In the summer of 1990, my mom moved my brother, sister, and me from Atlanta to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As we acclimated to our new home, my 12-year-old brain was preoccupied with little more than playing basketball and Tom Petty’s album Full Moon Fever.
Restaurateur Vansana (Van) Nolintha also moved to North Carolina when he was 12—to Greensboro, about 50 minutes down the road from Chapel Hill. But his move, and his preoccupations, were worlds away from mine, taking him 8,000 miles from Luang Prabang, Laos, where he was born—and where his mother, father, and sister stayed behind. While I fretted, post-relocation, about passing seventh-grade Latin, Nolintha set to learning English, attending school while working a few days a week at his host family’s Japanese and Chinese restaurants. A year later, when his 11-year-old sister Vanvisa arrived, Van looked after her, too. As they adjusted to their new life, brother and sister created rituals and traditions to ease their homesickness—buying Thai movies and music and stocking the mini fridge in their room with fish sauce and Thai chiles.
Fast-forward to 2020. The Nolinthas, now in their early 30s, continue to honor their roots with two acclaimed restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina, each one in its own way a tribute to home. Their first, Bida Manda, is a Laotian restaurant whose name translates to “mother father” in Sanskrit. Next door, they opened a second restaurant, Brewery Bhavana—part dim sum teahouse, brewery, flower shop, and bookstore. They plan to open a third, called Luang Prabang, later this year.
For the Nolinthas, home is where they entertain and recharge after serving their city. At the spiritual heart of their newly renovated house is a gas stove where a straw basket for steaming sticky rice rests over a metal pot of water: an altar in Buddhist Laotian tradition. “When my mom visited for the first time, she wanted to pray at the stove in the kitchen to say thank you to this home and this space,” Nolintha said. “The stove is where we communicate to the spirit that is protecting the home.”
The Nolinthas’ story gets at so many truths that emerge when we start telling stories about home. The concept is universal and personal at the same time: The definitions of home evolve as we grow. What I’ve learned from my first move (and many since) and from people like Van Nolintha is that when we set down roots and make a beautiful space to create, cook, and serve others, we make the community where we live a better place to call home.
Continue reading: How These Restaurant Families Actually Eat at Home
From the Home Office
This year, Southern Foodways Alliance and Food & Wine will collaborate by sharing podcast interviews with Van Nolintha and other food folks. Play SFA’s Gravy and F&W’s Communal Table podcasts wherever you listen—and don’t forget to sign up for our F&W Pro newsletter for stories and news from the leaders in the hospitality industry. (foodand wine.com/fwpro)
A Cooler Wine Cooler
Shout-out to the new Italian spot Boia De in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, where I was charmed by the food, a bottle of Domaine de la Pinte Cuvée d’Automne from Jura, France, and the simple terra-cotta vessels made by Danielle Kaufmann used for white wine service. Find Kaufmann’s work on Etsy and on Instagram @dk_pots.
See You In...
Spring kicks off festival season at F&W. In the coming months, you’ll find me, Ray Isle, and some of the best chefs and winemakers in the business at Charleston Wine + Food (March 4–8), Pebble Beach Food & Wine (April 16–19), and the first-ever Bahamas Culinary & Arts Festival (April 30–May 3), presented by Food & Wine and our sister brand Travel + Leisure.