Chef Ann Ahmed’s Culinary Journey to Self-Discovery

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Photography by Matt Lien

Cooking is the core of who I am. It’s my work, my craft, my passion, my spirituality, my entire existence. Cooking makes me feel alive and challenges me to be better every time I’m in the kitchen. Long before I had earned the title of chef, cooking gave me a sense of purpose and belonging as a child when I would help my grandmother prepare food for the family. Cooking is also the driving force behind my journey of self-discovery a journey that has led me to open four Twin Cities restaurants in the span of 18 years and that has taken me around the world and back to my birth country.

My father died when I was 18 months old, and shortly after that, my mother and I fled war-torn Laos to seek refuge in Thailand. We stayed in the refugee camps for two and a half years, until my great uncle sponsored us to come to the United States. Upon arriving in Minnesota in 1984, my mother set out to provide for our family and took on multiple jobs, including working as a cook at Sawatdee Thai in the evenings.

Before we immigrated to America, I hadn’t spent a moment without my mother. She was my entire world, so losing her to work was so hard. I rarely had time with her, so when she was home, I was glued to her side. My love for cooking began in those moments watching her prepare our family meals. I would even tag along to Sawatdee and hang out in the kitchen while she was working the line. Since then, the kitchen has been my home.

Photography by Matt Lien

When I was seven years old, my mother remarried and moved us to California. Unfortunately, I didn’t fit in with my new blended family and missed my home in Minnesota. So when I was 11, my mother sent me back to Minnesota to live with my 70-year-old grandmother. That was such a traumatic experience for me; even though I put on a brave face, I felt so scared and alone.

I felt like I’d been abandoned by my own mother, like I’d lost the only person I had. Her actions also seemed to validate everything that my aunts and uncles had labeled me after my father’s death — weak, hopeless and at a disadvantage in life. Their words haunted me so much that I was always praying for a miracle.

Then I discovered the word “resilient” and became determined that this would be me, that I wasn’t doomed like everyone said I was. Whenever the people around me made me feel small, I’d close my eyes and remember the words my mother would whisper in my ear: ote ton, meaning “stay strong.” That simple yet powerful phrase is the greatest gift my mother gave me, and it has carried me through so many hardships in life.

Photography provided by Ann Ahmed

When I was a freshman in high school, my mother and stepfather moved back to Minnesota. I told my mother upon graduating that I wanted my own restaurant, which she immediately shot down. She explained that working in a restaurant was not the life she wanted for me — she wanted more for me, to see me sitting behind a desk wearing nice clothes. She felt that in order to achieve that goal, I needed to go to college and get a degree in anything but culinary studies.

To honor my mother’s wishes, I went to San Diego State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with the intention of becoming a teacher. But when I started my student teaching, I realized that my heart was not in the classroom. My creativity felt stifled, and I didn’t have the freedom that fuels my soul. I longed for the excitement, the sounds and the smells of the kitchen.

In 2005, out of nowhere my mother called and explained that while she was out for a walk in her Brooklyn Park neighborhood, she saw a Restaurant for Sale sign. She suggested I look into it. I was so confused, because this was the same person who had told me “no” seven years ago. But if she was going to tell me “yes” now, I wasn’t going to hesitate. Without seeing the space, I knew I wanted it. I went straight to the bank, walked out with a check for $150,000 and flew back to Minnesota to open my first restaurant, Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine.

Photography by Matt Lien

At just 25, I was young and stupid when I made that decision (though “fearless” probably sounds better now). I didn’t have a business plan or any plan really, so I winged the whole thing. I found a lawyer online to help me finalize the transaction. I maxed out all my credit cards to repaint the space and remove the smelly carpets. I didn’t have any money left to stock my walk-in cooler, so I sold my car and walked instead. I was so determined to make it work.

We opened the doors to our first guest two weeks later. I couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so the Lemon Grass team consisted of my mother, my cousin and myself. Because we were such a small operation, we were able to survive the Great Recession. Then business started to boom. By 2011, I had saved enough money to expand from 10 tables to 20.

