One Month in, a Restaurateur Tinkers With the Machine


Jarrett Wrisley

Today my restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn, has been open for one month.

Well, not exactly.

Because restaurants are like machines with moving parts that can't be easily replaced, we broke down a few times. Once because my bathroom ceiling was blown out by a torrent of water from above. Once because my staff got drunk and didn't show up for work the following day. And once again when our third floor pipes seized with grease we couldn't remove (yes, we've got grease traps), so that we couldn't wash dishes or vegetables in the kitchen. (Note: It's very hard to find a plumber in Bangkok on a Sunday.) And although I'd like to be open every day right now, I can't be, because we have just enough staff to keep this boat afloat, and those staff need a day to rest. If not, I'm pretty sure they'll jump ship.

I'm fighting back bugs and sewer gas smells and furniture that is already breaking after only a month. These are the joys.

Those who open restaurants know how difficult it is to do, but it's hard to illustrate it in words. I'll try. Yesterday was the first day I had time to take my annual physical that is required to receive a Thailand Business Visa. I'm fairly thin, but during the opening period I lost 17 pounds (170 to 153). You don't really have the time or the appetite to eat most nights. Still, it was a shock to see how much weight my body had shed over these six weeks of panic, hustle, sleepless nights, and infrequent pride.

And over the opening period, emotions have come fast and hard. Anger, happiness, fear, frustration, and exhaustion, sometimes all in an hour. I race up the two flights of stairs in my narrow building and watch as the food comes out of the kitchen. I watch the waiters, watch the register, tend to the music and the air conditioning, and eye what's in the refrigerator and on the books. I've measured the cost of food and drinks again and again, trying to figure out what my margins are (they could be better). I smile at staff on the floor when I really want to scream at them (not a good idea, in a dining room). These are the joys.

I write this at the bar with a little contempt, because I've worked hard all day and my dining room is still empty (it's 7:45 p.m.). I started out at Samyan Market buying produce at 11:00 a.m., worked through a specials menu of fried oysters and crab and fish wrapped in banana leaves and a smoked duck salad. Then I watched as the landline was sloppily installed after a month of waiting. (No, we don't take cards yet, sorry. Maybe next week.)

I'm writing this as I work on a menu for a party of 20 (sure, we'll give you a little discount on the beer). The police are coming in tonight, and I am expected to feed them and bow deeply in their presence (bite your lip, kid). Meanwhile I'm fighting back bugs and sewer gas smells and furniture that is already breaking after only a month. These are the joys.

But really, there's nothing like it, and my machine is starting to run more smoothly. I remember something I wrote on this site about six months ago, in an article about finding space in the empty shells of failed restaurants:

But contained in this restlessness is a blind excitement. Dreams of a busy bar. The sound of cocktail shakers competing with conversation. Of a kitchen full of motion and smoke. And serving the kind of food one might not find in other places, because of the trouble I took to find it.

Last Friday night, with friends in town for our grand opening, that was what I experienced. The bar was backed up. The kitchen was in the weeds, 20 minutes behind on their orders. I scurried like a rat up the stairs, and back down, and up again. I fixed plates and took deep breaths and sent dishes back to be cooked again. I yelled at my bartender for sneezing on his hand before he even had time to wash it, and threw a perfectly good samosa in the trash because it had split at one edge. I scanned the dining room looking for lost expressions, and wondered what was going wrong. Most diners don't tell you until it's too late, anyway.

And on my way up and down those stairs I heard the cocktail shakers shaking. And the conversations loosening at the bar. And the cooks cooked and the woks smoked and the food went. And it was beautiful.