Soul to soul with Bangkok's Jarrett Wrisley
First published 9th January, 2011
Former food writer Jarrett Wrisley opened his first restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, in Bangkok last year to rave reviews. We ask the American restaurateur about his food philosophy and tease out his tips for hungry travellers to Thailand.
We've read that you decided to turn your hand to running a restaurant when you noticed writing rates dropping. But why did you choose Thailand? And why Bangkok over say, Chiang Mai or somewhere in Phuket or Samui?
I opened a restaurant because I thought that writing about food was, at least in the short term, not a sustainable way to live the way I wanted to live. I chose Thai food because I was living in Bangkok, and as food writer and restaurant critic I learned one very valuable lesson: It's hard to cook consistently delicious food if the ingredients are not local and plentiful. Depending on imported ingredients is expensive and risky; trying to convincingly recreate western recipes with Asian produce is also tricky.
Can you describe Soul Food for us in a couple of lines?
I've tried to create the sort of Thai restaurant I wanted but didn't think existed here. A place that's unpretentious but a little sophisticated, with good drinks, interesting wines and delicious food. I like neighborhood restaurants, places you return to once or twice a week. I wanted to make a place people would return to.
What, in a nutshell, is your food philosophy?
To learn as much as I can from those who know more than me; to buy local; to keep my menu fluid and seasonal; to not be burdened by expectations of authenticity; and to make everything from scratch.
How does organic/localism fit into this philosophy?
All of my rice comes directly from organic farms in Yasothon and Surin. When it arrives in my shop from the community mill, it's still damp and smells of barnyard. I love that smell. I buy free-range chickens and a few other products from those farmers as well, and organic vegetables at fresh markets in Bangkok. But most of my produce isn't certified organic, because it's cost and supply-chain prohibitive. We change our specials two times a week depending on what's available. It keeps my cooks on their toes, and our regular customers interested. Plus, there is just so much exploring to do within the cannon of Thai cookery, and with the sheer volume of ingredients here.
What's the favourite part of your day and why?
It depends. I love wandering through markets, making menus in my head in the early afternoon. I like joking around with my cooks, prepping the specials before things get busy. And I really look forward to going home to my wife after a busy night.
What Thai dish do you recommend to someone who really wants to go out on a limb while they are in Thailand? (That is, no green chicken curries or pad Thai allowed.)
Tough question. Nahm priks (dips, usually made with chilies and fish/shrimp paste) are delicious and under-represented outside of Thailand. A rich, sweet and savory lon (a coconut-based relish from Central Thailand) can be unspeakably good. I really love fried frogs with garlic for a beer snack, the sun-dried meats and fishes too, Thai sausages, and khanom jeen (fresh rice noodles with curry and condiments). Desserts are always a surprise – good and bad. I can't pick one thing. Try ‘em all.
You probably started Soul Food with an idea about what would be the toughest things to deal with. But what has been the toughest unexpected challenge you've faced in opening a restaurant?
Managing staff, without question. It's a different world when you're depending on eleven people to do their best work, and you need to foster an environment that encourages that. In Thailand, personal relationships, emotions, and performance are intimately connected in a unique (and occasional frustrating) way.
What makes a good customer?
Someone who is engaged and understanding. The restaurant business is hard; some folks tend to forget that if their Diet Coke arrives two minutes late.
Who has been your most difficult customer to date? (We don't mean name and shame; but what made them suck?!)
I can't say, but there are two kinds of people who dine, as far as I can tell. The great majority, who are kind to service and kitchen staff and realise that these people are working very hard, for not very much money, to make them happy. And the small but intolerable minority who think that simply paying for a meal entitles them to act like an asshole whenever they feel like it.
One thing that we often wonder in restaurants everywhere is: What happens to tips?
Our cash tips are split evenly amongst everyone in the restaurant each night. Service charge goes directly to my staff at the end of the month, after service related expenses (broken plates, new mops, English lessons, whatever).
What should people never order in a restaurant? Eg the second most inexpensive bottle of wine? Fish on Mondays?
I would never serve anything that I wouldn't serve to my own family; I think all honest restaurateurs do the same.
Your top three favourite restaurants in Thailand?
Too many to narrow it down, but I really like Raan Jay Fai's tum yum and her crab omelet, the ba mee soup noodles at Sawang, most of the dishes at the original Taling Pling are very good, and the curries at Nahm are superb. There are many more.
Favourite streetfood vendor (or two)?
Too many to count. There is a Muslim lady across the street from Soul Food that sells Thai-style chicken biryani (khao mok gai) in the mornings. She is my current favorite.
Do Thais make the best Thai-food chefs? (Controversy alert!)
Anyone can cook anything if they have skill, discipline and determination. This controversy about foreigners cooking Thai food is irrational. We love the food, too.
What are your favourite fresh food markets in Thailand that you'd recommend visitors go see?
Aw Taw Kaw (across from Chatujak) is extraordinary for the variety and sheer quality of the produce. But smaller, rural markets is where you'll unearth ingredients and dishes that you've never seen before. I love the morning market in Yasothon. I've been to great markets in Nakhon Si Thammarat, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, in Trang, even on islands like Koh Chang. Just poke around, taste, pick things up and smell them. My best tip: ask the staff at your hotel or guesthouse which market they eat breakfast at, and go there early.
Do you have a favourite Thai food cookbook?
My choices are limited by my inability to fluently read Thai. It goes without saying that David Thompson's Thai Food is one of my favorite cookbooks of all time. I just got my hands on Chef Mc Dang's new cookbook The Principles of Thai Cookery and I love how concise it is — it's very user-friendly. Right now, I'm paging through a book called Everyday Siamese Dishes by Sibpan Sonakul from the 1950s. It's charming.
What's on your menu tonight?
Tonight on the specials menu we have stir-fried khanaeng (baby cabbage) with house-cured crispy pork belly, khanom jeen nahm ya (a fish and coconut curry soup served over rice noodles with herbs and pickles), a sour Isaan-style pork rib soup called tom saap, and a sweet coconut soup with taro dumplings. That, and everything else on our regular menu.
Jarrett still writes for the Atlantic — you can read his blog here
Soul Food Mahanakorn
56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thong Lo), Bangkok
T: (02) 714 7708
Open Daily 5:30pm to 1am
Through 2011, every Monday we'll feature an interview with a person working in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries across Southeast Asia. From masseuses to restaurateurs, princesses to paupers, we aim to bring a diverse range of voices here to Travelfish.org to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (4)
- Burma (3)
- Cambodia (19)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (14)
- All stories
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (6)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (59)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (29)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (18)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (14)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (14)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.