Kay Xiong is chef and owner of Kay’s Table and formerly an ER physician’s assistant. She is Hmong and escaped with her family from Laos to Thailand after the fall of Saigon, and landed as the first Hmong family in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1976. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kay signed the lease for her restaurant, where she finds opportunity to engage and feed the community of Sylvania, a Toledo suburb, with authentic flavors of Southeast Asia, including Lao, Thai, Hmong and Vietnamese food.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Kay and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on April 3, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC):
So when did you come to the U.S.?
Kay Xiong (KX): Well, my dad, as Hmong, fought along the U.S. and joined the Vietnam War. The Americans came in and used a lot of the Hmongs to help protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is what they used going through Laos to get to South Vietnam. So, my dad was drafted and fought there. He didn’t have any big positions. But he was just a common soldier and he fought during that.
So, after the fall of Saigon, my dad knew how bad it was going to be that the Hmongs were going to be persecuted because of our involvement in the Vietnam War. And so he bribed a lot of people, made sure that we didn’t dress like we were leaving, and got us out.
So, right after the war, Saigon fell. So there was a base in Laos is called Long Tieng, and that’s where they were evacuating a lot of the Hmongs. About a year and a half ago, remember the Afghans were leaving when we pulled out of Afghanistan and all those big planes with the big hatchback and people were trying to get out? I was a five-year-old in Long Tieng base. And we were trying to get in, but people were stepping on each other and were trampled over. And my dad, having many girls and only one son, he said he didn’t want to risk that. So, he basically got us out, went home and found a way for us to escape to Thailand. And he said that the only way we’re going to be able to get some help is if we cross over to Thailand.
And my sister at the time — she was my oldest sister — was more educated and she was married to her husband who worked as a translator for the U.S. But he was also like a spy, too. And he’d scout and he reported things, so he was murdered. They had two children, and the children were taken away from her and sold into slavery.
So, doing all of this as we were escaping, she was helping us pave the way to get to Thailand. My dad said, “Don’t dress like we’re leaving. Because now that Saigon has fallen, right now, there are many paths at Laos that have infiltrated, if we Hmong decided we’re all gonna leave, they’re gonna you know tattletale on us and we’re gonna die.” So, as a little girl I remember walking from house to house, to my grandfather’s, my uncle’s house. And my dad held my hand knocking on everybody’s door and said, “We’re going to be leaving, you guys need to make preparations and you guys need to leave before the country is really overrun.”
RC: It was hush hush.
KX: It was hush hush. So we came, and we got all of those things done. And then we packed up. Then we traveled. My dad was really smart. He had jeeps waiting for us at every station so we weren’t traveling in the same car. We would go in, and a couple hours later, we get into another car and then travel, and get into another car. But we have to dress like we were just going down to the capitol and visiting relatives and…
RC: So, no luggage?
KX: No, no luggage. And my parents would put the gold… Remember, there’s money, paper money strewn all over the ground. I remember walking, and there’s just paper money all over. Because it’s worthless, the government has collapsed, none of that was worth anything. So my parents were smart enough to get the gold and their silver. They would put all the gold around our waist or put it under our clothes and things like that. And because we were so early, we managed to bring the gold and cross the Mekong River over to Thailand. And then afterwards, when the pirates — the Lao and Thai pirates —were helping the Hmong cross over to Thailand, they knew that the Hmongs were leaving and they carried gold on them. Halfway through the Mekong River, they will kill everybody or throw the people over into the river and take the money. So, many of us refer to the Mekong River as the river of death, because many of them died along there. And Hmongs are not in the Coast area where they can swim. So, many of them don’t know how to swim. They’d have bamboo poles in there to try to float after they know that the Thai and Lao pirates were killing them.
So that’s how it was. And then, to get there, we went from refugee camp to refugee camp to refugee camp. Finally, 1976, ’75, we were able to be granted passage over here. And we flew over to the U.S. in 1976.
RC: Your homeland, what was that like? Do you remember anything about that?
KX: My mom was a businesswoman. She sold materials to make clothes and things like that. My dad raised fighting bulls, because in the Hmong community, every new year, you will have to have these big bulls to fight. And if yours is the winner, or something like that, you get a lot of money and then you start breeding them. So, that was my dad’s passion.
I remember those things. But more so of the night when we were leaving because I think it was so traumatic. If I think about it right now, I could almost remember holding my dad’s hand walking to the houses, my grandfather’s house, my uncle’s, and knocking on the door, and the fact is that they said they left about three days after we did, but it took them 15 years to catch up to us.
