A photograph of alumna Kathy Aphaivongs-Harrod in her restaurant, standin in front of a window, and a red wall with a print of Thailand.
Photography by Anna May

Sustenance

May 23, 2022

Lives Of Purpose

How a Spider chasing success found it through feeding others and nourishing her professional community. Meet Kathy Aphaivongs-Harrod, ’01.
By Michelle Tedford

In a sunny yellow food truck with bright red chili peppers painted on the side, Kathy Aphaivongs-Harrod, ’01, drove to Mayfield, Kentucky, two days after a violent, long-tracking tornado outbreak ripped through the South Dec. 10, 2021. She described it as a scene from a disaster movie: Telephone poles sideways. Houses gone. People searching through debris, picking up pieces of their lives.

Her 15-year-old daughter sat in the passenger seat beside her. “We just cried,” Aphaivongs-Harrod said.

Even before the federal government was on-site to evaluate the disaster and determine what the people needed, Aphaivongs-Harrod saw the destruction on TV and knew how she could help. She leaned on her business sense and the community of food trucks she’s helped lead in Louisville, Kentucky, to be sure local people and first responders had the meals they’d need to sustain them through those hard, early weeks of work.

“She’s a fair woman, and that’s why most people you talk to respect her,” said Jarrod Prince, owner of the Louisville-based Copper Kitchen food truck.

An entrepreneur from a young age, Aphaivongs-Harrod fully intended to graduate from the University of Richmond and climb the corporate ladder, the standard of success in Thailand, where she was born and raised. But food kept creeping back into her life. Along with her knack for organization and an innate drive to contribute to communities, she has merged her passion for cooking with a life that is all about feeding, sustaining, and growing with those around her.

chili pepper

When Aphaivongs-Harrod planned the grand opening of her newest restaurant, All Thai’d Up, she figured it would be a small affair with a banner out front and good food inside. But the date she picked — March 1, 2022 — kicked off Women’s History Month, and the downtown partnership in Louisville had something much larger in mind.

That day, she stood in front of her brick storefront in a red chef’s coat holding ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors, flanked by the mayor and local female business leaders.

“I got a lot of ‘attaboys,’ ‘good job for doing this,’” she said of the invited guests. “It was nice to have that understanding of being a mom, too, and a full-time worker. These are all presidents and CEOs of their companies, so they know what it takes.

“Just because I’m not corporate anymore doesn’t mean that it’s any easier — probably even harder.”

While her path to opening her own restaurant specializing in homestyle Thai food has been long, the last two years have been the longest. The pandemic altered her plan just as it closed down restaurants worldwide.

The National Restaurant Association reported that U.S. restaurants sales were down $65 billion nationwide in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels. Full-service dine-in got hit the hardest, and when businesses started back up, the greatest gains were in carryout and communal dining, reported Yelp.

Aphaivongs-Harrod, who was already serving Thai food out of her food truck, tabled her plans for a fancy dine-in place in the suburbs and instead started thinking about how her business could help sustain not just her family but the community as well. She picked a brick building in downtown Louisville where a previous restaurant tenant had closed at the beginning of the pandemic. She focused on a comfortable, quick dine-in experience and a robust carryout. Dine-in customers order at a counter and take a seat in the bright yellow dining room while the chefs prepare the food and runners bring it steaming hot to their tables. It’s fast and casual, open only during lunch hours to cater to the working crowd.

Kathy Aphaivongs-Harrod looking out the window in her restaurant, All Thai'd Up

People told her she was foolish to rely on a downtown that has before fallen into hard times. She didn’t listen.

“Downtown in any culture, in any society, is sort of your heart of business, the pulse of the community,” she said. “So I feel like if I let a downtown die and I don’t support the life of it, then everything else around it will eventually die, too.”

She calls Louisville, the hometown of her mother, “a mini Chicago” with a homey Southern vibe. “I’m a city girl from Bangkok, a city of 15 million people. I know I’m not a farm girl, not a suburb girl. I like to be in with the hustle and bustle — but the reason I moved to the States was to get away from the 15 million. Too much.”

Louisville metro’s 1.26 million? It feels just right, she said.

Her dining room features photos of Thailand printed on canvas. It’s one way she shares her home country with her patrons. Another is evident in the silverware; there are no knives.

“Knives are a Western concept, and not until Westernization came to Thailand did we have knives at the dinner table,” she said. “We always had knives to cut and chop and cook, prepare food with, but never to eat. We always used our fork and spoon, and the spoon acted as a knife to cut.

“It’s nice to be able to educate, if they’re willing, that is.”

