Travel Brings World to Golden Valley’s Lat14
Ann Ahmed, owner of Lat14 and Lemon Grass harvests river weeds or kaipen, on a recent food tour in Laos.
It’s not easy for Chef Ann Ahmed to take a vacation, much less to take time off from her hot new restaurant, Lat14, to go on a two-and-a-half-week, fact-finding food tour. “Food tours are my vacations,” she says, laughing.
The problem with flying to Asia, she says, is that it involves four days just getting there and back, so any trip has to be longer than a week. When you have two restaurants (the second is Lemon Grass in Brooklyn Park) and 5 1/2-year-old twins, there’s as much work getting ready to leave as there is once you arrive.
“I learned on this trip that they’ll figure it out,” Ahmed says about her kitchen staff. Although she was always reachable by texts or email, the time difference makes troubleshooting on the road difficult. Fortunately, her staff is well-seasoned and up to the task, she adds.
As for her husband and twins, he was left to figure out mealtime for two picky eaters, but before she left, Ahmed and the kids picked out 21 days’ worth of outfits—from pants or dresses to socks—and placed them in clear boxes, so every day they opened a box and wore the contents.
That same amount of attention to detail went into planning her itinerary. She spent three days in Bangkok, six days in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and seven days in Luang Prabang in Laos. Her daily regimen included breakfast, lunch and two dinners. “I eat the full meal; I don’t taste and throw away,” she says. Fortunately, there’s also lots of walking from one food spot to the next. Meals vary from cheap street food to an expensive 25-course dinner. “And that was my second dinner,” she says about the 25 courses. There were lots of surprises, such as $1.60 rice porridge at a Michelin-star restaurant. Part of her research was to discover what makes a Michelin restaurant a Michelin restaurant.
To find worthy dining spots, she started with the list of the 50 top female chefs in Asia. Ahmed also takes recommendations from customers sitting next to her at restaurants and from taxi drivers, with the clear instruction that she wants places where they eat, not where they take tourists.
A friend who is not in the restaurant business joined her for part of the trip and as Ahmed dissected every aspect of the meal, she says, her friend finally told her, “just shut-up and eat it.” But dissecting a meal and the service and the dishware and the ambiance are all things a chef does on vacation—working or not.
Ahmed learned to cook from her grandmother and mother and so returning to Laos and seeing Thailand for the first time was returning to her culinary roots. At the Three Trees Doi Saket farm in Chiang Mai, she learned how to harvest fresh river weeds. After they are pulled off river rocks and shaken to clean, they are washed and dried on flat racks where they are then seasoned. “They taste like Japanese nori,” she explains.
After drying the weeds into a thick paper-like form, Ahmed adds flavorings that are as artistic as tasty.
She was also able to experience fresh ant eggs. “You can only get them here frozen,” she says about the Twin Cities. She described the sour ant eggs as “Pop Rocks,” which pop or explode in your mouth leaving a creamy texture. Another wonderment was seeing piles of hog plums, an ingredient in one of her grandmother’s recipes. When she duplicates that recipe at home, the hog plums are frozen. And ingredients like river weeds are not something she can harvest from the Mississippi River, she says, regretfully.
In Laos, Ahmed was part of a food retreat with chefs from around the world. She helped cook for the U.S. ambassador to Laos, and the talk centered around how to be resources to each other. To make her food in Golden Valley more authentic, how can she get access to the authentic ingredients? How can both countries help each other with importing and exporting? she asks rhetorically. In addition to ingredients, she’d like to see the traditional textiles and serving ware imported.
Everything was memorable, including a meal where everything from the main ingredient in the 24 courses to the serving vessels was made from bamboo.
For one class, she spent an hour grinding her own curry paste. And while that’s not feasible in a restaurant setting, she wants to teach her chefs so they can experience it firsthand. “We’re so into the convenience, we like things in a jar,” she says, “but how can we take old-style techniques (and marry them) with our technology?”
In addition, Ahmed learned to make rice noodles with a paste and a basket sieve, and that the history and the story behind a dish is as important to the experience as the finished dish.
The first question a chef should ask is who am I cooking for? The answer dictates the ingredients and the style. For instance, for a king, you may use three kinds of proteins to show respect to his position and wealth. In Golden Valley at Lat14, Ahmed says, they are cooking for a sensitive palate that’s less adventurous. “We’re always pushing the envelope,” she says, adding something unfamiliar to a dish diners are already comfortable with. But pushing an envelope doesn’t always work right away. An example is their papaya salad. When they first opened, they got a lot of pushback from diners on the dish’s spiciness, but rather than changing the recipe, Ahmed says they’ve taken the dish off the menu for now. “We want you to enjoy it the way it was supposed to be,” she says.
In Laos, the young people she met in culinary school wanted to learn to cook continental, rather than their native foods. Ahmed says she tried to explain that tourists were coming to their country to sample the local cuisine. And that’s where the background stories intersect with the dish.
She returned with dried river weeds and pepperwood, sticks that give a smoky, peppery taste to food. And armed with new recipes and techniques, she will continue to define and refine the stories behind the dishes, so that chefs and servers both know the rich history behind what they’re serving guests.
(Left to right) Ann Ahmed at Vanvisa Resort at Kuang Si Waterfall; a plate with the finished kaipen, along with beef jerky. sai oua, and banana blossom salad. Ahmed on the back of a tuk tuk (taxi) in Luang Prabang, Laos.