A Restaurateur's First Mate


Jarrett Wrisley

Thanapat Chamuangkul, whom I call Pat, is my new restaurant manager. He is also my last line of defense on the food and beverage battlefield of Bangkok.

Because I am an owner/operator in a foreign land, Pat is an especially vital member of my team. Through him I'll understand the emotional needs of my Thai employees, and more prosaic things like how many times we should feed them each day.

Did you know that Thais really don't like to sit under stairs? Or how much to pay the policeman (or not to) when he sidles up to the bar at midnight and orders an ice water? Or where to hire a few Buddhist monks to bless the space before opening? Or where to find a vintage jukebox? Pat does—and I know these things matter.

Nothing could prepare me for the hundreds of tiny calculations I face while getting this first restaurant up and running. What makes these calculations even more humbling is when you're navigating them in a culture that's not your own. I speak some Thai and have been visiting this country for nearly a decade. I've lived here for nearly two years. That's not enough time to map out the subtle topography of a culture.

As we spoke his eyes scanned the patio, calculating tabs, categorizing the tables of white and blue-collar workers, imagining what brought them there.

So I have hired Pat to help me direct this production—both business and stagecraft—and to see small missteps that I cannot, like the unlucky table under the stairs. Or the dilapidated spirit house, which was left behind by another owner. That broken home for old ghosts needs fixing or they could haunt my space. Stranger things have happened in Bangkok.

I've already been burned in the race to open. My designers happily took money but failed to deliver their work on time, and when it came it was not what I'd asked for. My construction has been delayed for weeks, as I frantically rework their half-baked plans, and get contractors to re-bid for the job. But I'm glad this setback happened so early—it is exactly what made me go find Pat.

Pat is an "opening man." He's usually hired by hotels in Thailand to set up restaurants in more expensive properties than my own, on two-year contracts. He trains staff in Thai and English, he makes checklists, and he solves problems. But the tourism sector in Thailand is suffering, and that means few jobs for people like him.

When Pat and I eat on the street here, I secretly watch him scan the stools, breaking the diners into categories, making sense of them. He examines cutlery like an archaeologist, searching for clues. He wipes the rim of my water glass and examines it in the lamplight before filling it. He talks of linens, extra telephone lines, and cooks who hide food in the garbage and retrieve it later. All this over bowls of noodles.

Pat started out as a busboy at Silom Village, a trinket-filled tourist trap. Later, he moved up to dishwasher there. But on his first night washing, he sprayed water into a wok full of hot oil. Pat was covered in burns, and spent a month in the hospital. He never worked in a kitchen again.

I like Pat for a lot of different reasons. He has a scattered intensity shaped by watching 10 things at once. He has never uttered "mai pen rai" (no problem!) in my presence, a phrase and an all-encompassing idea that makes Thailand a pleasing country to live in and a difficult place to do business. He asks questions at the right time, and he's not afraid to tell me that I might do something better, or smarter.

The other night I sat with Pat at an outdoor Isaan restaurant, the kind where taxi drivers and other working-class folk come to unwind, drink beer, and snack. And Pat told me he was from Yasothorn, a small province in the Northeast that I'd visited and written about twice before here at The Atlantic. He told me about farm life there, about growing up and caring for twenty buffalo, and how his village only got electricity when he was 17 (he's 38 now). He explained to me how the television has supplanted the buffalo in cultural significance.

Then he asked me why I took him to such a scruffy restaurant. As we spoke his eyes scanned the patio, calculating tabs, categorizing the tables of white and blue-collar workers, imagining what brought them there. I told him there wasn't an empty table at this place until after 4:00 a.m. And I said that while we might set ourselves apart with ingredients, furniture, alcohols, or air-conditioning, the essence of our business would remain the same at this one. A friendly neighborhood bar with good food.

"I understand what you want to do now," he said, as a light of recognition flashed across his face, along with a rare smile. "It makes sense." And so we toasted with cheap beer on ice, and ordered some spicy catfish to celebrate.

And it felt like progress.