She told the story of a customer who, during her grand opening week, became irate that there was no knife. Best thing to do is make the customer happy and give them their money back — and hope they don’t come back, said Aphaivongs-Harrod in her matter-of-fact style.

“It’s definitely a learning curve, but most people have been willing to learn. They say, ‘Here’s my fork and spoon. Show me how it’s done,’” she said.

Her menu is another way she shares her culture. She prepares dishes as customers would find them in Thailand, including drunken noodles. It’s a signature dish, requiring both art and skill for the chef to fry the wide, flat rice noodles without breaking them. And it’s spicy hot. “I’ve had a lot of people sweat on their way out,” she said.

Her restaurant employs six. Employees start at $15 an hour. Add in the pool tip jar, and their hourly rate climbed to $25 during grand opening week. If it hadn’t been for the grand opening ceremony and the media coverage that followed, Aphaivongs-Harrod said no one would likely know she’s the owner. Instead of taking charge, she prefers to hire good people, set the menu, and then take on a supporting role. Her job description, she quipped, reads: “Kathy, I need this, I need that.”

chili pepper

At a dinner party in Louisville in 1976, Kong Kiert, a master’s student at Eastern Kentucky University, first met Hala Shoemaker, a local middle school teacher. The two married in his hometown of Bangkok, where they raised their children, Kathy and Michael, in a complex built in traditional Thai style, with extended family members living in homes on the same property.

Aphaivongs-Harrod’s early memories are of asking the family’s live-in Thai maids to cook stir-fried noodles called pad see ew, which is made with a sweet soy sauce, and then walking around and selling it to the grandmas and great-grandmas. “I would charge everybody the equivalent of a quarter,” she said.

While social hierarchy required the maids to speak to her father from a seated position on the floor, when her American mother entered the room, the women would all talk like equals. Aphaivongs-Harrod spent time in the kitchen with them, watching them cook — and learning as she grew.

“As a kid, you do what they let you do,” she said. “They let me pick the root off the bean sprouts, so I would take off each root and wash them. As I got older, they let me use the knife. And occasionally I got to actually be on the woks — but not too often.”

I was raised Catholic and Buddhist, but there was one common message: You treat others like you want to be treated yourself.

Her mom taught her Western baking, with rolled sugar cookies at Christmastime and chocolate chip cookies for any occasion. Her dad was the master of Thai cooking.

A police officer, he was regimented in his approach to the kitchen but with a playfulness that reminded young Kathy that her dad got held back a few years in school. While many traditional cooks add their meats first, he put the sauce and spices into the hot oil and let them sizzle until each aroma was perfectly extracted from the ingredients. Aphaivongs-Harrod said the joke was he used enough garlic that those who took anticoagulants could skip their dose for the day.

His signature dish was Hainanese chicken rice.

“I’ll never forget when I made it here for him one time,” Aphaivongs-Harrod said. “This was probably my early 20s, after I graduated from Richmond. I made it, and he goes, ‘This is good. What’d you put in it?’ I said, ‘I put in the dried squid like you always told me.’

“He was shocked. It was like, ‘I can’t believe you remembered the secret. Well done.’”

Her dual citizenship extended to more than just cooking. In school, she was taught traditional Thai curriculum and also attended an international school run by the Catholic Church. Her mother was Catholic and her father Buddhist. When they went to temple, he was sure to tell his daughter how the family’s offering would be used to feed hungry children or support another social cause.

“I was raised Catholic and Buddhist, but there was one common message: You treat others like you want to be treated yourself,” she said. “So I just hope that, you know, whatever I do, if I ever needed help that people would come.”

chili pepper

While food was always central to Thai family life, in her household it was never seen as a professional aspiration. In middle-class Thai society, it was expected that children would get an education and then a desk job as they climbed the corporate ladder.

Aphaivongs-Harrod applied to U.S. colleges from Washington state to Washington, D.C. Richmond appealed to her because it had a great reputation as a residential campus — and being more than 7,000 miles away from home, she needed a good place to stay. It was a small campus and close enough to D.C., which was the nearest place she could get authentic Thai food.

When she thinks back to her time studying at Richmond, it’s obvious now that food was in her future. When she lived in Lora Robins Court, she created for friends entire menus of food cooked in the microwave. She said some of her best times were spent bartending and making food at The Cellar on campus.

She intended to major in Spanish but switched to rhetoric and communication studies and graduated into a series of sales jobs in Louisville and a position as a volunteer firefighter. Then she became a mom — first a daughter, followed by a son — and got tired of working 60 to 70 hours a week with the kids always in daycare.

