Published September 24th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
It’s just like riding a bike.
I hope this adage is true, because I haven’t been on a bike since I was a teenager.
For several weeks, I had been watching @anouromlaocuisine on Instagram as he and a band of fellow kitchen warriors hit the local trails. I want to tell the story, but how can I if I don’t even own a bike?
Then, by some weird coincidence, my husband told me about a friend selling a bike. Two wobbly spins around my neighborhood, awkwardly pedaling the vintage Schwinn mountain bike with cranky gears, and I make a phone call to chef Anourom Thomson to ask if I can join him on a bike ride.
Thomson is the creator of Anousone’s, a Laotian comfort food concept in Strang Hall that pays tribute to a brother who died before the family arrived in the United States as refugees when Anourom was 6 years old.
The menu includes sticky rice, bao, green papaya salad and even a hamburger inspired by childhood memories of the McDonald’s Big Mac. I am addicted to Thomson’s khao poon, a coconut-based red curry with pulled pork, water chestnuts and banana blossoms. The dish is served over vermicelli noodles then topped with handfuls of shredded purple cabbage and fresh herbs.
Thomson has his own voracious appetite for mountain biking. He rides nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes at night with a light. His favorite trails are Swope Park and Blue River Parkway.
During the pandemic, he’s been calling on fellow chefs to ride with him on trails that stretch like veins and capillaries throughout the body of the city.
The roster of riders includes Michael Corvino of Corvino Supperclub and Ravenous, Howard Hanna of The Rieger, Michael Foust of Black Sheep, Keeyoung Kim of Sura Eats and Chad Tillman of Norcini.
Their group rides started as a quest for stress relief and better fitness. But the rides also quickly built a strong sense of camaraderie in an industry that is suffering so much loss.
“We’re just doing a different kind of hang out,” Thomson says. “We’re not drinking and smoking, we’re just out there riding and being smart about things, and we have more endurance and also our mental state is in a better place.”
Thomson agrees to gather a few members of the team and we make plans to ride on a Sunday at Shawnee Mission Park. I know my limits and I ask for a gently sloped paved trail.
Thomson, Awak Awak, an 18-year-old employee who wears a red Strang Hall t-shirt, Thomson’s brother-in-law Foust, and Thomson’s bike riding friend Justin McCarthy gather at the trailhead. When I say I want to take a group photo for the story, they insist that I appear in the photo. Before I can raise an objection, McCarthy flags down a passerby to record the moment.
McCarthy is owner of his own public relations firm and represents cycling manufacturers and cycling clients who compete at the Tour de France level.
But all levels of riding are welcome. Two months ago, Tillman agreed to go riding. He hadn’t been on a bike in nearly two decades. When I catch up with him by phone a day after my ride, he explains what he was hoping to find.
“My dad had been sick, and I was looking for a way to clear my head,” he says. “It just was very releasing. It was very calming.”
Tillman has been on a half dozen rides since and reports feeling more energized than ever. “Your core really gets worked as you go up hill, down hill, changing gears. It’s a stamina thing for me,” he says.
Tillman is not sure an interest in cycling would have stuck so quickly without the support he received from Thomson.
“Anourom is a great teacher and he’s just the most motivational guy,” Tillmans says. “He’s the epitome of a leader.”
Thomson’s most constant riding companion is Awak, who spends the Sunday afternoon disappearing and reappearing as he crisscrosses the trails.
When he works at Strang Hall, Awak is easy to spot, even if his 1,000-watt smile is covered by a mask. He’s the one twinning in Thomson’s signature straw pork pie hats. Awak is originally from Kenya and a graphic design student at Johnson County Community College.
Despite holding down a job and going to school, Awak used to play video games until the wee hours and, not surprisingly, frequently arrived at work tired.
To instill better habits, Thomson offered him one of his spare bikes to ride, and for the past few months Awak has been getting up between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. to ride hard over rocky trails.
“It was weird to ride at first, but after you get on it, it’s really relaxing for your mind, and it’s fun. It’s just a good hobby to have,” Awak says.
The two have bonded over their shared hobby. “He’s a special, special kid. I look at him like a son. My son, Champa, and my wife love him,” Thomson says.
Mountain biking is a sport designed to tackle rough terrain. Thomson preaches safety first and he won’t let me ride without strapping on one of his extra helmets. He and McCarthy both ride sleek Cannondale Habit full-suspension trail bikes with shocks to absorb the impact of riding over tree roots and rocks.
“This isn’t a cheap hobby,” Tillman says of the initial investment required to get into the sport. “I couldn’t feasibly go out and buy a $3,000-$4,000 bike…My cars don’t cost as much as (what) these guys are riding.”
That explains why there’s a give-and-take grapevine of borrowed, hand-me-down and secondhand bikes. For instance, Thomson lent his spare bike to Awak, who will pass it to Tillman when he buys Corvino’s old bike.
Lowering the bar for entry – both financial and emotional – is part of the appeal for bike evangelists like Thomson and McCarthy. “I think people getting on bikes and being active is great. The cycling community is just that – it’s one big community,” McCarthy says.
“It’s people with open arms, and as we were going down the trails saying ‘hi’ to the people with smiles, everybody has something in common,” he adds. “I think in this day and age the more things we can find in common with each other the better.”
During our hour-long ride, McCarthy flanks behind me and coaches how to use the gears to get up and down the gently rolling hills as we start from the trailhead.
When I switch gears and grind to a halt, he gets me back on track. I never wipe out, but I do have to walk my bike up the last hill back to my car. Still, I feel invigorated, a goal accomplished.
Foust jokes he recently traded in his “Model T” for a more sophisticated ride. But he can’t completely turn off his culinary training. Along our route he stops to taste anise-y goldenrod. He also spies chokeberries, but misses out on finding any native paw paws. Culinary treasure hunt aside, Foust is relieved to break out of his restaurant routine for a few hours.
“It’s really nice not being in the kitchen. It’s a break, but also it’s camaraderie,” says Foust. “I’m riding with all the guys that I’m in the kitchen with or around the kitchen with, but it’s not kitchen talk.
“We get to talk about other things, and we get what I call the white picket-fence dream: You’re a little bit normal for a while. You get out of thinking about COVID in a restaurant, which I think means everything in the world right now.”
McCarthy sees the parallels between cooking and bike riding: “For those in the restaurant industry, it’s a passion profession. And this is a passion sport, so the connection is really easy.
“We’re here on bikes, having a good time…and I think the same thing applies for people every day in restaurants, right? You’re trying to have a good time, doing what you do, and making people happy.”
The day after my ride, as Thomson is driving to his next rendezvous in Hodge Park near Pleasant Valley, he calls to see if I enjoyed the outing. As we talk about his favorite trails and the chefs he has plans to ride with, he also tells me he dreams of having a bike shop that serves some kind of coffee, beer or food.
I tell him that doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea, even in the midst of a pandemic.
As Albert Einstein once said: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast. Black Sheep is one of her clients. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.