With the success of Lemon Grass, I knew I had it in me. I had long dreamed of building a restaurant from the ground up — something I could really pour my heart into. I wanted a menu that was a reflection of me and also yearned to inch my way closer to the city, so I settled for the western Twin Cities suburb of Golden Valley. But I didn’t want to play it safe with the food; I wanted to push the boundaries.

Photography by Matt Lien

At that time, I was really missing my grandmother, who had passed away in 2004. I found myself cooking her favorite dishes as a way to comfort myself, replaying those memories of her in my mind and tasting them on my palate. When I opened Lat14 in 2018, I wanted to honor her life and her passion for taking care of others. Focused on the diverse, flavorful cuisine found along latitude 14, the menu is a combination of my past and my future, reflecting my growth as a chef and restaurateur.

That’s when the public started to take notice of me. They were curious about the girl who was flipping a former Perkins into a posh Asian eatery in the suburbs of Minneapolis. As I started getting more attention, people wanted to know my story, which forced me to have a tough conversation with myself: Who am I? What am I doing? With everyone watching, that was a scary conversation. But it was also the beginning of my truth.

I started to realize I don’t need to be Asian enough or American enough — I just need to be me. I need to do what feels right for me and serves my purpose. Through Lat14, people got to see that my restaurants don’t fit into a stereotypical box. I wanted my guests to come for the delicious Southeast Asian–inspired dishes and stay for the drinks and vibe. Later that year, Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune gave me the title Maverick of the Year, and that’s when I truly felt I was Ann Ahmed. Not too Asian nor too American — just me.

Photography by Matt Lien

I have always wanted to own an eatery in Minneapolis, but I never would have thought that opportunity would arise during a global pandemic. Opening a restaurant was the last thing on my mind at that time, but I knew that if I wanted to see change that I needed to be a part of that change. I was hopeful for our city after the social uprising that followed George Floyd’s murder, and this would be a way to create jobs and help revive our industry. In October 2021, I opened Khâluna, named for the Buddhist teaching about compassion. During that time of collective struggle, I felt like we all needed to show one another some compassion.

My design inspiration for Khâluna was born out of the pandemic, when we were all stuck at home. Like most, I dreamt of tranquil beauty, nature and escape. My goal was to make guests feel like they’re on vacation by stimulating all their senses. Khâluna quickly became a destination experience, but without the long airport lines and TSA security checks.

I kept telling myself that Khâluna was the last restaurant I was going to open, but then another opportunity presented itself. My husband, Tarique, reminded me of my dream to create a restaurant heavily influenced by my Lao roots. I agreed to do a walk-through of the space, and it just spoke to me. I was immediately inspired by my favorite city in Laos, Luang Prabang. Gai Noi opened in Minneapolis’s Loring Park neighborhood last May, with an easygoing vibe that encourages guests to come as they are.

Photography by Matt Lien

I don’t like to be called an expert in Lao cuisine since I left my birth country at the age of two. I am still learning and am always searching for answers myself. What I want to share with guests is my interpretation of Lao food, why it’s important to me and how it’s part of who I am as a Lao American.

Every time I work on a new restaurant project, it becomes my obsession, just as cooking challenges me to create something more delicious than the last time. When a guest enjoys my food, it makes me feel worthy and needed — the exact opposite of that little girl who felt like she wasn’t wanted by her own mother. I’m slowly healing from my childhood trauma through cooking. It has been a bumpy journey — one filled with heartache, sorrow, mistakes and growth. But it’s my journey, and given the choice I’d do it all over again, because it led me to where I am today.

I started my first eatery solo, but oftentimes reaching your dreams requires being surrounded by people who believe in you. I started to feel that support when I met my husband. Up until that point, I felt destined to fail, just how everyone said I would. Tarique saw the exact opposite in me: a girl filled with hopes that he wanted to help make a reality. Learning to trust and accept help has allowed me to grow as a chef and as a person. Every single evolution I’ve experienced has strengthened my connection with my core and my foundation as a Laotian woman who grew up in the American Midwest.

