When Joy Kongsilp opened SalaThai restaurant in a former ice cream café on Cambie Street, you couldn’t find fresh Thai ingredients in Vancouver. That was 30 years ago. Every other weekend, Joy drove down to Seattle and loaded up her car with fresh supplies. Vancouverites loved the Thai food she cooked from scratch, and soon Joy asked husband Sam to join her in the business.
Seventeen years and many 18-hour days later, Vancouver was a world-class tourist destination. Joy and Sam put everything they had on the line to open a downtown location to reach out to tourists and locals. SalaThai on Burrard is close to hotels, shopping, and sports venues, the art gallery and the opera. My husband and I got to know Joy and Sam at their Cambie location, but their Burrard location has become our favourite place to eat on date night.
Joy and I sit down at a window table at SalaThai to discuss her journey from young woman in Thailand to successful restaurateur a world away in Vancouver. Outside you can see Vancouver scrambling by, but inside we’re surrounded by calm, engendered by the Thai objets d’art and wood-carved décor.
I ask Joy what she wants diners to come away with, and what drives her in the gruelling world of restaurant ownership. “It’s a feeling, she says. When you come to a restaurant and you like it – you very happy – you bring it home – happy for the food, service, atmosphere, looks. No word better than I love to work. I love to serve the people. I love to see the people enjoy my food. Very simple. I don’t feel tired. I want to see all the guests walk out happy. They power me and make me happy.” Then she adds, “You have to be alert all the time.”
Joy says often that she “loves to eat”. She started SalaThai because in Vancouver there was no authentic Thai food.
With lease signed for SalaThai on Cambie and three months to opening, Joy cooked dish after dish at home to get the flavours and appearance right, treating her boys and their friends after school every day.
“The cook is the heart of the restaurant”, says Joy. As Aileen and I photographed Chef Eddy’s and Chef Nok’s food, their pride, their artistry, and the complexity of the textures and flavours in each dish shone out.
We talk at SalaThai on Burrard, surrounded by Thai culture – from the teak décor to the Thai-silk suited servers who greet you at the door. Food comes served on hand-painted Thai dishes, garnished with vegetables hand-crafted into flowers by award-winning Chef Nok. A tuk tuk sits in the corner. I wonder what it must feel to have 30 years of successful risk-taking and sweat, tangible, all around you.
Joy still works daily at the restaurant, but sons Brian and Bobby have taken on the heavy lifting and the long days. Brian says that for the first two years after he took on the GM role, he basically lived at the restaurant. “I have to nurture the public and our employees. The public needs to know that they will get good quality food – that we are reliable.” Winning their respect is a daily responsibility.
What’s next at SalaThai?
To Brian, keeping SalaThai on top is more of a desire than a passion. “Passion is short term. Desire is lasting, forever.” Brian wants SalaThai to be the mecca of Thai food in North America – a place where chefs brag they were trained. “It’s a crazy dynamic, how to stay consistent and innovate [at the same time]”, he says. And like his mom he wants to share the Thai culture with Vancouverites.
Brian and Bobby are working on new concepts. They are considering other Thai regions to represent in Vancouver. SalaThai reflects Joy’s Bangkok background, and Bobby and Brian are looking towards their dad Sam’s laid back northern roots for their next venture. Then again they could go modern and upscale. “Nightlife in Thailand is huge, crazy. Whiskey is huge in Thailand.”
For 2015, watch for cooking classes at SalaThai – cold food only. They will once again offer fruit and vegetable ornamental carving classes. And there will be a deck for those hot summer nights!
SalaThai is a story of two-generation family passion and commitment to sharing Thai food and the Thai culture in Vancouver. Brian’s and Bobby’s journey is just beginning. Perhaps my daughter will update their story in twenty years?