Like a lot of kids in Murfreesboro’s Asian community where they grew up, Abraham Fongnaly and Jean Patimeteeporn felt a constant duality—that of being Lao while also being Southern American. Sons of Laotian refugees, both experienced a sense of otherness or feeling in between two worlds.
“The way we dressed, the music we listened to, was all white. But no matter how we spoke or dressed, we were still Asian to the average white person in the South,” Fongnaly says.
Both were also raised by mothers who cooked—Patimeteeporn’s mother opened Rice Bowl on Thompson Lane in the 1990s while Fongnaly’s mother cooked for a brood of more than twelve—but after college, the two looked around at Nashville restaurants and saw very little Lao representation.
“There are a lot of Thai restaurants owned by Lao, so maybe there’s a Lao dish here or there, but we really didn’t see our food anywhere,” Fongnaly says.
Back in 2019, after lamenting that discovery, the two made a meal of traditional Lao dishes together and invited some friends. That evolved into a pop-up, Champa Origins (champa is the flower of Laos), which immediately drew crowds.
One dinner landed at Bastion, where the two got crushed, causing chef Josh Habiger to jump in—but each event pushes them further, as guests rave about the food, which Patimeteeporn calls “a savory explosion of flavor that’s followed by a sweetness and an earthiness. And always fresh, fresh, fresh.”
In January, 2022, the two quit their day jobs in other hospitality gigs to pursue Champa Origins full time. “It was Josh and Vivek Surti of Tailor that really encouraged us and helped push us over the edge,” says Fongnaly.
Now, as they pitch a brick-and-mortar concept to investors, and continue to host pop-ups, they have a new mission: Create a documentary that shares their story. TLP caught up with Fongnaly and Patimeteeporn to hear more about the project.
Abraham and Jean Discuss Champa Origins’ Journey
TLP: What is the documentary going to be about?
Abraham Fongnaly: The documentary started as a way to tell the story of Champa Origins. But we realized that it has a much deeper purpose. There’s the story of the pop-up, of how we’re doing this and why, but then the why kind of gets blown out from there.
We’re doing it because we know that people need to know our culture. And when I say culture, I mean, “What does it mean to be Lao?” and “What does it mean to be [Southern], too?” I can hang out with my friends and go fishing and talk about hunting. But I also go home and talk about how to make the best gaeng no mai. It’s this story of the complexity and the intersections of who we are along with the unwritten stories of our families, and the trauma that they bring that they never talk about.
TLP: It sounds like it might be healing, in some ways. Have you found that, or has your family?
AF: Oh, 1,000 percent—for us. For our families? Debatable [laughs]. [A lot] of it has to do with the language barrier.
Jean Patimeteeporn: That’s a big part of the documentary, because ours is an oral history. Things aren’t written down. Like recipes—my mom’s recipes are from her mom, but they were never written. So now she’s writing them down for me. [Abe and I], we’ve lost access to our home language, and it’s not like other cultures where you come here and there’s a school for it. And our parents don’t have time to teach us because they’re working their third shift. So that’s a theme for us as well.
TLP: How does all of this tie back to Champa Origins and what lies ahead?
JP: The goal is to build that generational wealth for the future. And it’s about the importance of showing this little pocket of culture that is nowhere to be seen in the media. It’s to show it and celebrate that because right now, Lao food is having its renaissance here.
You can learn more and support the work of the documentary, To Mothers, From Sons, through their Kickstarter page, which is also where you can make a $50 donation for a ticket to their next private event coming up on May 7. @champaorigins
Eat, Drink, Do in Nashville
Through the month of April, the indoor/outdoor Pool Club at Virgin Hotels Nashville is throwing an immersive pop-up, complete with eye-popping florals and a fresh menu of drinks and bites. Go for the ‘Gram, stay for the frozen High Priestess bevvie—full of Patrón Silver, honey, basil, grapefruit, and lime.
Studious Maximus Coffee Collab
Poindexter Coffee, inside the Graduate Nashville, has partnered up with local social enterprise Humphreys Street, which provides jobs and mentorship to local youth, on a custom roast that’s available at Poindexter, on drip and by the bag. Studious Maximus is a nod to the neighboring student community, and is roasted and packaged by students at Humphreys Street.
Honoring Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The late founder of the Nashville Food Project, Tallu Schuyler Quinn, would have beamed her big, memorable smile knowing that good folks are gathering to celebrate the launch of her book, What We Wish Were True. On April 19, Parnassus Books is hosting the likes of Ann Patchett, Alice Randall, Joe Croker, and Quinn’s husband Robbie as they read excerpts from the book at Harpeth Hall. The event is free but they’re asking for registrations here.
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