Food of love

Just like every tale of success, it started from a dream, but Tony Ounpamornchai made a useful detour before living his passion for food out loud. Two decades ago, he couldn’t have imagined himself as a successful chef who had opened three restaurants. Recalling what he had done early in his working life, he beams with apparent pride at his five years as a tour guide.

“I travelled to many far parts of the world such as the Galapagos, Chile and Peru. They were culture trips requiring expertise from the tour leader,” says 47-year-old Tony, who did a lot of research prior to each trip.

“Sometimes I didn’t fly home for a month. The office usually sent me a new suitcase packed with fresh clothes so that I didn’t have to travel back and forth for that matter. All I had to do was to wait for the expected tourists at the destinations, which could be from a Scandinavian country to somewhere in Latin America. My service was in high demand because there were only a few experts for such specific destinations.”

If it was so good, why did he leave it all behind? “Although travelling took me everywhere, it was never to my real destiny,” he says.

It wasn’t an impulsive decision as Tony carefully planned out the next chapter of his life one step at a time.

“I wanted to settle down in America, where my relatives live and own a restaurant. That might sound crazy. I left a successful career purely for my true passion of food, which, by the way, I wasn’t properly trained for,” says Tony, who grew up in a Bangkok cooking family with his father working in food and beverages at the Regent Hotel and his grandfather a cook at the Nana Hotel.

If the switch from tour guide to cook could be jarring, Tony argues that the two careers have similarities. After all, he says, he began both occupations with self-education and the merit of resilience.

HUMBLE START

His first job in a kitchen was washing dishes at age 27 in his uncle’s US restaurant. Back home, he might have been a top-notch tour guide but in the American restaurant scene he was at the bottom of the food chain.

“Washing the dishes kept me grounded and accustomed to the kitchen scene; in the meantime, I enrolled in a cooking class. Passion alone wouldn’t get me far. I needed proper knowledge and training,” says Tony, who was later promoted to slice chicken for his uncle.

“I was lucky to be hired by my Cordon Bleu instructor, who was looking for an assistant. I helped him in the classes. I learned so much, especially the basics [such as knife use and stock preparation] and secret tips.”

Tony quit his uncle’s restaurant and worked as a cook at another restaurant nearby. His routines were to grill and make appetisers. He wanted to be well trained before opening his own restaurant.

MEMORABLE OPENING

His elder sister Achara moved to the US and used her early retirement fund to help make Tony’s wish come true by investing in restaurant of his dream. She remains his business partner to this day. His two other partners were Suwit Wattanadilokkul and Chaiwat Suwannurak.

After they had spent US$60,000, there was only enough money left to buy necessary utensils for the 40-people-capacity SEA Thai Bistro in Petaluma, California. “SEA” stands for Southeast Asia.

“We offered a variety of exotic dishes from this region. There would be tints of spices or tastes from Vietnam, Laos or Indonesia. I designed them with a twist to make totally different Thai food,” says Tony.

On the opening day people queued from as far as two blocks away to dine at his restaurant. He cried then and still gets tearful when he thinks about that moment. “I couldn’t believe it. It was beyond anything. But perhaps it was because it was located in a small town,” he says humbly.

Another reason might have been that Tony’s cooking prowess was already known in Petaluma through a short-lived restaurant venture in which he was bought out by a friend. He was a bit reluctant to mention it. “All I can say is that you may trust the wrong people and your life changes. I felt disappointed. But had that never happened, I wouldn’t have come to the point where I am today.”

NEW HEIGHTS

IN THE NEWS: Chef Tony on the cover of ‘Petaluma’ magazine.

The popularity of SEA Thai Bistro was incredible. Tony never looked back. Many long days spending 14 hours in the kitchen propelled him to master his passionate profession. Even though there were five major chefs in Petaluma, SEA Thai Bistro was voted the best restaurant of the year five years after it opened.

The softly spoken chef turns a little bit like raging Gordon Ramsey when things go wrong in his kitchen on busy days.

“Throwing tantrums can happen,” Tony says with a demure smile that suggests he is bashful about admitting his occasional anger. “I’m strict about the quality of my food. Once I threw an undercooked dish to the floor. I want the food to be good and up to our standard. It can be frustrating because sometimes I might call for five dishes of pad Thai at once.

“I take the timing of service very seriously. If a table has six customers come, the dishes must be served at the same time. Food has its prime time. The best taste of the dish will start to disappear five minutes after cooking.”

He enjoyed the rise of his stellar restaurant for another five years. When he thought life couldn’t get any better, he didn’t realise the best was yet to come. One day David Codding, the owner of Montgomery Village shopping mall, came to dine at his place.

“A week later Mr Codding sent me a letter inviting me to open a restaurant in his Montgomery Village mall in Santa Rosa [population 150,000]. I decided without a thought to go for it. He offered to finance the restaurant construction,” Tony says. “He said he saw something in me and that my kind of food would attract new-generation shoppers.”