RC: So it was 15 years before you saw them.
KX: Right. It was 15 years. Yeah, it was 15 years.
RC: So, you escaped in 1975 and then what happened?
KX: We ended up landing in Erie, Pennsylvania and we did not know anything about snow. We were actually the first Hmong family to land in Erie. There were a couple of Vietnamese refugees that landed there, too. But nobody knew about Asians back in 1976. So we were sponsored by St. Stephen’s Parish, and they would send my parents to adult education. That’s when they started seeing a few Vietnamese there, and Hmongs. So my parents started being friends with Vietnamese. They missed the food, they missed pho, they missed fish and things like that. So, the Vietnamese friends, [their] classmates started to take my dad out fishing, because we were off of Lake Erie, and then they would exchange fish. Even though they couldn’t speak — because my parents didn’t speak Vietnamese and the Vietnamese students didn’t speak Hmong or Lao (my parents spoke Lao and Hmong and a little bit of Thai) — so all they did was use hand gestures. Food was the common denominator that linked them all together and also religion, because we were Catholic. In Vietnam, there were many Vietnamese [that] were Catholic, too. So it was food and religion that kind of helped link us together and through food, we got to be friends with them.
They would come over to our house and then we would exchange food. And of course, there was no pho. I remember growing up [and] my mom would make faux pho. We call it faux pho because that was spaghetti. During that time, they didn’t even have angel hair pasta, because it’s very thick spaghetti. We had a lady at church that would be assigned to teach my mom to go shopping every two weeks to buy food, and somebody there [taught] my mom and dad how to manage our finances. I mean, in the old countries we only had to pay tax, right? But we didn’t have to pay rent [and] electricity. So, now we’ve got somebody to teach us: “Okay, this is rent. This is for electricity. This is for gas.”
And then they’ll take my mom shopping and they would buy us sacks and sacks of potatoes and meat, like all the steaks because they thought that’s what we eat. And all we were longing for was rice and vegetables and minimal meat. So, they knew that Hmongs ate rice. So, they would go and they would buy us a small little Uncle Ben’s rice. Remember the brown rice bag? Small Uncle Ben’s rice for six people.
So, after about a year or so, my mom started making faux pho. She would use the spaghetti noodles and boil them and [we would] use all the meat, but there was no bones. So, she would stew the meat, the beef, and then we would put the broth in there. There is no cilantro, no green onions, but they will bring us those big white onions and no chili at all. There’s no soy sauce and no chili sauce. So, we would use ketchup to pretend it was our chili sauce into the pho or dipping it. Then my mom would put the spaghetti noodles in there, put the broth in there, and then we would cut the white onions. And then my mom started growing some cilantro seeds and green onions. So, we started putting in green onions and growing that. We would use a little bit of it and it was like such a big commodity. That’s how we ate.
We didn’t speak any English, but for me, after about six months, I was able to understand the language. So I became the interpreter at around seven and a half, eight years old, because I understood English a little bit more. So, I was the interpreter between my parents and any social worker or the church and things like that. And that’s how we did it.
But what my dad said to us was that when you go to school, you need to study really hard. Because one of the greatest lessons he taught me was that the monetary, the materialistic — that could be taken away from you. But what you do have in your brain, nobody can take that away from you unless they take your life away. So, we came to Erie with just the clothes on our backs and then boom, we had nothing. We didn’t know what snow was, but we went to school.
And he always said, when you walk out that door, you don’t speak Hmong, you don’t speak anything, you only learn English. And I think because of that, of what he was saying to me, I took it upon myself to really, really work hard and practice my English. And that’s why I ended up being the translator for the family. And he says the only way we’re going to be able to adapt to this country is if we immerse ourselves. When we go out there, we’re not going to wear our Hmong clothes or anything like that. We’re going to wear American clothes. We’re going to do what the Americans do. Like the old saying goes, “When you’re in Rome, do what the Romans do”. And me, I didn’t even know that was phrased like that, but that’s how my dad did. And he just taught us to study and study because he also said, “Education is the key to the bank.” It’s through education that you’re going to be able to get a good job, a good career, and with a good career, you’re going to be able to make money and sustain your life and be able to live in this country and where you’re going to be safe. So, that’s what I did.
RC: You had a whole life prior to the restaurant.
