The Big Day: After Months of Work, a Restaurant Opens

Not even a flood can stop our first-time restaurateur as he triumphantly opens Soul Food Mahanakorn


Jarrett Wrisley

Editor's Note: Since February, Jarrett has been chronicling the process of opening a restaurant in Bangkok. You can read his previous articles here.

It was the opening day for my Bangkok restaurant.

At 9 a.m., as I ripped up the garage door in front of the shop, I heard a water pump humming. It was ushering water to the floors above, but the restaurant was empty. No dishwashers. No cooks. Nobody but me. Then I heard the familiar sound of water falling.

When the rest of my staff arrived an hour later, I was sitting shirtless, shoeless, and covered in plaster, in a room full of dirty water. A room that had been my bathroom nine hours earlier, when I had closed the door.

This time around I was that owner, standing in what I think is a beautiful room, with happy guests, and all I could see was the cracked grout between the floorboards.

A few hours after that, after some frantic phone calls, my manager and two construction workers were having a conversation in Thai that I couldn't understand. So I asked the manager to translate. "The construction worker told the ghost he would give him an offering of chicken and rice every day, and he didn't. The ghost is not happy here. The worker said that he talked to that ghost, and he's sure that's what is giving us problems."

Now, some of my staff are genuinely superstitious, and at this point I may be too, but some also have a habit of blaming simple mistakes (forgetting to turn off the air-conditioning) on the inexplicable (ghosts). And the ghost didn't build the unfinished drain on the second floor that emptied countless gallons of water onto the false ceiling in my bathroom below, but that was beside the point. I had 20 reservations on the books, and a large group of friends coming for drinks after that. The night before I had rested for the first time in weeks and had eaten my first proper meal at home. I had prepared myself for this day, like a runner before a race. But the opening would have to wait. I called, and canceled.

The night of the flood, I took my team for dinner and whiskey. And I laughed with a group of people who were finally starting to work together and understand each other. And me. We felt very much like family. They were beginning to take pride in the dishes they cooked, and had started to accept that we were going to refine them until they were just right. I was so proud when my cooks turned up their noses at the food we ordered that night. They knew they could do it better. We do it better.


Jarrett Wrisley

Over the past month, we'd carefully adjusted our menus, changing presentations—trading plates for banana leaves and bowls for wicker baskets. We made everything in-house, struck things from ingredient lists, worked with farmers to get good, natural produce. I had to measure their strengths and design some dishes around that. Some quit without warning. We've made sausages and pickles and cocktails again and again. We've gotten feedback good and bad from friends and strangers. After two weeks of this, I'd had enough. I wanted to sell something.

On Saturday, September 11, we did manage to sell things. Nine people came in for dinner, a few more for drinks, and after all the sleepless nights and panic and hard work I felt nothing but tired.

And on the way home I remembered the many times when I had gone to openings of beautiful restaurants with thoughtful food, and I'd said to the owner or the chef, "Congratulations." And then I'd mention how he must be so proud of his accomplishment. And that owner or chef would frown, or furrow his brow, or shake his head, and say something like, "Well, we're getting there." I used to think that response was an unwritten rule of false modesty in this trade.

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But this time around I was that guy, standing in what I think is a beautiful room, with happy guests, and all I could see were the scratches on the walls and the cracked grout between the floorboards. I'd climb two sets of stairs to the kitchen and watch the food go through the pass, and glare at the missing sauce, the misplaced eggplant, the lukewarm curry.

It had finally happened. And my triumphant moment was a frown and a deep breath, a contemplative ride home, and a personal promise to do it better the next day, and every one after that.