Soul to soul with Bangkok's Jarrett Wrisley

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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.

Street fare

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 to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.

About the author:
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.

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