KX: Right. So prior to all of that, my dad always wanted me to be a doctor. We couldn’t do any sports or anything like that. Study, study and study. My mom worked as a cafeteria mom, and my dad worked as a janitor making payments — rent and everything. So, I worked very hard and studied very hard. And I skipped seventh grade, because I was just so much advanced and scoring things so much better than everybody else. When I was in the public school, I was testing in the 10th and 11th grade level, so one of my counselors decided you should just go directly to eighth grade. I’m more mature than they are in terms of home and life and all of that about the world, but yet, here are my parents who were not educated and here I am learning all of this on my own. You didn’t have tutors, you didn’t have anybody. So, I had to struggle and learn all of that. We didn’t have the internet where you can go and look. If I didn’t know anything, I had to take the bus downtown to the library, do my research, read on those, borrow the book and come and do it myself.
RC: And that was in Erie? So you spent time there from seventh through high school and…
KX: Through college. Yeah, in Erie, I grew up with all of that. And here I was, going to school there and I was so poor and there’s all these rich kids over there. I was so poor and my mom worked in the cafeteria to help pay tuition and my dad and all of that, but [the other kids] drive cars, they go to parties — and I grew up during the age of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. They’d have dress up days and all these kids were dressing up like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, Boy George. I couldn’t do that, because I didn’t have the money… Because I did so well — I graduated with a 4.2 [GPA] — I got a full scholarship to Gannon University.
And that’s where I met my husband. My husband who escaped came over to this country at the age of nine because his father was a physician and was working for the southern Vietnamese Army. They put him in the concentration camp three years before he was able to get out. And as soon as he got out, he took his family and fled. They were the boat people. They ended up getting on the boat and were stranded in Malaysia before they came over. He came over when he was nine, he studied very hard; even though he was an attending [physician] in Vietnam, when he c[ame] over here, he had to take his FMGEs [Foreign Medical Graduate Examination]. He had to do everything to get his residency, and he had to go through and do residency all over again. So, he ended up getting a match in Allegheny Medical Center in Pittsburgh. So, they moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and my husband was studying and he got a full scholarship at Gannon, and that’s how we met.
KX: Then we moved over here to Toledo. He was finishing up his residency here as chief, and we were supposed to leave and we didn’t because I was working in Bixby ER as an ER PA and he was finishing up and when he finished they kept giving him positions in ER. And then many of our friends who are trying to have kids during residency or things like that, they couldn’t have kids in five, six years, 10 years. So we decided “Oh, we might as well get started. Because if not, then it might take us forever.” So, boom, we tried and two months later, I was pregnant. I was pregnant and then pregnant again and I couldn’t practice medicine anymore. Because both of us [had] ER schedules and we didn’t have any families in town. So, I ended up staying home. I always tell people, I do pediatric medicine, taking care of all the cuts, bruises, the fractures at home and everything. So, I started honing my cooking.
RC: How did you get started with the restaurant?
KX: That’s how I started. With the kids going to school, I started the restaurant because the kids. I would immerse my son in physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and all of these things. Carrying my kids while taking my two girls to preschool or kindergarten, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Even though the insurance wouldn’t cover and we had to pay out of pocket. And at the same time, I was cooking for my kids and things like that. So, when my son started school, I was so involved in the preparation on how to get him into school.
And then I realized, wow, there was not that many Asian children here in Sylvania. So, I would put my kids in there, and I would talk to the teachers and during faculty times, I would make food — like faculty appreciations. I would start cooking and feeding them curry, bun gas and banh mis and spring rolls. I started doing all of these things for them. And I got to know them, and they are able to help more and more with my children. I cooked when my children went to [middle school]; I did the same when they went to [high school]. Now, they started getting into theater and the band department and there’s always fundraisers for that. So, I volunteered to cook for the theater department.
I started out with making spaghetti but my own Asian version of it, like a fusion — and things like that. And they loved it, and the kids always encouraged me and said, “Mrs. Lee, you should start your own restaurant” and things like that. Because I would feed them during teacher’s appreciation, I will make the summer rolls. I would make curry and I would do that. So after a while, I thought, “You know what, there are people here that don’t know anything about authentic Asian, Southeast Asian food.” So that’s where the restaurant came in.
RC: Was it difficult to get the ingredients that you need?
KX: It was very difficult. When my parents lived in California and I would go there, when the kids were little, I would go there and spend about two months with them before the kids started school, two to three months. And then when I come back, before they started charging for luggage, I would buy all the ingredients and freeze them and then ship them, put them in luggage and take them to here. I would have three freezers at home and put all of them, like the fresh lemongrass, I would get them and then everything — just a lot of the Asian ingredients that are dry. And for pho here, we don’t have any of that, like the star anise, you have all of the cinnamon sticks, you have all of those the Sichuan peppercorn, how many places have Sichuan peppercorn and things like that? They have some pickling spices and things like that, but they put it in a little McCormick jar. How am I going to do that? I use two or three jars of that, just like what I’m making in my pho pot right now. I use this much seasoning in there. So I would just buy all this stuff and ship it here to Toledo.
