"No one will pay anything for Thai food in Bangkok. Not in a place like this, anyway. And what is this room supposed to be? Japanese? Thai? And there's you, a farang, the face of it." He giggled. "Cocktails, and fancy wines, you must be kidding me. Thai food is cheap food. It's beer food, and you can get it right outside for nothing." He continued, "Then the staff will start to steal from you, and you'll lose control of the shop, and then that will be it. Poof." After 20 minutes of this, and after kindly asking him to leave, I simply walked up the stairs to my kitchen, leaving him with my burly bartender, who spoke not a word of English.
When I peeked around the corner of the stairwell 20 minutes later he was leaving. And then, in Joycean fashion, the mean-spirited, half-pissed Irishman wandered off into the night.
But I took his words to heart. I knew that I could and probably would fail, perhaps in the first few months. So I worked harder on this little restaurant than I've ever worked in my life. During the first few weeks we were open, the rain often fell hard, and at those times business slowed to a trickle. When the rain fell it reminded me of the stranger, and I waited for him to take a seat at my bar. He never returned.
It seems like a cruel twist of fate to meet a miserable creature at such a critical time, but in retrospect I'm glad it happened. For now, for the first time, I feel confident enough to say that he just might have been wrong.
Because people are paying for our food. And they do drink the cocktails (with the food, too!). And a few weeks ago I held a dinner where we served Thai street food paired with wines from small European and Australian producers—and the room was full. So in the spirit of our inebriated contrarian, who thought Thai cuisine was suited only to watery Asian beer, I'll boldly disagree. Thai food and wine get along just fine.
On the evening in question, I partnered with a wine company here called FIN, which keeps a portfolio of wines made by small producers, many of them organic and biodynamic. I was nervous that night in a different way than I was when I met the Irishman; as a food journalist, I'd been to dozens of wine dinners and tastings. The kitchen can take many wrong turns when serving 25 or 30 expectant, educated guests. And the parings might not work. But, as I told my confused kitchen staff a week before, our dishes could and would work in this context. They laughed. A wine dinner with Thai street food, they giggled. Imagine that.
And my kitchen had, until three months ago, been cooking food on roadsides. My head chef had run a small shop serving duck larb (a Northeastern Thai salad). My wok cook worked in a late-night khao tom shop, serving greasy Chinese stir-fries with soupy rice (often to the boldly inebriated). My salad chef was a waitress in a nearby Italian restaurant. But over the months the disjointed crew had gotten really good. And this would be their greatest test.