Lat 14's Ann Ahmed Delivers the Backstory on Asian Cooking
Ann Ahmed of Lat 14 and Lemon Grass Thai.
Ann Ahmed didn’t have a plan when she bought her first restaurant location in Minnesota over the phone, long-distance from San Diego. “I had a credit card,” she says. And a dream.
When she opened Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine in Brooklyn Park, she cooked in the kitchen while her cousin waited tables. Ahmed walked to work each day—she had to sell her car to make ends meet.
The location her mother, who also owned a restaurant, found for her wasn’t the greatest in retrospect, she admitted. “People would find us when they were lost,” she quipped, but her mother, who tried to dissuade her from owning a restaurant, “finally gave me something I wanted.”
This was in 2005, at the beginning of the recession.
“People came in and said ‘this is our last meal out because we both got laid off,’” she said. But the timing actually had a silver lining: Because growth was slow, it gave her the luxury of time to learn the business.
“I was like a kid with a lemonade stand that wanted a big operation,” she said.
And that kid who grew up learning to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen, now has both Lemon Grass and her newer restaurant, Lat 14, which has gotten a sizable amount of positive press since it opened its doors in a former Perkins in Golden Valley in 2018. All that hard work culminated in her being named one of 20 James Beard Foundation Fellows for the 2019 Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program. (She was also a finalist for the Charlie Awards' Outstanding Chef in 2019.)
Ahmed brought her Laos-Thai cooking style to the final evening in Perspectives’ Cooking with the Stars fundraiser in mid-August. Her menu included spring rolls, red curry (her comfort food) and mango sticky rice. As she explained the various ingredients spread out on the Kids Café counter, she warned us not to shop and cook on the same day. “Asian markets are sensory overload,” she said. All the ingredients are important, she stressed, not just the fresh herbs and vegetables, most of which can be found at local farmers markets. Pantry supplies also need to be authentic. For instance, she explained, oyster sauce is like olive oil, “the more you pay, the better it is (in most cases).” Fish sauce takes the place of salt and only use the more tart, original Sriracha hot sauce should be used.
Sauces are important. The dipping sauce for the spring rolls was a combination of simple syrup, lime juice, Sriracha, fish sauce and chili sauce. The filling was a free for all, two kinds of mint, matchstick-thin cucumbers, shredded carrots, lettuces, green beans, rice noodles, pork, shrimp and beef.
While Ahmed dipped the spring roll papers into hot water and flawlessly tossed them on the tablet to be filled and rolled, guests produced a few gummy wads for the trash before finally getting the system down. Some of the difficulty came from the fact that we were all making burritos instead of rolls.
Lat 14 has a $40,000 combi-oven, but Ahmed still likes cooking her rice in a $5 rice basket like her grandmother taught her. Care is always given to the food preparation, she said, because her grandmother’s mantra was “not a single grain washes down the drain” in respect for the farmers’ hard work. The countries that produce our white rice are left with the leftovers that are subpar.
There was a lot of disrespecting going on with the too many cooks in the kitchen, but that’s the beauty of the series. Guests learn the backstory of top chefs in the Twin Cities, and then get to try their hand at recreating some of those favorite recipes from their favorite restaurants.
Perspectives will be auctioning off a new Cooking with the Stars series at its annual fundraiser Oct. 25 at The View at Minneapolis Event Centers.