“I basically packed up and left and went back to Thailand, but knowing that I had enough U.S. work experience that I would not be just thrown into a typical Thai job at a Thai pay scale,” she said.

Corporations loved her. She understood Thai culture and had an American education and business experience. She was the country manager for an insurance company offering employee benefits to international schools before being poached by Cigna to start the company’s employee health program in Thailand. She was constantly courted by corporations and enjoyed the six-figure salaries.

But food was calling her name.

In 2015, she quit and opened an American diner in Bangkok, City Skyline, voted one of the top three American restaurants in Thailand. “It was the only place you could get biscuits and gravy,” she said. Its success led her to open a second location. Too much too soon, the second store failed so terribly that she considered rejoining corporate life.

Instead, in 2017, she packed up the kids and came back to Louisville with more food plans.

chili pepper

As a child, Aphaivongs-Harrod said there was nothing like eating grilled pork with sticky rice on a stick for breakfast. She had to wake up early and walk to the food cart parked at the top of the street or they’d be sold out.

It’s a memory the chef worked hard to re-create.

“It took me 20, 30 times to get that marinade right, but I got it,” she said.

When she returned to Louisville with her children, she opened the modern-day version of that pushcart — a food truck. She didn’t think Louisville was ready for full Thai, so she started by serving wings with Thai sauces and fries smothered in curries. “But they kept asking for pad thai,” she said of her customers. So she dumped the fusion menu and focused on authentic, traditional Thai street food.

It was a learning curve. In the beginning, she parked her truck far from others at events, thinking of them as competition. She soon recognized strength in numbers. “If one of us succeeds, we all succeed,” she said.

Prince, owner of the Copper Kitchen, started his truck the same year as Aphaivongs-Harrod. He saw how she brought the food truckers together, sharing tips and food as they learned business and cooking from one another.

“I was just as excited for her to get events as she was for me, and we love working events together,” Prince said.

Kathy Aphaivongs-Harrod, in front of her yellow food truck

At the beginning of the pandemic, Aphaivongs-Harrod started Louisville Food Truck, a Facebook page, to connect truckers with neighborhoods and organizations needing food services. She continues to manage it, volunteering two or three hours a day to negotiate fees and handle schedules to support both her fellow truckers and the community.

“She’s doing that for a bunch of food truck friends,” Prince said. “We trust her. She has our heart.”

She used this network to quickly stand up a food truck response to the tornado disaster. She put up a GoFundMe page to cover the cost of meals and coordinated 12 trucks to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Mayfield and surrounding areas. Ramiro Gandara set up his Cantina the next day. Aphaivongs-Harrod had winterized her All Thai’d Up truck the day before the storms, but she got it back in order and headed out after Gandara. That first night she slept in her truck, which she likened to a huge refrigerator in the December cold. Shivering, she climbed from the floor up onto her generator box to keep warm.

“Every day, we rotated trucks. Some of us stayed the night; some of us drove back and forth,” she said.

Aphaivongs-Harrod stayed seven days over two stretches. She raised $137,000 and served more than 100,000 meals, even helping sling breakfast with the Mennonites who worked with the pop-up World Central Kitchen.

And she kept her menu traditional — fried rice, curry, and vegetable stir fry.

“I was telling people, ‘They lost their homes, not their taste buds,’” she said. She encouraged the truckers to also stick to their menus. She told them, “When you do your best, they will come — I promise.”

They lost their homes, not their taste buds.

Aphaivongs-Harrod said she’ll keep operating the food truck and Facebook group, even with the demands of her restaurant. She loves the truck’s chaotic, small space, with customers lined up and willing to wait in the festival atmosphere until their order is ready. It’s flexible and durable, and it connects her to many communities.

In the restaurant, there’s more pressure: five times the menu size of the food truck, food that needs to be plated and served at tables, customers who have a half hour to eat before they head back to their offices, and a business clientele with high expectations.

She loves it.

“The food truck got me through, and I enjoy it for the festivities and seeing other food truckers,” she said. But with the truck, she was always in search of the next gig.

“I like it when the customers come to me,” she said.

The restaurant has also given Louisville’s food truck community a chance to give back to her. Never one to ask for help, Aphaivongs-Harrod got a hand from Prince and others in painting her new place. They’ve found other ways to say thank you, such as hiring her husband to work on their trucks and stopping by her restaurant for lunch.

It’s the lessons of her childhood — about helping others, making good food, supporting community — all wrapped up in a business she never expected but that continues to nourish her spirit.