It had been a long time in the making, but after months of talking about it we all got in the car for Kate’s Station. The Vanastra truck stop on highway 4 holds a legendary sort of status in the mindscape of Chris and Charlie. Tied up in memories of their hometown, it stands as a sort of truck stop outside time and space, a place that embodies when things were good, a museum of classic small-town cookery done right every time. I’d held on to my doubts, familiar with the disfiguring effect of time on what was good in memory.
“I want you guys to look at the menu, but I gotta order for us. I’ve picked out the hits. We’ll order it all and share it, Chinese-style.” We promised Chris we were hungry. “Good, because I don’t this could be pulled off if you aren’t empty.”
“Do you guys want the grand tour?” After 50 minutes of rolling down highway 8 through Seaforth we pulled left down a country road toward Vanastra. “When we were bored we used to just walk the train tracks and see how far we’d get before dark.” We turned again. “So this is Vanastra.”
“That’s the school we went to. It’s been bought by the church. Man, they’re really churching it up over there.” Chris pointed out a group of people getting into cars in the church parking lot. “From the church you can see the house we grew up in. It’s the one with the three small windows.”
“That’s probably how we got into cooking,” Charlie says. “We used to come home for lunch because the school was right behind our house. We’d come home and make up some hamburger helper, some noodles or whatever.”
Rolling through the residential streets we come around to the front of the house. “That’s it. I work with the guy that bought it and lives in it now,” Charlie says referring to his night job at the automotive plant – a silent contributor to Laohaus’ operational success.
Three houses down Chris points out another house, “That’s where Ray grew up. Just down this street is where Ricky grew up. Alizay grew up over there. Like, all of these houses had Lao people. It’s like little Laos. It’s no wonder we all stuck together.” It’s easy to call to mind the urban ethnic ghetto, or the suburb on the edge of town populated by immigrants, but the rural community of immigrants and refugees is almost never explored in settlement narratives. Here, in this sparsely populated village just South of Clinton, is the habitat of so much of Ontario’s Lao culture. “We used to do Lao school on Saturdays at the school. It was a disaster, because kids don’t want to be learning on a Saturday morning. And it’s not like there were teachers or anything – just all the women in the community trying to teach a bunch of unruly kids.”
The rest of the two minutes to Kate’s was spent pointing out all of the Vanastra landmarks: the dome-thing, the salt-mountain, the abandoned industrial buildings the kids would break into, the 10-meter forest the teenagers would go and party in, the guy who does all the glass fixtures in town.
“Here we are.” This was it, Kate’s Station Restaurant. A bright, well-lit truck-stop diner from another time. “I’m excited,” Charlie said displaying a sort of rare anticipation, one might show before a reservation at La Bernardin. It seemed almost as if efforts had been taken to keep it as anything but modern. The interior walls were covered in rural scenes in pastel colours and the occasional black lettering on signs. Two not-in-service buffet caddies with fading paint lined the wall beside two rows of booths. Kate’s was crowded by an older crowd, slowly chewing on plates of liver and onions. The customers wore neat, tucked in button up short-sleeves and wore ball-caps displaying the names of agricultural technologies.
Even a new laminated printing of the menu revealed a sort of stoic irreverence for trends: baked spaghetti, an option of either a home-made soup or a can of Campbell’s, liver and onions, hot turkey, hamburger steaks, mashed potatoes, battered mushrooms, shredded cheese poutine, fish & chips – a hit-list of every food ever enjoyed at a rural truck stop, done the way they had always done it. We ordered drinks and Chris opened the notes on his phone and rattled off an epic list – likely the largest single order a party of four has ever given that young woman – with the instruction to just bring it as its ready and to bring us four plates for sharing.
“You know I worked here,” Charlie says. “I got fired after two days for eating too much bacon. You know how when you do the bacon in the oven it’s hard to resist snagging a piece – I ate like a whole tray.”
“That was supposed to be my job, too. I was the one who wanted it.”
“Yeah,” Charlie says, “she knocked on our door asking for Chris because she was going to offer him the job. I was like Chris isn’t here but I’ll take it!”
“That was supposed to be my big entrance into the culinary world! Then after Charlie got fired I was obviously fucked, so instead I got to start at McDonald’s. Everyone worked here though: Ray, Ricky…”
“I must have done some chores or something, but I got a little money when I was a kid and came here for my first ever meal in a restaurant. I walked in, ordered the pork chop, and just sat here, alone, eating it. I was like ten or eleven. I don’t know what they must have thought.”
After a surprisingly short delay the food arrived in rapid succession. The grandeur, the royal immensity of the order was staggering, so much food that it could barely fit on the table. It fell into place: everything was familiar, but perfectly executed. It was, in many ways, what Laohaus does with its own Canadian menu. The burger wasn’t dolled up for the town – a simple, classic burger with a double patty that was, simply on its own terms, very good. The context in place, other details made sense. “We get our ground beef from the same butcher as Kate’s.”
The culinary world seems to spin on an axis of novelty. Much ado is made about astonishing diners with new flavors, textures, and presentation. In the modern marketplace, whether or not a chef can execute the familiar well seems secondary to their willingness to venture into the unknown. Cooks develop their own signature moves, or perform the classics ‘with a twist’. So much emphasis is placed on pushing the envelope, or putting one’s own trademark on a dish, that one might be lead to believe that drive to do it different supersedes the drive toward quality. Although nothing is wrong with the cook’s individuality driving their output, countless disappointing dinners when chefs have tried to be acrobats and overcooked their carrots gave Kate’s Station’s no-nonsense approach to executing the diner classics well a kind of unexpected freshness.
Chris and Charlie are no stranger to the world of haute cuisine. Their down to earth culinary sensibilities are tempered by experiences in talked-about restaurants across North America. The pair of them keep their finger on the pulse on what is happening in food, what chefs and restaurants are on the come up, what dishes are on the tongues of foodies everywhere. “This is one of my favourite restaurants,” Charlie says. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve kept my dentist in Vanastra so I have an excuse to come eat here.”
“You go to diners in cities and expect them to be like Kate’s because they all have basically the same menu, but none of them even compare to Kate’s at all.”
Basically, a chef’s output is dictated by countless hours of work, repetition, cultural exploration, and the varied memories that guide their compass. In many cases, the people and places that have the greatest influence fade into time and become inaccessible. Doors close, people go away. Yet, in the middle of nowhere, on Highway 4 just South of Clinton, Kate’s continues to do what it’s done for 25 years without missing a beat.