Photography by Matt Lien

Throughout my career, I felt like I had to pick between growing my business and having children — that the two couldn’t go hand-in-hand. When I was 35, I chose to get pregnant with my twins and still focus on my work. I remember at one point I was cooking at the wok station and couldn’t reach the wok because my belly was in the way. I was so hormonal that I would sometimes lock myself in the employee bathroom and just cry. But those nine months flew by so quickly, and before I knew it, I had the cutest little faces to stare at. My now nine-year-old twins, Maxwell and Emma, are such a blessing. They gave me something I had been seeking for so long: a family of my own.

Choosing to have children and still run my restaurants has come with its own set of responsibilities and consequences. I have been told by women in my circle that I can’t do both — that I can’t be a great mother if I’m still working full-time, that it’s selfish to be away from my children, that I’m going to miss all the milestones in their lives. Of course, I feel guilty not being able to put my twins to bed every night, but I also know that I wouldn’t have been happy with myself if I had walked away from my restaurants to focus solely on my family. I am definitely not a traditional mom; instead, I’m charting my own path in parenthood. I only hope that my twins will appreciate this shared journey.

Now that I have my own children, I’m able to better understand the decision my mother made when she sent me away to live with my grandmother. Ever since I opened Lemon Grass, she has been my biggest supporter and has put my needs before her own without ever asking for anything in return. This is the love of a mother that I was not able to see until I became a mother myself.

Photography provided by Ann Ahmed

These days, I want to give my aging mother everything and share as many experiences with her as possible. That’s why our recent trip to Laos was so important to me. I know that she’s proud of me, but I wanted her to bask in the glory of her success in how I turned out, to experience firsthand her daughter being invited to cook Lao food for native Laotians at the luxurious Rosewood Luang Prabang resort. I am successful because of her.

Laos should feel foreign because I left as an infant, but for some reason it doesn’t feel that way. I remember returning to my birthplace when I was 29 years old and looking out the window as the plane descended upon the jungles, the mountains and the mighty Mekong River. When I first set foot outside the airport, it felt strangely comforting despite being so new to me. Traveling throughout Laos, I was mesmerized by its simple beauty and tranquility. These trips to my home country remind me to slow down, breathe and enjoy life’s small moments.

Before my recent dinner at the Rosewood Luang Prabang, I felt so anxious that my Lao cooking wouldn’t be authentic enough. Then when I saw the list of notable guests who would be in attendance, I fell down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and started to question myself as a chef: Am I Lao enough to cook this meal for all these important guests at a luxury hotel like the Rosewood? Am I skilled enough to represent myself as a Lao American?

Photography by Matt Lien

I had to remind myself that this invitation to be a guest chef at the Rosewood is one of the most honorable invitations of my career — to be able to showcase my skills as a Lao American chef at a luxury property in my home country. When Adrien, the hotel manager, invited me, I almost couldn’t believe they had chosen me for this experience. But he believed in me, and I wasn’t going to disappoint him. This opportunity aligned beautifully with who I am as a chef at the moment: I am a Lao refugee who fled her home country and is now returning to cook in her homeland with her mother and children in the audience. I was not going to let my trauma take this spotlight away from me.

Beforehand, I was also nervous about preparing the meal in a foreign kitchen and working with a completely different staff, especially since I’m not a super fluent Lao speaker. Most of all, I was worried they wouldn’t accept me as a Lao American presenting a non-traditional menu. But when I got there, I found a team of almost entirely women under the age of 30 who were so excited to work with me. They swarmed around me, trying to learn as much as possible during our few days together. I immediately felt inspired by these young women, and their curiosity to study my palate made me want to cook the best flavors for them.

The guest list for the evening was one of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever cooked for, including a group of friends from Napa, California, a lovely couple from Brazil, a foodie from Singapore, some native Laotians, a Minnesotan friend who now lives in Bangkok, and Khun Rena Udomkunnatum, owner of the Rosewood Luang Prabang. It was such an honor to cook for Rena and her friends. My biggest supporters were also amongst the diners, including my husband, my twins, my mother, my stepfather and my in-laws.

