On February 24th when Laohaus closed its doors it’s supporters were in shock. There was denial, sadness, and even anger. Laohaus, like 95% of restaurants, shut down within its first five years of operation. Yet Laohaus wasn’t seen by Stratford resident’s as just another statistic. In a town with almost 90 restaurants to a modest population of 30,000, watching food operations sweep up their cards and leave the table is commonplace and without emotion.
The reasons for Laohaus’ closure are manifold, but not that unusual for a restaurant. Labor difficulties, overworked ownership, low-returns are all responsible for the decision to shut down what, given more time, would certainly become an honored Stratford institution.
On the other hand, Laohaus isn’t over, because it was doing God’s work. It was immediate. It was good. It was authentic. And it was necessary on so many levels. What was anomalous for any other restaurant was the strength of Laohaus over its two year run. It was unapologetically itself: a representation of Chris and Charlie Sananikone, of their mixed culture and its values, as raw as it was fresh.
I remember Chris telling me at the start of this project that most Thai restaurants you went into in Canada were run by Lao people. “Northern Thai” as a genre of food was a euphemism for Lao food. The twisted irony of the whole situation was such that a culture that was so driven by food, so proud of their food, its flavors and its distinctness, were hidden in this new country, presenting as Thai. Lao restaurateurs cooked Thai hits for an audience that looked for familiar hits like the sweet som tum, pad thai and red coconut curry, but didn’t know about the funky thum mak huong or the spicy khao poon.
The shame is that the broader Canadian culture would wait years to try authentic Lao food, as is eaten by Lao people in their own homes, until Laohaus. At the time of its opening in 2015, Laohaus was the only Lao restaurant in Ontario without the word Thai attached. Lao refugees began arriving in Canada during the end of the 1970s. 40, maybe 50 years later, first and second generation Canadians of Lao heritage would start generating an interest in the food of their homeland.
Who knows? Maybe Canadians wouldn’t have understood the food until now. Our conservative palates are in the midst of becoming globalized: we’re looking to experience and understand new and different flavors. We’re pressured by Anthony Bourdain to suspend judgment and explore the world. The reality of a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan society is a reality many of us live every day; who would be considered the ‘Other’ a couple decades ago are here to stay, culturally we are starting to see that they are ourselves.
There may have been a time when Canadians would be put off by the spicy, pungent, complex aromas of Lao food; when we would be unable to cope with the idea of eating with our hands. The tide is changing and that time will soon be over. Laohaus might have closed its doors, but Canada has found capable spokespeople for Lao food. In another place, in another format, Chris, Charlie, and Laohausblog will continue the mission. Laohaus forever.