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An American Chef in Bangkok

An American Chef in Bangkok

I was in Bangkok, Thailand on a mission. I was going to discover the city’s top chef and interview him about beer pairings. I found him. His name is Jarrett Wrisley, and he’s from Philly.

The search didn’t start well. On my first day in the city, I was trolling through Soi Cowboy for riverboat noodles. The prostitutes were shit at giving directions. Sidewalks were largely nonexistent, and the traffic unrelenting. I finally found the restaurant I was looking for, but the idea of eating turned my stomach.

The unbearable heat had glued the humid smog onto every inch of exposed flesh. I could feel the rays of sunshine burning my neck like an ant under a magnifying glass. The food carts— those famous Bangkok food carts— scared the hell out of me. The cooked food appeared to crumble in the heat, and the raw food was rotting.

I gave up and turned tail, back to the hotel and its wheezing attempt at air conditioning.

That night, I went to Nahm, the most famous of all of Bangkok’s top restaurants. It was a beautiful affair, tucked behind several embassies. This was a meal I (and my bank account) had been anticipating for several months. It was supposed to be the ultimate spot to experience authentic Thai food. Surely this was going to be a slam-dunk for my chef search.

I could not have been more wrong. The room was filled with tourists, taking photos of their food and drinking iced tea. That was the first tip-off. The second was the staff, who managed the rare trick of being both inept and arrogant. And then there was the food, which rates only a single word description: dull.

My mission to find the city’s top chef was in tatters. I sucked at Bangkok. Stepping out of the dreary Nahm, I promised myself— and my lovely wife— that I would do better. I didn’t.

After three days of lowered expectations, we headed to the neighborhood of Thong Lo. The first restaurant we stepped into was Phuket Town. They served us a wide range of awesome Northern style curries. Everything tasted authentic. My faith was restored. We walked down the street, and stumbled upon another tiny restaurant, Soul Food Mahanakorn.

In a few hours, and many more dishes, my search was over. I canceled all my other reservations. The meal was extraordinary. The gaeng massaman was a balance of heat and meaty richness that went far beyond anything I had experienced before. A salad of pomelo (a local grapefruit-like citrus), shrimp and chiles called yam som-o, held a zippy sweetness that would have jumped off the plate if it wasn’t anchored by a fermented fish sauce.

There was more, much more, and if this was a restaurant review, I would continue to wax poetic about this wonderful restaurant halfway across the world. This article was supposed to be about beer pairings and authentic Thai food. It’s not anymore. It’s about Jarrett Wrisley, the owner and chef of Soul Food Mahanakorn.

As you can probably tell from his name, he isn’t Thai by birth. He’s an American, but it’s even stranger than that. I went halfway around the world and ended up meeting a bad-ass chef from Philly, born and raised in Allentown. Yeah. Holy shit. What are the chances of that?

So, I asked him, what is authentic Thai food? “Authenticity means very little to me,” said Jarrett. “I’m as inauthentic as it gets, right? There is no criteria for authenticity. There is no code. It means something different to everyone. Thai food is a crazy mix of cooking styles. Grilling, steaming, frying, smoking, braising. It is raw salads and cooked ones; curries and soups, and curries that— to the casual observer who’s only seen a coconut curry—seem like soups. It’s deeply regional. But mostly, it’s about balancing a wide range of flavors, and a wide array of dishes, into a cohesive whole. There are several components to a Thai meal—a bland soup, a curry, a nahm prik or two, an omelet, a fried dish, and of course, rice—that create balance with texture and flavor.”

It wasn’t only his mad skills in the kitchen that convinced me to feature him in this article. It was his beer list, which was the best one I had seen in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was the first time I had seen craft beers from America featured on a list.

I was curious if there was a craft beer movement in Thailand. “There is an interest in good, quality beers that is very new here,” Jarrett began. “The beer movement started with Belgian beers—which sell well in the Thai market because of their sugar content, I think. But now people are more accepting of hops, and interested to try beers that vary in style. It’s refreshing, after drinking watery Asian lagers for over a decade.”

So, what is the best beer pairings with Thai food? “I think a crisp, citrusy pale ale works well with Thai salads, as long as it isn’t all hops. For northern dishes, and things with tamarind, like my gaeng hang lay curry, a slightly sweeter, heavier beer might work. Something like Dead Guy Ale, for instance, or Boont Amber Ale. If I had to pick an all-around beer for Thai food, it might be something made in the style of a Czech pilsner.”

How the hell did a Philly guy end up in Thailand, anyway? “Well, I stated out as a student in Beijing, and later a returned to China to write about food and drinks, travel and other topics. Food really became my focus though, and I ended up traveling in the Asia region for a few years writing about food culture, working on recipes, and covering the restaurant scene.

“After that, I decided to open my own place, in Bangkok, where I’d moved with my wife. I studied Thai cookery, worked on the cocktails, and just learned as much as I possibly could. Restaurants—good ones anyway—are about knowledge and dedication and mostly hard work. And I worked pretty hard on Soul Food.”

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