Photography by Matt Lien

The menu I curated was very close to my heart. My welcome bite was a special surprise for my mother: a wild fruit known as mak kall that’s her favorite food. It is such a treat to find thes purplish-blue delicacies at the morning market, because they are foraged in the wild from the tarow palm. I blended the mak kall’s creamy, silky flesh into sticky rice, then seasoned it with a hint of local cane sugar and lightly dusted it with young coconut meat and toasted sesame seeds.

Next, the first course was a quintessential trio of pun (wraps), followed by a Bangladeshi lamb curry that knocked everyone’s socks off. When the guests first saw this dish on the menu, many of them were confused: Why is a Lao American girl cooking Bangladeshi curry in Luang Prabang, Laos? In explaining the inspiration behind the dish, I shared my Bangladeshi love story with them.

In our lifetime, we have different points when we feel that our life begins again. For me, my life started when I met Tarique, which is why this dish is so important to me. My in-laws had very specific criteria for who was going to marry their son, and I didn’t meet any of those. So I did the one thing I know best to earn their acceptance: I cooked my way into their hearts.

Photography by Matt Lien

The third course was a Laotian feast featuring six different dishes, many of them inspired by my grandmother. The guests especially liked the knapp ped, grilled minced duck marinated with herbs and heavily seasoned with prickly ash from Xiangkhouang province. They commended me for not holding back; some of them were even a little shocked that a Lao American could deliver such bold, fearless flavors. For dessert, I gave the Rosewood chefs complete freedom. It was the perfect way to highlight their talents and close out the meal.

I went into that dinner with so much self-doubt, fearing that the guests would be underwhelmed with my style of Lao cooking. But the menu really helped me stay grounded to who I am. Once I started cooking, I felt more relaxed and confident that the diners were going to love the food, because everything came from the heart. This event was so special in so many ways, giving me a sense of connection and purpose that I didn’t know could exist.

Photography by Matt Lien

What is my truth? Cooking has helped me deal with my childhood trauma and has also allowed me to express wholeheartedly who I am. My apron is like a superhero cape — I feel so capable and strong when I’m in the kitchen. My truth is that I don’t need anyone’s approval to cook from my heart.

Over the years, my eateries have earned awards and accolades. Lat14 was named one of the 50 best restaurants in the Twin Cities. Khâluna was named one of the top 15 restaurants in the country and also earned James Beard restaurant and chef semifinalist honors. I still remember the morning last September when I found out that Gai Noi had been named one of America’s best new restaurants by The New York Times. I couldn’t believe I was being recognized with one of the highest honors in the industry.

Once I got over the initial shock, I was so proud that my team and I were finally being seen for all our hard work. Yet it was also a bittersweet moment: Of the many messages of congratulations I was receiving, none were from my aunts, uncles or cousins. In that moment, I felt like no matter how successful I am in the public eye, I will never receive that same recognition from my family. I fell back into the mindset that I’m not enough, that I need to work harder, that I need to accomplish more.

Photography by Matt Lien

But deep down, I know that I am enough. I am grateful for the love and support of my husband and my mother. I’ve done my best to accept that these types of validations aren’t expressed verbally in my family; instead, it’s how they show up for you. Despite our differences, my family has always shown up for me whenever I need them. They just won’t ever tell me how proud they are of me. I have made peace with that, but I hope this ends with my generation. I will make sure that my kids, nieces and nephews know how much we love them and how proud we are of them.

At the end of the day, I’m happiest when I’m cooking Lao food from memory and reliving that special time with my grandmother. Through cooking, I’m learning who I really am and understanding that I am loved, that I am enough. I now realize that I take up space and leave an impression when I exit the room. These are things I failed to see for so many years, because I was so consumed with self-doubt. That’s not completely gone, but I’m in a much better place now, with people and tools to support me. I also make sure I’m taking care of myself as much as I’m taking care of others.

My experience building and working in my restaurants has helped me realize I have earned my confidence and that the obstacles I have faced along the way have given me so much strength. I no longer need validation in everything that I do. Nearly 20 years and four successful restaurants later, I know that I’m capable and strong. I got this. And I’m not done yet.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

Discover Ann Ahmed’s favorite Laotian restaurants around the world.


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