Thus far, the Laohaus blog has taken some efforts to be journalistic, and to keep a fourth wall intact. As of yet, there haven’t been any ‘I’ statements not attributed to someone else. In the interest of full transparency lets make some: I’m not Lao. I’ve never been to Southeast Asia. I’m vested with no authority of the usual sort on Lao food.
I’m Michael, the author of this blog. I’m a writer and career cook with an emphasis on Cajun Creole cuisine, Southern BBQ, fermentation and charcuterie.
I moved to Stratford with my partner Svenja in the fall of 2016. I’d accepted the chef position at a downtown restaurant. In nearby Kitchener-Waterloo, where I’d resided as a cook for the previous ten years, Stratford has a reputation as a startlingly vibrant culinary city. It has the Stratford Chef School, which bears the unusual distinction of implying it trains chefs and not just line-cooks or other members of the culinary regiment right in its name.
Despite proximity, I’d never been to Stratford prior to moving there. I spent the first two weeks searching for the culinary city I’d heard so much about, eating at many restaurants. Some of them were good but many of the experiences that I had were frustrating for some reason or another.
I asked my friend James who had both schooled and worked in Stratford where his recommendations were. His list was short, spanning only three restaurants. At the top: Laohaus. He described it to me just like this: “It’s a place owned by two brothers. They’re young guys that aren’t from Stratford. It’s cool – they make really good Laotian food and they’re repping their culture but also just running a chill place where they do what they want. It’s where you can go and listen to rap music.”
The first night Svenja and I went there it was slow. We went a little late and may have been the only customers at the time. A hit by Future was playing from a bass-heavy system. Immediately I felt good, restored, refreshed. Chris was working in the front, polite but casual. We poured over the menu and each decided on a soup, Svenja ordered khao poon and I ordered khao piak sen. Chris offered to change or turn down the music if we wanted, and we emphatically declined. We told him that it was the first time since coming to Stratford that we heard something we liked playing anywhere.
Our food came, and again, we were refreshed. It was substantial, showed craftsmanship, but was unpretentious. Chris checked up on us, and I commented on the noodles, and he very casually told me they were made in house. Made in house! A far cry from the modern cheffy menu that loads itself down with the clunky phrase “house-made” every opportunity it gets and then adds $3 dollars to the dish to cover the cost of ink, this delicious, hearty bowl of homemade noodles in a complex unctuous broth cost under $15.
Chris sat down and we started talking. We talked about the food of Laos. I told him a lot of the flavors were familiar, confessing that I crawled out of being a picky childhood eater after basically being bullied into eating good food by a couple of my high school friends from Vietnam. There are some similarities, but also a lot of differences, Chris told us. Come back again and eat more and you’ll see.
And we came back.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t been at Laohaus two or three times a week since arriving in Stratford. There’s the joke about thinking everyone at the strip club is a loser because you saw the same people there last week. I see the same people at Laohaus every week, almost as much as I’m there myself! They’re not losers though: they belong to the devoted food-focused customer base that keeps Laohaus going.
We’re all roughly the same age, and it wasn’t long before a shared love of food and hip hop forged a friendship. Chris and Charlie told me about Lao food and culture, we’d talk about places we’d been, restaurants we’d eaten at, growing up with nothing, the first rap songs we remembered from the 90’s. Out of curiosity, I started looking into what Lao food resources were available in English, and I discovered there was shockingly little that was modern, authoritative, and engaging to a novice.
I asked if they’d ever considered writing a cookbook. They hadn’t. Both Chris and Charlie are charismatic story tellers with a compelling story to tell about themselves. My employment soured over the winter, and I was looking for something else that I actually cared about to put energy into. We started scheming. Together we planned to put together a book focusing on Lao food, in a Canadian context, preserving foodways for posterity and encouraging people to discover an unjustly overlooked cuisine.