In a column for The Atlantic Monthly in 2010, food reporter Jarrett Wrisley wrote about the sorry state of journalism in his chosen niche. He told a tale familiar to most of us in print journalism, and one I can tell you, too. It’s a story of slashed budgets, pandering to readers and living in thrall to a future that’s at best, uncertain; at worst, bleak. And Wrisley was an engaging writer – passionate yet conversational, knowledgeable yet accessible.
And then, Wrisley revealed the twist: within half a year’s time, he would effect a career makeover, transitioning from food writer to food maker. I can’t imagine it’s an easy shift; food writers are critical by necessity and often by nature, and roasting a chef is a hundred times easier than roasting a chicken. But true to his word, Soul Food Mahanakorn was born in Bangkok before the year was up, and Wrisley was a bona fide restaurateur.
Today, Bangkok is known for a thriving dining scene with new openings at every turn and options at every price point traversing all cultures and nationalities. But what you see today isn’t what it was six years ago. So Wrisley’s simple idea – to bridge the gap between hip indoor eatery and hot outdoor street stall – was, surprisingly, relatively unexplored. His concept was to fuse the best of Thai street food with a merry atmosphere and killer drinks.
You can guess the rest of the story. Wrisley’s day at the races paid off, and today we’re thick into the heyday of democratic dining.
So the opening of Soul Food Hong Kong in 2016 isn’t exactly the gamble it was in 2010, and particularly not with the backing of dining juggernaut Black Sheep Restaurants, a group founded by two Dining Concepts alum just four years ago, which has amassed a pretty portfolio of restaurants, ranging from the edgy Chinese Ho Lee Fook to the New York Italian import Carbone. But these days, when is a restaurant ever a sure thing?
It helps that Bangkok imports are It lately. While the highly rated Issaya Siamese Club didn’t make a huge mark on the scene when it arrived last year, Ophelia – the brainchild of miner-turned-designer Ashley Sutton – certainly made a splash, and Sutton’s subsequent venues, J. Boroski and Iron Fairies, have commanded a fair audience of the see-and-be-seen crowd. David Thompson-trained Adam Cliff’s new street noodle-focused venture, Samsen, in turn, has won the attention of Instagram (you know, the new judge of restaurant success), with in excess of 4,000 posts under its location tag at writing time, two months after the opening. Thailand’s Nara group partnered up with Drawing Room Concepts for a palatable mass-market-aimed outfit, Apinara, in Pacific Place.
Is Hong Kong finally sick of the green-curry-red-curry formulaic Thai dining we’ve experienced thus far? Probably.
At Soul Food Hong Kong, you’ll find dishes like mono-boned grilled chicken wings smothered in crushed cashews and fragrant lemon grass. Piping hot street-style pork skewers, marinated in coconut cream and coriander then charcoal grilled and served under a blanket of tamarind chilli sauce. Lamb grapow, a signature, similar to the usual minced chicken or pork dish you find in Thailand that’s wok-fried with holy basil and chilli, but with a tender and juicy diced cut of lamb shoulder. It’s salty and hot, and the atypical use of lamb adds an extra dimension, best set against the blank canvas of white rice and a crispy fried egg. Then there’s the 11th-hour menu addition of crab and lemon grass curry, a dish that makes you wonder why it almost didn’t make the cut on opening night – the curry is thick and aromatic, and the noodles with the crunchy veggies are moreish as hell.
The food is honest, earnest and sustainable: “The basic idea is we use really good products,” explains Wrisley. “We make everything in the restaurant – we don’t buy curry paste. We focus on natural, wholesome Thai products. No industrial products. We use free-range pork, pigs that walk around and are happy. Free-range chicken. Our rice comes from the same guy, Khun Boon Seng, for six years. So it’s kind of farm to table, as much as we possibly can.”
The technique is, for the most part, traditional. Before opening the original Soul Food, Wrisley travelled Thailand for a year and a half on an immersive research trip that took him from big kitchens to grandmas’ stoves. “The core is traditional Thai cooking. All the sauces are very traditional. Sometimes we might change an ingredient or a technique, but I kind of bristle when people say it’s fusion, because it’s really not. We’re working within the guidelines of Thai food, but the thing that attracted me to Thai food in the first place is that it doesn’t have a very many guidelines or prescriptions. Thais do whatever they want when they cook. They don’t write recipes down, and Thai food is really a hybrid cuisine. It borrows heavily from Chinese food, heavily from Malaysian food, heavily from Lao cooking and Burmese. Thai cooking is not one singular thing, it’s a mishmash of many different cooking cultures. This is just an extension of that.”
Take his Penang curry, for instance. The base is sweet and nutty as expected, but instead of beef, Wrisley chose beef cheeks and tongue for their amenability to braising, electing to grill the meat over wood before throwing it in the base.
Do his tweaks take away from the authenticity of the cooking? After all, when a farang enters a Thai kitchen, fingers inevitably begin to wag. The year that Soul Food Mahanakorn and Nahm opened in Bangkok, the latter’s proprietor, David Thompson, was quoted in the New York Times as saying Thai food was “decaying”, and that he was embarking on a mission to return authenticity to the table. The world was up in arms. How dare he!
“I think he was misquoted,” says Wrisley. “Maybe not. Ultimately, this is what I tell people. All my chefs are Thai. All of David’s chefs are Thai. And what we really try to do is just serve delicious Thai food. We’re not held to a fair standard sometimes, and that’s fine, I understand it. Everyone has pride in their cooking culture. But I just really like Thai food and I wanted to serve it in a slightly different way, in a different format. And luckily, most people are OK with that.”
But we’re in Hong Kong now. People might take umbrage over a Western chef taking on a Chinese kitchen, but Thai is fair game, particularly in lacklustre Soho, a no man’s land for good restaurants that may just be changing at the hands of Wrisley and the Black Sheep boys. And anyway, what’s authenticity these days but a word? In the battle of authentic versus yummy, I’ll take yummy any day.