Austin’s Asian Cuisine Is Defined by Four Female Chefs
Ling Qi Wu, Ariana Quant, Jam Sanitchat and Lynn Miller are creating legacies of connection and community
When chef Ling Qi Wu moved to Austin in 2000, there was little interest in the cuisine of her childhood: Most locals preferred burgers and barbecue to dumplings. Originally from the Fujian province of China, Ling immigrated to New York in 1999 before following her husband to Texas. She took her first restaurant job out of necessity, but found the industry a natural fit given her upbringing in her grandmother’s kitchen.
Some 20 years later, the Austin food world is unrecognizable, attracting award-winning chefs and representing a greater diversity of cultures. Locals and tourists alike now clamor for elevated international fare. Though by no means the first to serve Asian food in Austin, when Uchi chef Tyson Cole won a James Beard Award in 2011, it created a rising tide for future chefs by shining a national spotlight on the city for the first time. After decades of underrepresentation in the local food scene, the entrepreneurial women at the helm of these four restaurants are leading a new generation of chefs with bold flavors and mentorship-driven cultures.
Named executive pastry chef for Hai Hospitality in November 2020, Ariana Quant oversees the dessert menus at Uchiko, Uchiba in Dallas and the Uchi outposts in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Denver and Miami. She pays regular visits to each Uchi restaurant, always blending different geographical palates while remaining true to Uchi’s—and her own—style of balanced, clean flavors. In Dallas, she focuses on “rich, gluttonous desserts,” whereas in Austin and Denver, she knows diners prefer lighter, fruitier morsels. In Miami, the newest Uchi location, she understands that locals will expect showy desserts highlighting tropical fruits.
One of her favorite creations on the Uchiko menu is the Jasmine Cream, a delicate dessert with layers of crunchy honey tuile, whipped jasmine-tea-infused cream and a cilantro granita, topped with fresh pineapple and edible flowers. The confection exemplifies Quant’s endless pursuit of the perfect but surprising bite. As the only female chef on the operations team, she’s also helping change the culture of the male-dominated sushi industry.
“It’s not traditional in Japanese culture to have women on the sushi bar, so we filled a sushi bar full of them and it was fantastic,” she says.
She takes the role of mentorship seriously, working alongside cooks to bring their pastry visions from mind to plate and maintaining a line of support even when she’s not physically at each restaurant. Helping more women find a place in the kitchen is especially rewarding.
For the past 13 years, Jam Sanitchat has also been creating a welcoming community for cooks and customers alike at Thai Fresh. Sanitchat moved to Austin from her home in Bangkok in 2001, the same year local Thai chain Madam Mam’s launched and five years after now-shuttered Thai Passion debuted. After studying communications at the University of Texas, she started teaching Thai cooking classes, relying on childhood recipes from her mother. As demand grew, she found a brick-and-mortar location in 2008, eventually offering both groceries and takeout. After several years of daily classes, she saved up for new equipment, installing woks overnight and opening Thai Fresh in 2012.
While growing her business, Sanitchat was surprised that sourcing local ingredients was not the standard as it was in Thailand. From the beginning, fare from Central Texas farms led to a seasonal rotation in her staple dishes, and while the recipes have stayed the same, her menu has taken on a Texas flair with Thai tacos and a spicy fried-chicken sandwich. Her restaurant was also an early adopter of the gluten-free movement, prompted by Sanitchat’s own wheat allergy.
Thai Fresh’s longevity in Austin has certainly secured its place in the industry, but Sanitchat’s care for her staff has left its own legacy. In 2016, she introduced a no-tipping policy, increasing her menu prices to offer higher pay, health insurance and time off for a happier team and low turnover.
Oseyo’s Lynn Miller remembers interning at Thai Fresh early in her career as a student at Natural Epicurean, a plant-based culinary program. She says Sanitchat quickly took her under her wing, giving Miller a front-row view of her commitment to growing and sourcing fresh food—a trait Miller borrowed in her own Korean American restaurant close to a decade later.
Growing up in Dallas, Miller was always explaining Korean food to friends. Dallas fostered numerous Chinese and Japanese restaurants, but Miller didn’t see much Korean representation beyond the mom and pop restaurants of her parents’ friends. They were good, but her teenage mind kept coming back to the same question: “Wouldn’t it be neat to have a really cool Korean restaurant?”
After studying and working in New York, she returned to Texas and eventually moved to Austin with her husband. With two kids and a real estate business, she initially turned down an offer to buy a restaurant space. But her childhood ambitions kept nagging at her, and in 2019, she opened Oseyo, a chic East Austin restaurant celebrating Korean American culture and showcasing her mother’s recipes. Opening the restaurant realized her lifelong dream, but it also forced Miller to wrestle with her Korean American identity. She marketed her concept as traditional Korean in a modern atmosphere. But native Koreans were confused by her menu, some even venturing to deem it what Miller calls the biggest jab a critic can give—inauthentic.
“I feel like I’ve poured my heart and soul into this place, so I don’t know how it’s not authentic,” she says.
Food itself, she’s come to realize, can never be inauthentic if it’s a true representation of the creator’s lived experience. Instead of going back to the drawing board, she embraced the middle ground she often finds herself in as a Korean American, not fully connecting to either culture.
“When I would go to Korea, they would say you’re not Korean,” she says. “When I’m here, I’m always Korean. And the reality is, I’m really not either.”
She’s intentionally reframed her language, now summarizing her vision as Korean American food in a fun setting because her restaurant is truly a love letter to both cultures, reveling in the resourcefulness, nourishment and celebration that is Korean food—and driven by an American spirit of melding cultures. Crafting the menu, she invited her mother to teach chef Mike Diaz her home recipes. The two tinkered in the kitchen together, getting each recipe Miller grew up with just right.
“This is the beauty of America,” Miller says. “An 80-year-old Korean American grandmother could impart recipes to a Mexican American chef.”
Passing on generational knowledge is also the driving mission behind Ling’s food—and success. After serving as the dim sum chef at Wu Chow, she opened her own restaurant, Lin Asian Bar, in Clarksville in 2018 and followed its triumph with Qi in 2020. If her first restaurant evokes fond childhood memories for older generations, she describes her latest eatery as the trendy downtown spot where you want to bring your friends, with a menu skewing more modern than traditional.
But her goal with both restaurants remains the same: to create an atmosphere where people put down their phones and truly connect with one another over food that sparks conversation. Ling worries the ancient techniques and food traditions her grandmother taught her will be lost in time.
“Don’t give up on learning new stuff,” Ling often encourages her team, remembering how she first arrived in New York with little money or English. Just as she slowly learned, she’s committed to helping others do the same, giving back to the Austin community by offering a space for connection and celebration.