Every great place has a story. Though, its backdrop may not always be as vibrant as it would seem to visitors or patrons. Some roots back to a dark past that people want to escape from until it becomes a solace that saves them one way or another. This is true for the fascinating Cambodian restaurant, Khmai, which pays homage to a strong mother who braved several wars. 

Established in June last year, Khmai takes pride in its flavorful cuisine which was started by a mother and daughter who loves cooking. However, it wasn’t an easy start for them. 

Mona, the executive chef of the restaurant, has let go of her job to focus on her mom’s healing. Her mom is a survivor of genocide who found her way to America and made ends meet to feed her four children. Unfortunately, she lost her three boys which put her in much deeper depression, refusing to speak for months. 

Mona Sang | Photo Courtesy of Khmai Website

While such a struggle is ongoing, the pandemic hit which resulted in Mona being furloughed. Her mother takes comfort in cooking for the church community but that, too, was lost. Mona did not give up on her mother and knowing how cooking means so much to her, she decided to put on her apron and started it herself. 

One day, when she was chopping spices, her mother spoke after a long time. “You’re doing it wrong,” she said. And it was the most beautiful thing she has ever heard. 

Cooking allowed them to grow closer to one another until Mona decided that they will finally look for a restaurant where they can build Khmai. 

Photo Courtesy of Khmai Facebook

The name “Khmai” came from their language “Khmer” combined with “Mai” which means mother. Two things that are close to home, closest to heart. 

As they continue their cooking, her mother is slowly healing from post-traumatic syndrome. Khmai allows her to start anew and to drive the bad dreams away. It allowed Mona to understand her mom better–to be the best daughter she can be. 

Starting from a few customers who come and go, they have built Khmai Fine Dining into one of the most-known restaurants in Chicago that are now booked until June. 

Indeed, it is more than just a place. It is a home that was built with dirt and grit. 

Khmai is a testament to a daughter’s love and a mother’s strength, now shared with a broader community that enjoys the pungent food they are most proud of.

To know more about Khmai Fine Dining, visit https://khmai-fine-dining.com/

Feb 21, 2023

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