Thepthikone Keosavang came to the United States with his mother as they fled the Vietnam War’s expansion into Laos and Cambodia. Today, he has two popular restaurants — Lemongrass Bistro in Kailua-Kona and the newly opened Lemongrass Express in Waikoloa.
To patrons, colleagues and friends, he’s affectionately called “T.K.” and is known for his nouvelle Asian fusion cuisine.
Before striking off on his own, Keosavang spent 13 years with the MGM Grand Hotel, where he helped win “Best Japanese Restaurant in Las Vegas” two years in a row for Shibuya and was the chef de cuisine of The Fairmont Orchid’s Brown’s Beach House.
His success story started in Laos, where he was born and raised mostly by his grandmother. She had a 10-acre rice field where he could be found tending the rice and riding the water buffalo used for plowing. Or, he was in her kitchen, watching her cook. Keosavang said his mother was a teacher; he did not know his father.
After the war, millions of Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese fled the environmental disasters and political repression in their home countries for the refugee camps in neighboring countries. Keosavang and his mother lived in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines for three years awaiting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to allow them to enter the country. His uncle, who lived in Las Vegas, was their sponsor.
Keosavang arrived in America in 1987. For him, then age 12, everything in America was “big and very elegant.”
At 16, Keosavang got a job at the PepperMill Restaurant on Sin City’s strip for $5.25 per hour because he wanted spending money. Within three months, he went from kitchen prep to line cook and discovered his interest in cooking.
When the MGM Grand opened in 1993, he landed a cook helper position at the Studio Cafe, where he soon after promoted to line cook. From there, he worked his way up through various restaurant kitchens, including Emeril’s Fish House, Gatsby’s, The Mansion, NOBHILL, MGM Grand Buffet, Skyloft and Shibuyu. Landing the Brown’s Beach House job in 2007 was Keosavang’s dream job, and helping it get the AAA Four-Diamond rating in 2011 a proud accomplishment.
Keosavang said he’s always been a goal-setter who strives to do his best, pursue goals, take risks, learn from failures and embrace opportunities. In 2011, while working at The Fairmont Orchid, he decided to open Lemongrass Bistro in the Alii Plaza on Kuakini Highway. There, he combines flavors and techniques from Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Laotian, French, Hawaiian and American cuisines while using high-quality fresh food, locally sourced whenever possible.
Lemongrass Express, an abbreviated version of his Kona eatery, debuted on Dec. 12 in the Queens’ MarketPlace food court in the Waikoloa Beach Resort area. The response, he said, has been “warm and very encouraging.” Already he has regulars from the neighboring businesses and as far away as the Hamakua Coast, whose taste buds are calling for his sake mirin jalapeno ginger braised oxtail noodle soup, seared ahi poke, crispy pork belly and garlic sambal beef. Pupus cost $7, soups and salads are $9 to 18, while entrees cost $15 to $26. There are 12 lunch specials, all for $12, offered from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. All dishes take between three to five minutes to make, he added.
Keosavang described Lemongrass Express as sort of a thank you letter to those who have shared their knowledge and a way to pay it forward by providing a real opportunity for passionate, burgeoning food entrepreneurs. His partner, as well as several of the employees, currently work as cooks at local resorts, and all have aspirations of having their own venues.
Lemongrass Express is open from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. For more information, call 886-3400 or visit lemongrasskona.com.