RC: Did you have any thoughts on how you should present the menu? People are used to eating Americanized food here.
KX: Exactly. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to bring all the authentic flavors to town. When I did this, with my background of being Hmong, we eat Lao, Thai, Hmong and Vietnamese food. I really really wanted to incorporate that and I really want to make our dishes authentic. So, we started with a menu and my niece always says we have to be unique and to be different.
Maybe we’re stupid because when we first started, we were not in the restaurant business. So we wanted to cook like we do at home. So, all of our ingredients are very, very expensive. If I don’t have an ingredient, I will not cook and I will not make it. So, I have to find those ingredients and I have to source if we don’t have it. I’ve got to drive all the way to Detroit to go and get it, until I gather all of those, then I will cook it. For instance, my kaffir lime leaves, I have to find that before I can make my Thai dishes. Where am I going to be able to find that? Well, I would have to go to my aunt who is a farmer down in Florida, and she does the farmers market and would ship me some of those kaffir leaves and things like that. And even with the curry leaves. And then also the lemongrass and things like that, I would have to go and then buy it. The rau ram, which is cilantro. I mean, you don’t buy a little bit of cilantro — I buy 24 bunches of them or whatever and bean sprouts and all of that. So, sourcing that was very difficult. I had to work with Ciolino [Market] to get all the fresh stuff.
When we first started, the menu was very, very small. We only have pho, we only have banh mi, but I was making all the pate. I was making everything. I was making that for my husband for the last 20 years to drive to work. Then the pho, I had to get all of the seasoning for all of that. So we only had pho. We only had banh mi. We only had the traditional Vietnamese noodle dishes and things like that. Then I started doing curry, testing and letting them see and try it. People are so used to the Indian curry and Thai curry, but it’s so watered down. They do a lot of it with just the cans and things. I make my own sauce. I use the root of the cilantro, and I use lemongrass, and I use galanga, and I get it, and I grind it. It takes me three or four days to just make a pot, to make that paste. And that’s what I do.
When we first opened and even with Pho, I only used the best, high quality meat, which is sourced through a local butcher place. They’re FDA approved. And they butchered their cows about a week ago. Whatever they deliver to me on Mondays [are] fresh, so I will get them and then I will make them, and use only the femur bones with the best marrow. I don’t use neck bones, ribs and things, because to me, they don’t have much marrow in there — there’s a lot of fat, so I call them more junk bones and if you just want a regular stew, you use those. But to make pho, to make that clear broth and meaty things, you need that marrow in there.
We used to have people that comment and said, “Oh, you’re not authentic, your broth doesn’t taste like…” Because I don’t use all of those powders. Many of the restaurants use a lot of MSG and a lot of powder into it. So, when they taste it, they only initially taste that good flavor enhancer. But halfway through the bowl, it’s like, how come it doesn’t taste like the way it tasted? Next time when you go and have a bowl of pho. Do that for me. Okay? Don’t put hoisin sauce, don’t put Sriracha in there. Because you want to be having your pho broth, and it should taste the same from the beginning till the last drop.
And so, it took us a whole year and a half to try to educate people. They were writing on my website and Google, “Oh, they’re not authentic at all,” and things like that. But that is because they’re eating so much Americanized stuff, when they come to eat something that’s truly authentic is home cooked, “Oh, it doesn’t taste like that.” Yes, of course, because that’s not what I wanted to do. I want to make it the way I make it at home. That’s why I didn’t call this some sort of Asian name. I called it Kay’s Table. This is my table. This is what I’m making for you. And when they come in, eating my curry and they say, “Oh, how come it doesn’t taste like…” it’s because there’s so much more to the curry paste than just from the can. It shouldn’t just be, open up the can and use it from the can. I don’t just use the can and put it in. If I did that, it would save on a lot of my ingredients and a lot of my prep time. But I don’t do that.
RC: You mentioned the locals — that they might not be educated on how to eat Asian food. For you, starting the restaurant, can you talk a little bit more about how you had to educate the local people? And also, the expectations that you have to break?
KX: Yes, it’s communication and communication with the customers. People will come and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve never had Thai. I’ve never had Vietnamese,” and then we were recommended to them. We would talk to them about it. Educate. Communication, communication. That’s all we did. We would talk to them, like, “Try this. It’s light. it’s not…” They assume that it’s stir fried, things like that. We’re like, “No, there’s a whole other type of food that is not just fried and General Tso’s chicken and things like that, or Panda Express.” There’s a healthier aspect of it, fresh ingredients, and all of that.
