Up, up and away from Stratford, through the Canadian Shield rounding over Lake Superior, some hours after the hard terrain of Northern Ontario gives way to the gentle flatness of the Prairies, you’ll find the cold river city of Winnipeg. It’s Manitoba’s only large population centre and contained within its perimeter is two thirds of the entire province’s population.
On our first day in town a sign caught my attention. In front of a two story house tucked in a bit from the sidewalk I saw “Khao House”.
Certainly that’s a Lao restaurant.
Describing itself as Asian comfort food, Khao House sports a tight, muscular menu. Lao hits parade across the menu: naem khao, laap gai, khao soi, sticky rice, papaya salad, but they stand next to other Asian favorites like fried chicken doused in Korean flavors, pho and ramen.
It struck me as a sort of parallel universe, so familiar but so different. Randy Khounnoraj is a 38 year old first generation Lao-Canadian, and together with his wife Karene they own and operate Khao House. I decided that I wanted to catch up with Randy to have a chat about food, culture, and the story of Khao House.
“I was inspired by the mom and pop Chinese restaurant. You know the kind that only ever seems to have a couple people ever in it, with really terrible service and the food seems to take a long time. One of the owners is sitting in the corner of the dining room watching Chinese soap operas on a tv. Yet, some of those places are around for 20 – 30 years!”
Randy explained that he really wanted an open kitchen diner. The emphasis was to slide away from the casual fine dining restaurant and toward being just casual. The dining room of Khao House is nicely put together: small, clean, with a feeling of spaciousness. Ironically, it seems to grasp at a casual fine dining atmosphere. The location had been two successive sushi restaurants, preceded by a Greek restaurant. The textured ceiling and lily-white Hellenistic white pillars near the door are the vestigal remnants.
“Asian food is really trendy right now. It’s what everyone wants to be making. In Winnipeg it’s not uncommon to see it on menus but not being cooked by an Asian. White chefs also want to put their spin on it.”
“What’s your opinion of that?” I asked.
“I’m fine with it. Most of the time I think when people try to pull it off they are super respectful. I don’t want to sound like I’m saying that I did it first or whatever, but I’m just making the food that I want to make and to eat. Which isn’t just Lao food.”
When I asked who taught Randy how to cook, he said “Nobody” with a bit of a laugh. Contrasting Chris and Charlie’s stories of the immersive food culture they grew up in with Randy’s story revealed another side of the immigrant narrative. “My mom was a single mom and she didn’t have a lot of time to cook. What she cooked was for survival. It was survival food. I was a picky kid, and I didn’t even like a lot of Lao food. I didn’t like papaya salad, and at a certain point I didn’t want her to send Lao food to school with me for my lunches because it smelled. Eventually they just sent me with lunch money.”
During university Randy started cooking. He applied to a cook job at a Japanese restaurant just because he needed to hold a job to pay the bills. His dedication to food really began with his first foray into professional cooking. His first experiences cooking in a restaurant clicked. The combination of mental stimulation and being engaged with his hands and senses laid the groundwork for what would be a career.
“The first thing I really got into making was ramen, because I grew up eating instant ramen noodles.”
“Mama. But you know, as I got older I’ve got into more premium brands,” Randy says with a laugh.
Randy and Karene had the idea of having a restaurant, and even had a location picked out before they knew what they were going to cook there. “I hadn’t really cooked Lao food and I figured now would be the opportunity to do that.”
After a year of business, Khao House is a restaurant of discipline and promise. The flavour and presentation of all of the dishes stays on point. The focus of the food’s spiritual geography is not so much about presenting an authentic cuisine as much as it represents the love and development of Randy as a cook and chef. It succeeds as a casual, family restaurant – and it shines as a place to get exciting food passionately prepared. As for the inspiration of the mom and pop Chinese joint with bad service they fall short of replicating it: the service is fantastic.