The new upscale SEA Thai Bistro could accommodate 120 customers, three times more than his previous place. “Luckily I hired quite capable sous chefs and trained them to help maintain the quality of my dishes. It’s a well-oiled team,” says Tony. Most of his staff remain with him today.

Zagat Survey, one of the most influential American restaurant ratings, gave his restaurant 27 out of 30 points two years after it opened. “I was given the accreditation plaque. From that point on, my busy chef life took another turn. I was interviewed for magazines, invited to radio shows and events.”

He was invited to cook a special dish at Santa Rosa’s charitable tomato festival in 2011. It was, he recalls vividly, panaeng pla muk yak (steamed octopus in red curry) and served to 2,000 people at the event. His dish was voted the best from those prepared by 60 restaurants from the area including famous ones in Napa.

“I boiled tomato and lemongrass together for an hour. Then I mixed it with homemade chilli paste infused with tomato and tamarind sauces to match the theme of the festival,” Tony recalls.

In 2013 he competed again and won critics’ choice and people’s choice awards.

TIME FOR EXPANSION

Three years ago, Mr Codding gave him another offer he couldn’t refuse: a $1 million loan to move SEA Thai Bistro to a new, improved space in Montgomery Village.

“The offer came to us at the right time. I wanted to open a full-scale restaurant with a full bar. A liquor licence is extremely expensive and costs the equivalent of 5 million baht. Many customers like to have mixed drinks or hard liquor with a meal. They also go with the spiciness of Thai food very well.”

Then another opportunity came along. Simon Property Group sent him a letter inviting him to open a restaurant in Coddingtown Mall. Tony took the chance by opening a totally different restaurant selling street food. SEA Noodle Bar offers authentic Thai tastes and has been well received.

Tony is on the verge of becoming a Michelin-starred chef after receiving Michelin recommendations for seven years in a row except for a one-year gap when he was moving his restaurant. He needs three more years to be hailed with cookery’s supreme status.

Although early last year Michelin tweeted about his pork sticks — a rare honour for Asian food — he appears immune from egotism. It seems he knows his food is taken seriously.

“I believe if the food is good enough, you don’t need to advertise it at all. I only try my best to live up to my philosophy of doing the best I can. Everything else that comes along I count as a blessing, a bonus or a reward. I believe in putting my heart into everything I do. Give the customers what they deserve. And if my business will be great, it will be.”

THAI FOOD DILEMMA

For Tony, rice is the most essential dish on the table. “We eat rice in practically every meal. Other dishes can change and work to make rice stand out,” he says.

In the cooking class he has been teaching for five years, his students often ask him to compare Thai and Western foods. He finds it hard to answer.

“How can you compare two totally different things? Food around the world has its own uniqueness and stories. I believe in food democracy,” he says.

“But if you ask me which one I prefer, I’d say Thai food because of its sensuality with perfect blending of five distinguishing tastes. How can you mix apparently different tastes in one dish and make it harmonious like a perfect symphony? That’s what you can find only in Thai food like yum (spicy salad).”

The only pointed criticism he has for Thai food back in Thailand is people’s ignorance of cleanliness, which contradicts its fame.

“Nobody seems to be seriously concerned that the cooks don’t wear gloves and a hat. Where do they wash their hands or dishes? Why does the food often come out late? Cooks don’t need to know everything but they should know the basics at least.”

THE FUTURE

Although the restaurant business is the riskiest in the US and many restaurants go to the wall, Tony is determined to open another one at the end of this year.

“I’m opening Raku Ramen Slurp shop to sell Japanese noodles and rolls. This is something new. That’s fantastic because I’ll get to learn more. My business partner is Mr Takeshi Uchida. He’s my friend and a Japanese chef. We develop the recipes together. We have a meeting every Wednesday to find the right ones,” he says.

The project was initiated by Mr Codding, who agreed to loan Tony $500,000. “He asked if I could make Japanese food. I said I couldn’t. He countered, ‘I believe you can and you will.’ So I am.”

Would he consider opening a restaurant back in Thailand? “I hope so. I want to open a new generation kind of restaurant, though, featuring healthy food. It seems hard to sell but the secret is the presentation. Looks matter. Difference sells.”

During his visit to Bangkok last month when he was interviewed for Brunch, he texted his US staff back and forth about his planned Japanese restaurant. “I text them all the time. If it’s not about the restaurants, it will be about what my staff want to eat each day so that I can cook it for them.”

It’s impossible for Tony not to cook, though he does less now and cooks only for certain people. “I cannot imagine my life without cooking. Food is me. Food is life. It’s what makes people feel good, bringing family together and making them happy.”

CLOSE TEAM: Tony Ounpamornchai with his business partners and restaurant staff. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

FRONTING UP: Tony greets his customers at SEA Thai Bistro, where he serves his famous pork sticks, below. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

Tony Ounpamornchai SUPPLIED

Tony Ounpamornchai SUPPLIED

THAI TASTES: SEA Noodle Bar restaurant has been well received.