A Writer's Risk: The Restaurant Life


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

For most of my adult life, I thought I had the best job in the world. While many of my friends were busy making Wall Street money or earning graduate degrees or selling modern art, I got to travel across Asia and write about it. That career began in Chengdu, China, in 2002. For five years I stalled in Shanghai, where I helped start a magazine and established a reputation as a food writer. In Shanghai I learned a lot about food, about cooks and kitchens, and especially about the weight of the written word.

And then I left, to wander through Southeast Asia and India, to write about the things that interested me, and to live in Bangkok. You may have read about some of those adventures here at the Food Channel.

In the next six months, I hope to open a bar and restaurant in Bangkok. It will serve Thai food—mostly the sort you'd eat on the street.

But late last year, on a flight from Seoul back to Thailand, I had a rude and necessary revelation. That "best job in the world" of mine wasn't a real job anymore. Food magazines were floundering. Editors backpedaling. I had more outstanding payments from publications than I had money in my bank account. When freelance writers and photographers get together, we tend to talk about what we put up with to live this bright and tetherless life. And on that plane ride I decided to tether myself to something: selling food.

I've always loved to cook, but cooking has usually been my means of escape. In college, I cooked Chinese or Korean food rather than writing term papers about Asia. After my parents divorced, I spent days in the kitchen cooking elaborate holiday meals for the men in my family, stirring and plating as if nothing had changed. This year, I again found myself turning negative energy into dinners, and I realized that for most of my life I've wanted a restaurant, bad.

Food writers tend to have strange relationships with cooks. We spend our days trying to capture the essence of their kitchens. Then they read our stuff, and rightfully dissect it. For all that, we treat each other with mutual respect—confidants, friends, but not colleagues. I've often expressed a deep interest in opening a restaurant with professional chefs whom I'm closest to, but their responses are usually no different than the advice I once gave a chef who wanted to write. "Why the hell would you ever want to do that?" I growled.

Well, I want to do this because I'm in love with honest food. This post is the first installment in a series in which I think there will be much to tell, good and bad. In the next six months, I hope to open a bar and restaurant in Bangkok. It will serve Thai food—mostly the sort you'd eat on the street—but it's more complicated than that. I want to work with farms in a way that benefits the growers and my customers. I'd like to faithfully recreate delicious things I've eaten on roadsides across Asia. I want to recruit a small army of bad-ass street cooks. And a few times each month I'd like to share my experiences with you, as this strange creation evolves.

Like most things in business, this column is a calculated risk. The restaurant might fail before it has the chance to sputter to life. The food might stink, or the people may not come. But I don't think those things will happen, or I wouldn't be writing this.

Along the way, I will tell stories of Thailand—of farmers and cooks, and of this wacky backdrop of Bangkok. There will also be very cold beer, good cocktails, and a free jukebox. The world needs more jukeboxes.

In some ways, great eating and drinking isn't much different from a well-crafted story. It demands your attention. It introduces you to things you might not have known. And most importantly, it's good from beginning to end. But right now, that eating experience seems infinitely more difficult to create—something I'm about to learn the hard way. I'll save you a seat.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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