November 15, 2018

Winnipeg
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Not Cho ordinary restaurateur

The Wasabi family adds another restaurant to its growing empire

For a man with so much on his plate, Cho Venevongsa looks remarkably calm and collected.

The Winnipeg chef behind the three Wasabi restaurants (Wasabi on Broadway, Wasabi Sabi at 1360 Taylor Ave. and Wasabi Sushi Bistro in Osborne Village) also runs three locations of the fast-casual Chosabi brand, which serves up rice bowls and sushi burritos at 100 King St., 104-520 Portage Ave. and 2696 Pembina Hwy.; another is set to open in the Seasons of Tuxedo mall.

And now the tireless entrepreneur is preparing to launch his third take on Japanese cuisine with the ramen shop Cho Ichi, currently under construction at 1151 Pembina Hwy. and scheduled to open in the second week of June.

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For a man with so much on his plate, Cho Venevongsa looks remarkably calm and collected.

The Winnipeg chef behind the three Wasabi restaurants (Wasabi on Broadway, Wasabi Sabi at 1360 Taylor Ave. and Wasabi Sushi Bistro in Osborne Village) also runs three locations of the fast-casual Chosabi brand, which serves up rice bowls and sushi burritos at 100 King St., 104-520 Portage Ave. and 2696 Pembina Hwy.; another is set to open in the Seasons of Tuxedo mall.

And now the tireless entrepreneur is preparing to launch his third take on Japanese cuisine with the ramen shop Cho Ichi, currently under construction at 1151 Pembina Hwy. and scheduled to open in the second week of June. 

Cho Venevongsa, the chef behind three Wasabi restaurants in Winnipeg, is set to launch a ramen shop on Pembina Highway. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Cho Venevongsa, the chef behind three Wasabi restaurants in Winnipeg, is set to launch a ramen shop on Pembina Highway. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

There are about 50,000 ramen shops in Japan and about 1,000 in North America, with more opening all the time.

But Winnipeg doesn’t yet have a restaurant solely dedicated to the comforting soup made of flavourful broth, thin wheat noodles and such toppings as barbecued pork, green onions, soft-boiled egg, cabbage, nori and bean paste — a giant leap from the instant packaged stuff eaten by college students everywhere. 

Winnipeg doesn't yet have a restaurant dedicated solely to ramen, a comforting soup made of flavourful broth, thin wheat noodles and a variety of toppings.

STEPHANIE S. CORDLE/ ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Winnipeg doesn't yet have a restaurant dedicated solely to ramen, a comforting soup made of flavourful broth, thin wheat noodles and a variety of toppings.

"It’s always been a dream of mine and my wife’s — well, at the time, she was my girlfriend, so that’s 20-something years ago," Venevongsa says, smiling at his wife, Tracy Chen, in a lull before dinner rush at Wasabi on Broadway. "We travel a lot, and it seems like everywhere else has ramen shops, not like sushi-ramen, so we want to bring that to Winnipeg."

"It’s like eight months of the year that’s cold here, so we should have a noodle-soup restaurant," he says, adding that it will be open late.

Asked what a typical day is for him, Venevongsa, 43, laughs loudly.

"Well, my dog barks at six o’clock in the morning; our new baby, we call him."

After the wake-up call from Cooper the golden retriever, the chef says, "There’s no planning, it’s just go. You can try to plan it, but it never works out." 

Chosabi serves up rice bowls and sushi burritos. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Chosabi serves up rice bowls and sushi burritos. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Laotian-born Venevongsa and the Vietnamese-born Chen also have four kids, ranging in age from 11 to 18, and while the chef says they aren’t interested in cooking, they all work at his restaurants.

"It’s how I grew up, so I wanted to teach them the value of money, the value of work, interacting with people."

His days are even more hectic right now, as he’s acting as the general contractor at Cho Ichi, building the restaurant from scratch, and he already has his eye on two more locations, in the North End and downtown, but he and Chen make time every week for a family tradition they instituted a few years ago: a candlelit sit-down dinner with the kids on Sunday night.

"It’s become a routine for the kids and they expect it, which is nice. My daughter, who is away at Queen’s University, actually texted on Saturday night to ask, ‘What are you making for Sunday dinner?’"

Did you go to culinary school? 

No, I got my start in the restaurant business at the age of 12. We came to Canada (from Laos) when I was nine and we were refugees so we had no choice, we worked.

I started learning sushi (with chef Sadao Ono at Edohei) at the age of 16. It was just a part-time job to help out the family; we were immigrants and we had no money.

It just grew into something that I really loved and I was good at it. I learned not by reading but by actually working with my hands. 

Did you come from a foodie family?

Cho Venevongsa (from left), his wife Tracey Chen and William Wong show off new style sashimi dishes at Wasabi on Broadway in 2000. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Cho Venevongsa (from left), his wife Tracey Chen and William Wong show off new style sashimi dishes at Wasabi on Broadway in 2000. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

No, not really. My dad was in the import/export business. But I remember watching my grandmother cook.

I have two younger brothers — my second-youngest brother runs Pad Thai in St. James on Portage Avenue; I opened it with my mom, but she retired so he took over. My other brother is an airplane mechanic. 

Is there something your grandmother cooked that you’d like to recreate?

Actually, that’s another ambition. I would love to open a traditional Lao restaurant in Winnipeg. Hopefully that will be my next project.

There are none now in North America that are done correctly. Most of them are Thai-slash-Laos, which isn’t right. Laos flavours are much stronger. 

Is there a food that you hate?

Eggplant. I just find that it gets itchy in my throat after I eat it.

Sushi is prepared at one of Wasabi's locations. (Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Sushi is prepared at one of Wasabi's locations. (Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

And I’m allergic to white fungus mushrooms, Chinese ones. Not truffles. I eat it and my lips turn purple — call 911.

Are your kids picky eaters?

No, but they’re expensive eaters! My son loves caviar. My daughter can eat three, four dozen oysters these days. 

What’s your kid’s favourite dish that you make?

Larb is a traditional Lao dish, a beef salad with the meat seared or raw. The kids like it raw. We make it very traditional, with a lot of anchovies, so I say "stinky."

What ingredient is always in your fridge or pantry?

(Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

(Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In my pantry, fish sauce. In my fridge, cilantro and chili.

What about beverages?

Got to have bubbly — champagne, cava.  

Will you ever stop working? Do you have a retirement goal?

I do! I want to open a 10-seat restaurant in Maui. Four days a week, shop for my own ingredients, she can serve if she wants to (points at Chen, both laugh).

I love to talk with people and when people are happy, I’m happy. When they say, "Thank you so much, the food was fantastic," I did my job right, seeing that smile on people’s faces. 

 

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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