Refugee, scientist, inventor cooks up new career

Finds passion as a restaurant chef and owner

At the age of 5, Laddavanh Bouphavichith fled communist Laos with her father; by 27 she patented a catheter for Natick-based Boston Scientific, and by 30 she found inner peace: behind a sushi bar in Northborough.

Bouphavichith is owner of the Yama Zakura Sushi Bar & Fusion Cu i sine on West Main Street. Her patrons know her as Anna, the chef with the effervescent smile. She prides herself on knowing the tastes of her regular customers, and has named some of her creations in their honor.

The sushi phase of her career began in 2002 when her brother-in-law sought backers for a new restaurant.

“I figured I had some savings, my family needed help, and I loved the industry,” said Bouphavichith. “It was either that or invest in land in Prince Edward Island for my retirement.”

When the business fell on hard times two years ago, Bouphavichith bought out her brother-in-law and the other partners.

Then, drawing on her scientific background, she went about analyzing how things could be run more efficiently. She began by purchasing only sushi-grade fish instead of two grades, which had led to waste.

With a staff of 13, including four executive chefs and three sous chefs, Yama Zakura offers signature dishes like grilled Tokyo jumbo shrimp served with plum sauce, fresh lime juice, and daikon, a type of radish; and crispy sea bass, inspired by a recipe that Bouphavichith’s mother often made in Laos.

While the restaurant’s location is classic suburban strip mall — between Annie’s Book Swap and Robin’s School of Dance — its interior is right out of Southeast Asia with its bamboo ceiling fans swirling overhead.

Born in Laos to an upper -class family, Bouphavichith was one of five children — each with their own personal nanny. Her father was a commercial airline pilot who had once flown for the military and her mother a homemaker.

In 1979, when the Communists overthrew the royalist government, Bouphavichith’s father was tipped off by a friend to flee the country a day before he was to be arrested.

Her mother feared that the family would draw too much attention if they tried to leave together, so she arranged for someone to escort little Laddavanh and her father to Thailand by boat.

“My father resisted leaving, so together his friend and my mother drugged him to get him out of the country,” said Bouphavichith.

Along with her “sleeping father,” she was put in a small rowboat for the nighttime journey.

“My mother was handing me money . . . stuffing money into all of my pockets,” said Bouphavichith. “I remember crying, as I didn’t know what was going on. I still don’t know why they chose me to go with him. Maybe because I was a tomboy, but I was extremely frightened.”

In Thailand her father stayed in a refugee camp while Bouphavichith lived with cousins she’d never before met.

“Between siblings and stepsiblings, my dad has about 40 brothers and sisters, as his father had a few wives,” said Bouphavichith. (Polygamy was legal back then and common among the upper class, which could best afford large families.)

After three months, the rest of her family , accompanied by several maids , joined the father and daughter in Thailand.

A year later — after a three-month stopover in the Philippines — they arrived in Woonsocket, R.I., where they were sponsored by a relative.

Since Bouphavichith’s father was fluent in English he was offered a job as a translator, but he declined because he wanted to pursue a career in airplane mechanics.

Bouphavichith lived in Waltham, attending Henry Whittemore Elementary School, while her father went to school.

When he was hired by Continental airlines, the family moved to Worcester.

Bouphavichith studied medical technologies at Northeastern University. The summer after her sophomore year she worked as an intern at Boston Scientific Corp., testing equipment and writing instructions for their use. She never returned to Northeastern, remaining at Boston Scientific for eight years.

Though she left the company in 2004, her legacy remains in the form of a patent for a product that connects two types of intravenous tubing.

“When I was at Boston Scientific you had to come up with a new concept every week,” said Bouphavichith.

Now, she says, she applies her creative edge to making sushi.

When she learned that some customers wanted to lose weight in the new year, she created the Resolution Roll, wrapping fish in thin slices of radish and eliminating the rice.

Another of her innovations was adapting a torch, normally used for crème brulee, to sear the tuna and salmon maki.

Bouphavichith projects that her business won’t break into the black until 2009, but that doesn’t daunt her.

“It’s my passion , and I’m determined to get this up and running,” said Bouphavichith. “In the end, this is what makes me happy.”

For a menu, visit yamazakurasushi.com or call 508-393-4187.

Around the towns

Stefan Krug of Newton has been named dean of the Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston. . . . Sue and Andy DiLeo of Shrewsbury have been named as this year’s recipients of the Harry S. Cutting Award for community service. Sue Dileo is an adjustment counselor at Oak Middle School and is involved with Education and Leadership in a Nonviolent Age , which helps children resolve conflicts. Andy DiLeo has helped local families through the Knights of Columbus. Both work with Relay for Life, a fund -raiser for the American Cancer Society, and youth soccer. They will be honored during the Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services annual spring gala next month.

To suggest a People item e-mail Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

Click here to see this article on Boston.com