Channy Laux, Angkor Cambodian Food, Wins 2021 Leadership Award for Citizenship

Julie Besonen | 7 Dec 2020

Channy Laux wanted the world, not just her immediate family, to remember her courageous and resourceful mother. Em, as she was called, was orphaned at 14 in Cambodia and went to work cleaning houses, cooking, and taking care of other people’s children. One of those children taught her to read and write since she had never gone to school.

Em married a successful businessman and had children of her own, but the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed their lives in the mid-1970s. As a teenager, Channy endured starvation and brutality and was separated from her family. Her father and a brother were killed in the genocide.

In 1979, Em and her four surviving children immigrated to Lincoln, Nebraska. They learned English, got educations, and made friends. Channy relished helping her mother cook Cambodian dishes, talking about the past and the future and things that made them happy.

“My relationship with my mother saved me, not only physically, but gave me a reason to continue living because I wanted her to see me again,” Laux, 57, says, talking of their painful separation in Cambodia.

Finding the right Cambodian ingredients in Lincoln was impossible back then, so Em would substitute carrots for green papaya, oregano for hot basil, and dried Thai galangal for fresh. They planted mint in their garden, and on a trip to California were thrilled to find lemongrass.

“Channy, write this down,” Em insisted one day. It was her lemongrass paste recipe, which went on, many years later, to win a Silver sofi™ Award from the SFA.

Laux graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and embarked on a successful career as an engineer in the aerospace industry in Northern California. She married her college sweetheart, Kent Laux, whose Nebraskan mother had taught her to can tomatoes and pickle peaches and beets, skills that came in handy later. Channy’s mother and siblings all followed them to live in California.

In 2010, Channy dropped everything when her mother collapsed and was sent to intensive care. She had been secretly working on her autobiography and started to read her mother passages. They had five more weeks together, and then her mother was gone.

One of Em’s specialties was hot sauce, which she’d make in big batches to give out to family and friends. Channy carried on the tradition, and it was such a hit that she started handing out samples at a farmers’ market. From there, she approached Bay Area shop owners, who opened the door to her. In 2016, she quit her engineering job to focus 100 percent on Angkor Cambodian Food, first launched in 2012. Products inspired by Em’s recipes are now in 50 outlets nationwide and number 40 SKUs. Kent and their two children, 26 and 28, are involved in the business, too.

“I started off for the love I have for my mother, but in the end, it’s representing my culture,” Channy says. “We have a quality product, not just an okay product, and this is our chance to make a good first impression of what Cambodian food really tastes like.”

Timeline

— 1979 Channy Laux arrives in Lincoln, Nebraska, as a refugee, not knowing a word of English

— 1987 Graduates from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with double major in computer sciences and math

— 1988 Embarks on an engineering career in the California aerospace industry designing software for jet fighter displays and satellite communication systems

— 1997 Awarded a Master of Science degree in Applied Mathematics from Santa Clara University

— 2006 Works as a senior staff system engineer in the biotech industry, leading engineering teams to design and develop flow cytometers (a medical instrument that assists oncologists in diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients)

— 2010 Laux’s mother, Em, dies and she vows to carry forward her legacy by making and sharing her fresh hot sauce recipe

— 2011 Hands out her first product, Chrouk Metae (hot sauce), at a local farmers’ market

— 2012 Incorporates Angkor Cambodian Food, the first Cambodian food manufacturer in the U.S.; creates her second product, Lemongrass Paste, soon sold in Bay Area specialty markets

— 2016 Introduces Tamarind Sauce, dried spices, snack foods, and foodservice-size packaging; quits her day job and writes her autobiography

— 2017 Laux’s autobiography, “Short Hair Detention: Memoir of a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Surviving the Cambodian Genocide,” wins multiple book awards

— 2018 Lemongrass Paste wins the SFA Silver sofi™ Award in the Cooking Sauce, Marinade category; online store goes live

— 2019 Angkor Cambodian Food wins the inaugural Foodservice Product Innovation Award from the SFA/IFMA

— 2020 Launches a meat product line with lemongrass sausage and curry sausage; Angkor Chef, a delivery/takeout restaurant, opens in San Jose, California, serving authentic Cambodian hot meals using ingredients manufactured by Angkor


Julie Besonen writes for The New York Times and is a restaurant columnist for nycgo.com.