It’s one hour before Madison’s Ahan restaurant opens and the small kitchen is buzzing. Water is boiling, chicken is roasting and dumplings are frying.
Before they even begin taking orders for the lunch rush, the chefs are preparing two big catering orders for corporate customers.
“So today it’s three Lao egg rolls, three vegetable egg rolls and three orders of wontons, couple orders of dumplings and a couple summer rolls,” said Ahan co-owner and executive chef Jamie Hoang, who’s listing off part of the order. “The praram long song chicken, which is like our lemongrass fried chicken, some sautéed veggies…”
This food — prepared by Hoang and Ahan’s chefs — has made Hoang a semifinalist for a 2023 James Beard Award as Emerging Chef.
“The word Ahan actually just means ‘food,'” laughed Hoang. “I wanted it to be something cute and playful. Lao is my first language, so I just thought it’d be cute to be like, ‘This is our restaurant: Food.'”
Ahan began as a food truck that did pop-ups around Madison. But quick success made it clear to Hoang and her partner, Ahan co-owner and general manager Chuckie Brown, that they needed something bigger. They took a leap and opened the brick and mortar restaurant in August 2020 — the height of the pandemic. At a time when restaurants were folding left and right, Ahan blossomed. Part of the reason was carryout.
“A lot of people — when they would pick up food — they were really happy that there was something new that they could look forward to or something comforting,” said Hoang.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Hoang calls Ahan’s food “comfort food.” At the heart of those recipes is her mother, Manola Hoang.
Some of Jamie Hoang’s earliest food memories involve her mom making papaya salad and steamed rice rolls, plus the smell of sticky rice early in the morning.
Manola Hoang, who grew up in Luang Prabang, Laos, said she loves making her daughter pork-stuffed Lao eggs and fondly looks back on making her papaya salad when she was a little girl.
“I said, ‘Baby, I make it a little bit spicy for you,’ and she liked it,” said Manola Hoang smiling. “I made (pho) noodle soup for her. She said, ‘Mom, I need two hot chilis and lime.’ I put lime and hot chili in for Jamie. Some people (who are) young, they don’t like to eat hot.”
Not Jamie Hoang, she got her start on spicy foods early and it continues to influence her menu today.
Jamie Hoang grew up in kitchens across Wisconsin. Her mom, Manola Hoang, owned China Garden in La Crosse.
“My mom said I started becoming interested in peeling shrimp when I was, like, three,” smiled Jamie Hoang.
Jamie Hoang’s father’s family has owned restaurants in Beaver Dam and Madison, including the popular Ha Long Bay.
Eventually, Jamie Hoang graduated from Madison College’s Culinary Arts Program. That led to jobs at some of Madison’s hottest restaurants, like L’Etoile, Estrellón and Sujeo, where she was the executive sous chef. In these kitchens, she worked with Chef Tory Miller, who she considers “phenomenal…the best mentor.” Along with “every single woman who’s a chef,” she considers Miller and her mother, Manola Hoang, to be her biggest culinary inspirations.
“They’re both really, really hard workers and teach people a lot,” said Jamie Hoang. “(My mom’s) taught (Ahan’s chefs) things that we have not learned in fine dining restaurants, things that you won’t learn unless you learn from someone from Laos.”
Manola Hoang’s stock process is one example. She has also taught her daughter that nothing goes to waste.
“That comes down to anything like a container or a cabbage,” said Jamie Hoang. “Everything will go into an egg roll at the end of the day. Like a little piece of cabbage that looks like it’s not usable anymore, I will throw it into a shredder and then the egg roll.”
Manola Hoang now works alongside her daughter and Ahan’s other staff. This came after Jamie Hoang lured her mother away from her aunt’s restaurant, Ha Long Bay. In July 2023, Manola Hoang will move back to Laos.
“I’ve been really happy because I’ve been able to take some of her recipes. Like her khao soi recipes, I’ll be able to pass them down from her,” said Jamie Hoang. “(It’s from a) specific city in Laos called Luang Prabang. It’s a specific soup to her. She said her grandma taught her mom and her mom taught her.”
2023 James Beard Award Semifinalist
That affection for her mother’s recipes, her love of lime, chili and cilantro, and her belief in using local, seasonal produce, it is getting Jamie Hoang recognized by her peers in the industry. She is a 2023 semifinalist for a James Beard Award as Emerging Chef. The nomination was a surprise to her and had an immediate impact on her business.
“It’s been really crazy busy,” said Jamie Hoang. “It was busy before, but now it’s just next level busy.”
Jamie Hoang says it’s important her staff are getting the recognition they deserve.
“It really shows them all their hard work is really paying off. I think it’s setting the standard and teaching new staff that come in … showing them to always be proud of their work and anything’s possible,” said Jamie Hoang. “Everything that we’ve learned from my mom is really coming full circle. All the hours we put in, it really just made it feel super, super rewarding.”
“I’m happy,” said Manola Hoang smiling. “My daughter does a good job, you know?”
Plus, Jamie Hoang is being nominated alongside other Wisconsin chefs and former L’Etoile coworkers, like Fairchild’s Itaru Nagano. Her mentor, Tory Miller, is a previous James Beard Award winner.
“I’m just really proud of everyone in Madison,” said Jamie Hoang. “The Madison food scene … it’s really growing and developing. We’re such a small city. It says a lot that we’re getting on the radar with bigger cities as well.”
In 2023, four chefs and one baker from Madison were semifinalists for the James Beard Awards. The recognition could be a signal to people that they do not have to move to New York City or Chicago to get experience in a world-class kitchen. Jamie Hoang is living proof.
“Maybe some people will stay, which would be cool,” said Jamie Hoang. “We can always use more people to add to the quality of our food scene here.”
MUSIC: “Future Trippin” by The Earthlings