Dad at His Side, a Restaurateur Perseveres


Courtesy of Jarrett Wrisley

The ragtag Thai construction crew sat on the plastic cooler that holds their ice cubes, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. They were staring at the old man carefully fastening pieces of wood on the wall. Slowly, deliberately, he would measure a length of teak, saw it, and place it against the one that went before it. Then he would fit the piece, gently tapping it into place with a hammer. A level would appear out of his pocket, as he checked that the wood was straight.

The workers stared as the strips of wood stayed straight and true for 12 feet, and they smiled coyly as the man whittled the final piece of wood with a knife. His determination baffled them. But after an hour of whittling and sawing the wood fit perfectly in a corner where a concrete pillar rose from floor to ceiling. That pillar was crooked by nearly two inches, and the old man grunted and cursed before he forced the final piece into place. "That wall runs like a goddamned snake," he said, when he was finished. The crew didn't understand his English, but they understood his frustration, and they laughed.

"This is the hardest I've worked in 20 years," Dad said after dinner, chewing on his cigar with a smile.

The old man is my dad, Jim Wrisley. He's 63 now, and the last time we worked together I was 14 years old. That summer, he caught me smoking behind a dump truck that I was driving on his construction site. He fired me on the spot, and for the rest of my adolescent life I scooped ice cream, waited tables, and worked in kitchens. My father and I didn't like working with each other very much, back then.

He's since sold his construction company and settled into his idea of semi-retirement (which means renovating houses, buying apartments, and installing kitchens for friends). Meanwhile, I've been trying to get my first business started here in Thailand.

And the obstacles have been significant. The designers I chose to create my space deceived me, running off with my money in what I now understand is a simple but fairly clever scam. When I refused to use their grossly overpriced contractor, whose bid was double my budget, they refused to do any more work on my space, even though they were under contract. I later deduced that my designers— a pair of artists from Thailand and Japan— can't actually design restaurants.

They use their cachet to find work, which they then pass on to a friend who has a building and design firm. When I refused to use their contractor, I lost their direction and interest, but they kept my money. Rent was pouring out, work wasn't progressing, and I had to completely redesign my restaurant in a matter of weeks. The prints they gave me were mostly unusable. So I picked up the phone and called my father.


Courtesy of Jarrett Wrisley

My dad doesn't accept many mistakes, and he's a curmudgeon when he works. He speaks in parables, about jobs worth doing well and stitches in time and bees and vinegar and honey. He also fixes and builds beautiful things with enthusiasm and great care. "Son, this is a shit show," he said, 12,000 miles away on the other end of the line. "I'm coming over."

And so for three weeks I worked with him, building wood walls in my bar and restaurant, as he oversaw the final stages of the construction and worked closely with my Thai contractor. It was a well-managed mess at best—Southeast Asian construction is far from scientific— but my father grew close to the staff that helped him work. In between jobs, I planned a trip to Phnom Penh, because I needed to go there for business. When we returned a day later, we both didn't feel well.

As my dad's fever climbed that night and the color drained from his face, I grew scared. He suddenly seemed fragile. We still had work to do, I had a full crew to manage, and I had to deliver pots of chicken soup to Bangkok's Sukhamvit Hospital (rice porridge is not suitable sick food for a Pennsylvanian). For three days he slept there attached to an IV, with a bad case of food poisoning, and I shuttled back and forth from jobsite to hospital.

I got to spend an extra week with my father because of that unfortunate salad, and in the end everything worked out with perfect timing. On Dad's final night in Thailand, the space was nearly finished, and my cooks toiled in the kitchen. The bartender stood behind the bar, shaking cocktails. The music was turned on for the first time. We listened to old soul music as light reflected off the wood walls he had built, and drank whiskey sours. The shop was filled with a warm glow, and when we sat down and ate our first meal in the restaurant, it felt surreal.

"This is the hardest I've worked in 20 years," he said after dinner, chewing on his cigar with a smile.

"But it was worth it, son, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything."