That was 9 years ago. Now Seng – an immigrant from Laos – is the owner of four restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area and is finding herself among the most celebrated up-and-coming chefs in the country.

Earlier this year, Chef Seng was featured as part of the Resy Women of Food Dinner series that celebrated critically-acclaimed women chefs. Only Capital One cardholders could purchase tickets to the exclusive event at her Laotian restaurant Thip Khao. 

“Capital One is focused on offering unique and exciting experiences to our cardholders,” said Lauren Liss, Vice President of U.S. Card at Capital One. “We’re committed to bringing together our communities through enriching and insightful events.”

Rising to the D.C. foodie scene

Though Seng is considered an up-and-coming culinary darling, her acclaim hasn’t come easy.

Fleeing her home country following the Vietnam War, Seng and her family spent the early 1980s in a refugee camp in Thailand. As the oldest of four siblings, Seng became caretaker and cook – learning her grandmother’s culinary skills and secrets – which she continued after her family ultimately relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. 

Tackling a new culture, new language and new schooling, Seng later graduated, married and moved to D.C., another new experience.

Seng threw herself into raising her family and supporting the back end of her husband’s flooring business. On the side, this home cook would cater her husband’s business dinners, where her passion and talent for cooking took public stage for the first time and received rave reviews.

Buoyed by their encouragement, she opened her first restaurant in Northern Virginia, but chose to serve the more market-friendly fare of Thai cuisine, a close relative to her Laotian heritage. Occasionally Seng would offer a secret Laos menu to her diners. Word reached D.C. foodies and chefs alike, and the secret spread to the west side of the Potomac.

Breaking out of her ‘box’

Customers began asking Seng to open a second restaurant – this time in D.C. – but with a menu of Laos-forward cuisine.

“They said, 'Cook like you do it at home. Cook the way you would eat it,’” Seng said.

So Seng proudly and bravely stepped into her second restaurant and her authentic self for the first time. “I just had to do it. If I didn’t do it, who is going to do it?”

Her customers offered advice on locations, legal and licensing support, and help with painting and furnishings to make her D.C. restaurant a reality. “Without this support, I would not have been able to do this. Here I was someone from an unknown country, and they were thinking I could do it.”

Capital One believes in the small business owner, too. “Helping our customers run their businesses is our passion. When business owners partner with us, they can focus on what matters most. It’s inspiring to hear stories like Seng’s, as it specifically showcases the tremendous growth among women business owners,” said Jenn Flynn, head of Small Business Bank for Capital One. 

Seng felt the odds were stacked against her. “I was hiding in a little box cooking Thai-inspired food,” she said. “But I drew courage from my family, from those who enjoyed my Lao food and from all I had overcome in my life as a refugee and immigrant.”

Connecting people and experiences

“At Capital One, we’re on a mission for our customers – bringing them great products, rewards, services and access to unique and unforgettable experiences they are passionate about,” said Lauren Liss, Vice President of U.S. Card at Capital One.

Capital One is stepping in to curate memorable experiences for their customers, giving them opportunities to experience their passions in new ways and spend valuable time with friends and family.

Seng said she was excited to partner with Capital One, and wants to inspire others with her story.

“Being a woman, being a Laotian immigrant … or any immigrant … I would say that there are always opportunities. Don’t give up. Nothing is impossible.

“If you push hard, stay focused, you can do anything.”