In the back of Waldo Thai Place on Wornall Road, behind a metal gray door, oil sizzles with the aroma of frying meat. Near the back of the kitchen and taking command over a line of large, hot woks is executive chef Pam Liberda.
Liberda and her husband Ted opened Waldo Thai Place last summer after closing down Thai Place in Westport in 2015. Since then, Waldo Thai Place has garnered attention from food critics and lovers for offering a selection of regional Thai dishes that stand out from others in the Kansas City area.
Liberda curated the menu at Waldo Thai Place and chose her favorite dishes because she wants the customer to feel that love through her food.
“I want you to feel like you come to my house, you’re my guest,” she says. “This is the stuff I like to eat and the stuff I like to cook.”
One example: pad kee mao. It only takes Liberda about five minutes to make in the kitchen. Using a wok and high heat, she throws together egg; flank steak; yellow onion; and an assortment of vegetables like Chinese broccoli and Thai basil. Bringing the dish together are the kee mao noodles, which are a type of rice noodle.
“We use a fresh noodle instead of the dry noodle, and we soak it overnight,” Liberda said.
Pad kee mao is notable for its spice, which it gets from serrano pepper and Thai chili pepper. The dish is also popularly known as “drunken noodles,” as “kee mao” in Thai translates to “drunk.” Liberda says there’s a story behind pad kee mao involving a drunk guy going out to his garden and grabbing all the vegetables he can find.
“It becomes this dish,” she says. “It’s called the drunken noodle or pad kee mao, so it’s kind of like soaking up the alcohol at that point.”
To finish off the dish, Liberda adds black soy sauce, sugar and white pepper. She says the wok and the intense heat of the flame brings all the flavors together.
“After you understand the heat and you learn how to manage the heat — the fire — then you understand the whole process of cooking, and actually our kind of food,” she says.
A passion for cooking deferred
Growing up in the small town of Lamphun in northern Thailand, Liberda loved the traditional food her family cooked. But she quickly learned that cooking was not something she should seriously pursue.
“You do not [do] cooking for a living,” she says, thinking about what her parents told her when she was young. “That is for people that have no education, that was how I grew up. … You have to go to college, you study hard, you become somebody. You will not cook for a living.”
There is a secondary cultural component at work, too — the idea that many older Asian parents push practicality over passion when it comes to a career. For Liberda, this translated into studying nursing at a university in Thailand and then working as a nurse, first in the EMT ward and then in the operating room assisting surgeons.
“In Asian culture, we don’t know. We deny the word ‘passion’ or ‘follow your dream,’” Liberda says. “If you have a brain, you follow your brain, not your heart.”
Liberda immigrated to the United States on October 23, 1998, a national holiday in Thailand commemorating King Chulalongkorn, one of the kings of Siam. Liberda’s move to the U.S. came with a case of culture shock — she quickly realized that if she wanted to continue eating her favorite Thai dishes, she would need to learn how to make them herself.
“Back then it was Americanized food,” she says. “So if you want a real dish, you’re going to have to make it your own.”
To help recreate traditional Thai food, Liberda says she relied on her memory.
“You remember in your mind, in your palette, like, ‘Oh, yes, I want my food to taste like this,’” she says.
Liberda married Ted Liberda after taking a job at a local Thai restaurant in Kansas City. She said getting married to a restaurant owner further pushed her into the professional cooking world. After jumping into the restaurant business with Ted, Liberda says she helped her husband run the restaurant by becoming a jack-of-all-trades — from working the front of the house to filling in for cooks if they were out sick.
Liberda says she further improved her cooking skills when she worked at the international wing of the Cerner Innovations Center for a year and a half. In that position, Liberda made food for about 500 people at a time. She says working there helped build her confidence as a cook.
“That was my first time actually working in an American kitchen,” she said. “And [I] learned how to use everything that I can get to make the dish.”
It’s been a long time since Liberda worked as a nurse in the EMT ward, but Liberda says she thinks she’s found her passion in life. She loves that she can cook the dishes she cherished growing up — and she knows she’s good at it, too.
“I would say, I have a gift of whatever I have in front of me,” she says, “I make it happen.”
Celisa Calacal is an intern at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at @celisa_mia.