KX: When I make my chicken broth, I make it with chicken. And I use my mom’s (who is 94 years old) — her recipes. Because she was a shaman and an herbalist. She’s a gardener and good at pairing things like that. So my chicken pho is so unique. It looks very simple. But once you eat it, you’re gonna say, “Oh, my gosh, there’s so much flavor.” So, we had to try to teach our customer that because they only wanted the meat, the beef. And then some people wanted the chicken. And then we had to educate them and say, “Vietnamese-style chicken is like that.” So, I had to educate them and teach them and now they’re like, “Oh, it’s really different. It’s not just like the beef broth and putting in chicken.” So, we started educating them and then even with the vegan broth. I don’t put broccoli and carrots and all of that stuff. Can you imagine how you would destroy a wonderful, flavorful Pho bowl by putting broccoli in there? All you’re going to do is smell broccoli. So, we actually had a customer that came in here expecting my vegan Pho to be full of broccoli, carrots and everything. I put the same stuff that I do in the vegan Pho as I do with the beef and the chicken. And she stormed out here, she was mad.
RC: She wanted green vegetables.
KX: Right, the green vegetables, they wanted all of that. And I said, “No, I’m true and authentic. And if you don’t like it, well go.” And there was another customer that sat here and ordered the same dish, and she is a frequent customer that comes in. And we didn’t even have to say anything, she actually stood up and defended us: “It’s all written there in their menus and what goes in there. I’ve been eating this, and this is not where you’re gonna find it. Because if they put broccoli, and they put all those cauliflower and carrots, and it’s not truly authentic.”
RC: Do you find you face more of those challenges because we are in an area of the country that is more and more conservative? And there are fewer Asians here?
RC: Is that part of this story?
KX: Yes, we definitely are, we do face a lot more of that, because they expect us to cook like what they’re used to. And when we first came in, it was a lot of that, the communication constantly. Yeah, they want a lot of meat in there. And we’re like, it’s not a steak. If I would have said it’s a steak, I would give you a 12-ounce steak. It’s putting in the beef balls, the lean steak, the tripe, the brisket and things like that in there. All of that is the protein. It’s the melody of all of that, that gives you that flavor of not putting in a piece of steak. So they used to say, “Oh, we don’t put enough meat into [it].” I had to go in and educate them. So we would have to explain to them. Many of them do come back and say “Oh, you know, we’re sorry. We didn’t know because that’s what we thought.” They just want me to come in and to tailor it the way they want. And they said if I’m only going to make it the way you want it, then that’s not authentic. So, I had to explain a lot of that to them.
And when we opened, of course it was when I signed the lease which was in February. So COVID hit. So you have all that nonsense about, “Oh COVID is a Chinese virus.” So, we have that too. And we had to break that barrier too. But luckily, with me cooking so much for the Sylvania community right down the road, I have built up a lot of friends who come to my rescue. And I think that’s one of the things that I have to say that’s different here is because I built up so much relationship with the school system, the families of my children’s friends and neighbors here.
We lived in St. James. I used to feed the whole neighborhood, and then we moved over here, and I would feed my neighbors, and then I would feed the school. So, many of them knew me — not just that I came here to open a restaurant just to make money. I didn’t just come here and decide to open a restaurant for money. They know that I’m a professional white collar and I’m doing this because I’m passionate about it. And this is not my main source of income. I do this because I love what I do. And I love educating people. And I want the community to know that we’re Asians, but we’re accepting and we want to educate you to know that. You are Taiwanese doesn’t mean you’re Chinese and the Chinese here are not the same Chinese as in China. I am Hmong, but I’m not the ones that grew up in the mountains. Don’t just have that stereotype in your mind. And that’s what I did. By bringing this restaurant here. I make [the restaurant] Asian to be more inclusive, and things like that.
I think that’s my goal. My mission here with the restaurant is I could bridge that gap through food. Okay, I’m not running for some public office, because that’s not me. But I’m doing it from my passion of food. If we can get everybody [together around that], it doesn’t matter. Like what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. If you bring a Russian and Ukrainian together to set the table, you know what, they share their food, and they can become friends. But it’s the government who pits us against each other and things like that. So I don’t talk politics here. People come in, it doesn’t matter who, whether you’re Democrat, Republican, whatever. I said, “This is my food. This is my table. We talk about food and how we are friends.”