HANLOH was founded in 2017 by Lalita Kaewsawang in Santa Cruz, California. “Hanloh!” is a common greeting when Thai folks pick up the phone, reminding any emigrant – wherever they are – of home. Lalita recalls shouting “Hanloh!” over the payphone when she used to call home using a phone booth with a prepaid phone card. Lalita grew up in Nonthaburi, Thailand, a small city along Chaopaya river just north of Bangkok, and for as long as she can remember, she’s been thinking about food. Her earliest and strongest memories of Thailand are of the sound and smells of her grandmother pounding curry paste with stone mortar and pestle. Or, some days her grandmother would slip her two 10 baht coins and send her to eat around the block, choosing her dinner from one of the many street vendors. That’s when she really fell in love.
A 10-year-old Lalita leaned over a khao mun gai (aka chicken-fat-rice) food cart. The sun was setting in the distance, and the street vendors were starting to get busy. She was mesmerized by the motions of the chef, and would sometimes just stand and watch. He was so efficient. Every ingredient was packed into the cart, always just enough for the evening rush. Lalita found herself returning again and again to the same cart. Day in and day out, the chef was always there, and the food was always the same – fresh, hot, made-to-order, and seasoned just right.
Lalita grew to admire the khao mun gai chef, and the other street vendors. They worked hard in the muggy heat of Thailand, but they were also graceful. Precise. Flawless. One day she asked if she could “hang around” and help her favorite chef out, and he let her. She went home to tell her grandmother that night and she scolded at her. Being a food vendor is considered a low-end job in Thailand; her grandmother did not approve.
When she was 13 years old, Lalita moved to America with her little sister. In high school, in Berkeley, California, Lalita started working at local Thai restaurants. Again, she looked up to the Thai and Laotian cooks she knew. They were strong, endured immense heat and pressure, and worked as hard as they could so they could send a little money home. As much as she admired them, Lalita thought of her grandmother, and was determined to get a good education so she wouldn’t grow up to be a cook.
Even in college, Lalita still had food on her brain. She went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a small school with limited late-night food options. In her senior year, she started selling food out of her campus apartment. Just two dishes a night, a meat and a veggie option (it was Wesleyan, after all), and when she ran out, she closed up shop. And she always ran out. Word spread, and students started asking for more. She was not prepared to expand just yet, but she had got a taste for something…
After graduating, Lalita moved to New Orleans to start a career in education, she worked with City Year and Edible Schoolyard. But it wasn’t long before she had slipped back into the culinary world in the Big Easy. She started to work as a prep cook, and then guest chef for Dinner Lab, eventually became Back of House Manager, Chef Liaison, then Market Developer. And then the Bay Area called her back… but she wasn’t home for long before she left again to apprentice at Grace in Chicago. Then, finally, she moved back to California, this time to Santa Cruz, and spent two years apprenticing at Manresa in Los Gatos.