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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When a Great Restaurant Turns to Shit

I'm not going to name names in this blog. But I really want to talk about how sad it makes me to see a restaurant I once loved turn to shit because the owner has forgotten why he started in the first place.

This particular restaurant started as a dream in a man's head. This man, a chef at another Thai restaurant in town that was owned by a money-hungry Chinese family, was unhappy being someone else's bitch. He knew he had what it took to open his own fine-dining establishment and blow up the city with immense, bright and bold flavor.

I knew about the restaurant before he even quit his job with the Chinese family. I was one of the special few, including several of the wait staff at the originating restaurant that were patiently waiting for our friend to make his move. (I'll call this friend Watch from here on out)

Watch traveled back and forth to Thailand, hand selecting all of the decorations for his new restaurant. He fronted all the money he had to his name, borrowing the rest from banks across the globe. He wanted one thing even more than his restaurant; he dreamed of bringing his wife and young son over from Thailand to set up residence on the east coast.

Watch would often tell me that my youngest son Jorge reminded him of his son. He loved our family, and soon we started hanging out together at friends' homes, where Watch would cook and we would all drink and laugh throughout the night. I learned a lot about Thai cooking, and my lips suffered traumatizing burns more than once from the fiery hot food Watch and fellow Thai friend Latdawan would make.

When the day came for Watch's restaurant to open, we were one of the first customers. I celebrated his success by ordering a full-on Thai feast, complete with frog legs and scallops and strange named dishes that tasted like bird chiles, garlic and lemongrass. Everything tasted delicious. Each time we'd come to visit, Watch would come out to greet us, and his plump face would glow as he talked about his son, then nine, preparing for America.

Then - our family moved away. We tried to find Thai food close to what Watch had produced and couldn't even come close. Nothing was as fresh or vivid as what he had served us. For years, we dreamt of the day we could come back and visit our old friend, taste his wonderful food, and capture a moment close to what we'd experienced before.

All those dreams broke into little bits of detritus when we took a trip to the state where Watch ran his restaurant. The staff were different, and no one knew us, or how we'd been there for the owner of the restaurant so many years before. We asked to speak to Watch, and after overcoming a few communication barriers, we finally saw him. It was a sore sight to see. Watch's once plump cheeks and rounded belly had gone concave. He was a gaunt, thin man who hardly resembled the friend we'd remembered. He took a moment before he recognized us and before smiles and hugs were exchanged.

I told him he looked different, and he shared with me that he was busy preparing for the next restaurant he was opening a few cities away. I asked him if his wife and son ever made it to America, and he said his son had, but not his wife. Then, with a sweet smile, he took my hand and led me into the kitchen to show me something he was incredibly proud of, and something that made me cringe. There stood his now fourteen year old son cooking in the busy kitchen. Watch told me that his son runs the kitchen now, and the other staff are his sous chefs.

I wondered if his son even had a chance to go to school. Watch explained that why he works on the other restaurant, his boy manages the restaurant there. After a few awkward moments, my family took their seats and we ordered one last feast - excited for what was to come, even if our excitement was tinged with worry for the teenage boy being exploited in the kitchen around the corner.

One by one our dishes were brought to the table. Some were familiar, some had changed so much we couldn't recognize them. Everything was good, but nothing, not one plate, was great. We noticed the worn, stained carpet that replaced what was once a beautiful jewel blue canvas across the floor of the elaborately decorated restaurant. The dust had accumulated so thickly on the window sills and portraits that it was impossible to move, it too had become a permanent fixture of this dilapidated establishment.

Everything was run down, older, worn. The food was lackluster, uninspired, crafted in the hands of a child who, according to his father, liked to stay up till 2 in the morning playing XBOX 360. A boy who probably didn't want to be standing next to a hot wok carrying on his father's dreams.

I was sad to see the change, and when we left, my husband and I both commented that Watch lost his magic. In his effort to expand, to have more revenue and notoriety, he lost the very thing that made him stand out in the first place, his attention to detail. It's sad when a great restaurant turns to shit, when a man forgets what his dreams were and when a boy is made to forget his own.


Stacey said...

:( You know how sad this makes me...especially as I head back there.

Bryanne Salazar said...

I know. I was too. It's a tough one because the food is still okay - but that magical quality has died. I worry about our friend "Watch" and hope that things turn around for the better. And that his son is given a chance to be a boy - before it's too late.

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