Legacies & Memories

Following a decade at the helm of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana's kitchens, Bounsanga will open his own restaurant, SAAP, at The Walker in Cary this fall.

When he was five years old, Lon Bounsanga fled communism in Laos.

Bounsanga, his parents, and his younger brother crossed the Mekong River in a canoe to Thailand under the cover of night to avoid government snipers positioned to keep citizens from fleeing the country.

The risk was high, but the decision was simple: “Either we stay and live our lives the way they wanted us to live, or we come to America and see what America had to offer us,” he said.

As it turned out, America had a lot to offer Bounsanga and he, much to offer in return.

After making a name for himself as executive chef at Raleigh’s Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana over the last decade, Bounsanga will open his own restaurant, SAAP, later this year at The Walker, a luxury apartment building near the new Downtown Cary Park.

It’s a long way from where he started, but right where Bounsanga believes he’s meant to be.

The early years

Upon arriving in Thailand years ago, the family lived in a refugee camp before receiving sponsorship to come to the United States in 1979. Back then, the only way to come over was through a sponsor, Bounsanga said.

They landed in Philadelphia, where he and his younger brothers — two of them now — went to school and his parents worked.

“As soon as I graduated high school, as the oldest sibling, I had to help my parents out for income,” he said.

His uncle was an executive sous chef at a Sheraton. He started working there simply to earn money, but found it ignited a lifelong passion.

“It got to a point where I fell in love with cooking,” Bounsanga said.

When he married and had children — four daughters and two sons — the family decided to move to North Carolina.

“We didn’t want our children to grow up in the inner city,” he said. “We had vacationed at the Outer Banks and fell in love with North Carolina, and that was all she wrote.”

The family lived in Garner while Bounsanga served as executive banquet chef at the Carolina Country Club. Even then, he dreamed of opening a restaurant one day.

Crispy pork belly, rice noodles, vegetables, and fresh herbs accent an egg drop, red curry, and coconut milk broth in Bounsanga’s legendary Ma Ka Tee (Pork Belly Soup). Scallops, shrimp, and calamari marry with a chili garlic vinaigrette in his eye-catching Yum Talay.

Building a name for himself

When he saw an ad on Craigslist seeking a chef for a Laotian restaurant, Bida Manda, set to open in 2012, Bounsanga said he thought the ad was a hoax.

“A decade ago, Laotian cuisine was never heard of in the United States,” he said.

He met with the owners, also Laotian, and instantly connected. Boosted by his family, Bounsanga made a name for himself and his cuisine at Bida Manda.

“Not everybody is built to be a chef with the hours,” he said. “Luckily I have a very good support team — my wife and my kids are my biggest cheerleaders.

“You’re as good as who you’re with, and we did it together even though they weren’t in the kitchen with me.”

Bida Manda went on to become wildly popular, and Brewery Bhavana opened about five years later. His role brought some exciting encounters, as the avid sports fan met members of the Carolina Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes who dined there.

Singer Billy Joel stopped in, enjoying his pork belly soup so much that he asked Bounsanga if 55 servings could be delivered to Joel’s staff at his Raleigh concert. Bounsanga obliged and brought his entire kitchen staff to the delivery.

Laotian cuisine grew in popularity, and the dream of having his own restaurant still lingered. When developer Bill Zahn approached him about opening a restaurant in The Walker, Bounsanga said the timing felt right.

“I was ready to branch out and do my own thing,” he said. “Cary is growing so fast, and with this offer and Bill’s help, I couldn’t refuse.”

Though his title was executive chef, Bounsanga did a little of everything over the years, from financing to washing dishes. So he doesn’t expect a lot of surprises as owner. In his kitchen, trust and respect are his keys to success.

“Whatever promises I make to my staff, front of house or back of house, those promises are kept — it might not happen tomorrow or next week, but it will definitely happen,” Bounsanga said. “People like to be seen and like to be heard; just listen to their stories.”

He looks forward to making a new set of memories at SAAP. Simple things, like making meatloaf once for a 78-yearold woman who teared up while telling him it was the best she’d ever had, are the reward for him.

“Even if I cooked for 150 people, if just two came and said this is the best dish they’ve ever had, that is the reward for me,” he said.

Bounsanga calls SAAP his legacy to his six children and, currently, five grandchildren — a place to gather and share meals.

“Coming from where I came from, my parents did what they could,” he said. “That is part of parenting: making sure your children have a place to be happy.”

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