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It all comes down to family for the owners of Khao House restaurant.
Korene McCaig, 35, and Randy Khounnoraj, 40, wanted to make sure customers felt at home when they opened their first restaurant in 2016. Serving Asian comfort food out of an old house on Sherbrook Street made the concept work — maybe a little too well at times.
Korene McCaig and Randy Khounnoraj
• Age: 35 and 40, respectively.
• Restaurant: Khao House, inside the Good Will Social Club; 625 Portage Ave.
• Signature dish: Cheese and noodles, Khao soi
"There was a couple times people walked out without paying because they thought they were hanging out at a friend’s house," Khounnoraj says, laughing.
Food and hard work have been mainstays throughout the couple’s relationship.
McCaig grew up on a farm near Birtle and moved to the city for school. Khounnoraj is a first-generation Canadian whose mom came to Winnipeg from Laos in 1979 as a refugee of the Vietnam War. They’re both graduates of Red River College’s culinary arts program and met while working in the kitchen at Bonfire Bistro.
The transition from working together to running a restaurant together has been a lesson in give and take.
"We get along really well... but being business partners, we do bump heads," Khounnoraj says. "We’re in our third year now and just like any other relationship you learn to compromise."
"You learn what not to say sometimes," McCaig adds with a grin.
After two years on Sherbrook, the couple decided it was time for a change. Khao had outgrown its 10-seat dining room and Khounnoraj and McCaig had outgrown the suite above the restaurant where they were living and raising their now two-and-a-half year old son, Frankie.
The day after giving their landlord notice, they heard the Good Will Social Club on Portage Avenue was looking for a new food tenant. They served lunch at the club and dinner at the house for the next three months before (quickly) moving everything into their new kitchen — final service on Sherbrook was New Year’s Eve 2018 and they opened at the Good Will two days later.
Free Press: Was opening a restaurant something you always wanted to do?
Randy Khounnoraj: I never really wanted to open a restaurant because I saw how it affected certain people. I knew that it would be a big, big undertaking and I thought I would just be a chef somewhere and just spend someone else’s money. And then I guess we evolved and you know, you want to be doing your own thing... like play your own music and make your own decisions and cook the food you want to cook.
Korene McCaig: I was super brand-new (to cooking) so it wasn’t anything that I was thinking was going to happen as fast as it did. With his experience in the kitchen I felt confident with it. I also have more experience in the front of the house, serving and managing… and I had a little bit of business experience.
FP: What was it like living above your first restaurant?
KM: It was super convenient, especially to be so involved and totally a part of it because it was just us at the time. There was so much to do and we were there morning to night. It was nice to just stumble upstairs and wake up and do it all over again.
Then the next year I got pregnant and everything changed. It did get to be a bit much; we were like, ‘Maybe we need to separate this?’
RK: There was no separation. My mind was always kind of about work and everything nice we had would always come down to the restaurant, lamps or whatever.
The other thing was everyone always knew where we were. It was on Sherbrook and Tallest Poppy always had parties, so I couldn’t tell my friends I was sleeping because they could see the light was on while I was watching Netflix.
“You learn what not to say sometimes.” – Korene McCaig
FP: What are your roles in the restaurant now and how have they changed?
KM: Since being here I started a little bit in the kitchen, but I kind of stepped back to focus on the books and the bookings for catering. I’m at home with Frankie during the day and before the lockdown I would come here at night and Randy’s mom would watch him, but now I’m pretty much doing stuff from home, which is nice because we have enough (other) people.
RK: After the lockdown I just decided not to work as much; before that I was here every day for 10 to 12 hours. We were a lot busier back then because there was still university and everyone was still working and we had a lot of big groups coming in.
FP: Did you do a lot of home cooking during quarantine?
KM: I did a lot of baking when we were stuck at home. I’ve always wanted to tackle it because it’s something that you need to have time and patience for. It was fun, but it doesn’t always work out, that’s for sure. I was making bread and cookies, pie, muffins.
RK: It was nice cooking meals for the family and not cooking under pressure or cooking to sell products. Not that there’s not love here, but there’s more love when you’re cooking for family.
The idea of the restaurant was a house, cooking for friends and family because it was our house. Once it started getting busier and it becomes a business you get away from that original idea of cooking for family in your restaurant, so it was nice to get back to that.
KM: And we definitely haven’t spent that much time together ever.
RK: Yeah, it was nice to spend time with my kids — I have two other kids — and watching them develop, instead of getting videos from Korene and my mom and sisters.
FP: What are some family food memories that are important to you?
KM: My mom is definitely the person who I’ve gained a love of cooking from. She was a really good cook growing up and I just loved how much she loved it.
I grew up on a farm and we had a lot of meat and potatoes and vegetables from the garden. I just remember everyone loving my mom’s food. She always makes me a corn chowder when I go home.
"Things on the menu are things we like to eat or we grew up eating and then we kind of bounce ideas off each other. " – Randy Khounnoraj
RK: I always thought my mom wasn’t a good cook — she would burn things, she would overcook things. We ate out of necessity, out of survival when we were young so I didn’t really have that familial upbringing with food.
But starting to think back and working here and cooking with my family, memories would pop up of my mom cooking with her friends... and just thinking back on a lot of family parties where they would all get together and cook.
FP: How did you guys come together and create your menu?
RK: Things on the menu are things we like to eat or we grew up eating and then we kind of bounce ideas off each other. There’s a few staples that we have, there’s always gonna be a cheese and noodle dish because that’s something that I ate in university — ramen noodles and I would throw cheese and hot sauce on it. Everything on the menu is a reference point for our lives.
Being here anyways, we needed to add fries and a burger and cauliflower bites. Stuff that’s shareable and like recognizable to people who don’t eat Asian food or don’t eat it a lot.
KM: There’s like four Laos dishes and it’s comfort food and there’s other regions of Southeast Asia represented. There isn’t a niche.
FP: At home, what is a dish that would be your specialty?
KM: We’re trying to do it less though, we eat a lot of pasta. Frankie really loves sticky rice.
FP: Is there anything that you either can’t or won’t eat?
KM: I’ll eat anything, but I haven’t had balut (a developing bird embryo that is popular in the Philippines). I wouldn’t eat that.
RK: I wouldn’t eat pigeon. I don’t like eating foods that are hard to eat like chicken feet or crab.
FP: What is your guilty pleasure food?
RK: Oreos, cookies in general.
KM: Probably my mom’s potato salad.
FP: Do you have a favourite movie or show you watch together?
RK: We watch a lot of Friends.
KM: It’s easy, mindless.
FP: What has been your proudest moment as a chef?
RK: I think for us as a couple, it was a competition we did while (Korene) was pregnant. We were runner-up in the end, but the whole time we thought she was going to have the baby.
KM: It’s so silly, but flipping the open sign at the house. I remember that so clearly.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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